The pain of changing my game (plus a new trick you can learn)

The past five months have been quite challenging. I started at ground zero working for a new company selling new products (to me) in a new (partially) territory. Reminds me of the time a few years ago when I took a new career role, had a third child, and moved into a new house… all in the same month.

During this time, I have also taken a hard line on retooling my organizational system. For all the great benefits you will earn after making such a change, you should be prepared for some rocky inefficiencies in the short term. While your existing system could always be better, you have to recognize that it does somewhat work today. So, ripping it out and replacing it with something new will probably lead to poorer performance until the new system is fully baked and locked in.

If you’ve ever tried to change your golf swing, you’ve experienced this frustrating truth.

One of the best things about GTD is the peace you gain through the externalization of mental noise. Mental noise is all the stuff you need to keep track of for every day life: home projects, birthday reminders, the dry-cleaning, work priorities, etc.  If you don’t get that out of your head and into trusted paper or computer based system, you have to live with the anxiety of it buzzing around aimlessly in your brain.

Trusting your externalized system is key… and, I’m just now working out the rough spots on mine. In doing so, I let some important things slip and caused myself some minor disasters.

So, don’t keep anything in your head and you’ll be happy?

With a little more time and clarity under my belt, I realized that externalizing everything isn’t the complete answer. There are lots of things you should keep in your head for use at a moment’s notice. For example, if you are VP of Engineering, you should have instant recall of all corporate initiatives that can be impacted by Engineering. You should also have a broad understanding of all major project timelines, risks, project names, team leaders (at least), regulatory requirements, and budget allocations. If you have to stop and go look that info up in Evernote or a notebook, you will be ineffective and less than inspiring for the troops.

Same thing goes for a software salesman. In my case, I’m having to learn about 10x the product knowledge than I’ve ever been faced with in my career. All of the MSC Software products are high-end and very sophisticated. And, so are the customers and prospects I need to communicate with about them!

Enter Mnemonics

I have recently (re)discovered a very promising field of mental training called Mnemonics. You probably remember Mnemonics from grade school… especially if you used HOMES to remember the great lakes: Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, and Superior.

Or if you are a guitar player, the guitar strings (E, A, D, G,  B, E) could be remembered as:

Elephants And Donkeys Grow Big Ears
Every Acid Dealer Gets Busted Eventually

I can attest to how well these little tricks can stand the test of time. Mr. Prall, my high school Biology teacher, lodged the 10 essential amino acids in my brain over 20 years ago with this mnemonic: TT Hallim VP. I believe he sold it as a respected business executive… not even a particularly good mnemonic, but I can’t help but recall all 10 today:

  • tryptophan
  • threonine
  • histidine
  • argenine
  • lycine
  • leucine
  • iso-leucine
  • methionine
  • valine
  • phenelalanine

I’ve recently discovered, however, that the field of mnemonics goes WELL beyond these simple kinds of examples most people remember from childhood. In fact, these kinds of mnemonics are silly compared to the more advanced techniques.

I’m finding that with a few easy-to-learn techniques, you can make any old brain do some amazing things. Things that seem impossible. For example, what if I told you you could memorize the order of a shuffled deck of cards after glancing through the deck just once? Or that you could remember the US Presidents in order in an hour or so? Or that you could remember your company’s entire history of product names, numbers, and years of production with instant recall?

Well, I’m setting out to master these techniques. I’m so excited about it, that I’ve decided to give the topic its own category on this blog. Just a place to openly share my progress and hopefully inspire you to jump in, too.

Let’s start with something simple. I taught my mother-in-law and my  7 and 9 year old daughters how to remember a list of 10 random items in order. I gave them a pre-training test of 10 items. I slowly read out the items and instructed them to do whatever they could to memorize them. Then, about 20 minutes later, I tested them. They got between 3 and 5 (my mother-in-law turned in that high score) of the items. But they weren’t in order.

It took me under 30 minutes to teach them this new mnemonic method… after which they all could recall 10 out of 10 items. Amazingly, they could recall the items in order or in reverse order. They could even immediately recall any of the items randomly. For example, “Tell me the 6th item on the list.” or “What number was Nobel Prize on your list?”

The most astounding result, however, is the length of retention. My girls (and my Mother-in-Law) can all recall their lists a couple months after learning them… without even practicing!

Do you want to give it a shot?

Here’s your chance. Do whatever you have to do to memorize the following list. Practice as much as you want until my next blog post. Then, I’ll ask you to write down as much of the list as possible in order (if possible). Most people get between 2 and 5 using natural memory. Then, I’ll teach you the simple method I taught my girls.

Here’s your list:

  1. Post-it note
  2. Hammer
  3. Apple
  4. Light bulb
  5. Led Zeppelin
  6. Maple syrup
  7. Book
  8. Porsche
  9. Crawfish
  10. Dog

photo by: Zach Dischner



  1. I’d like to learn new tricks from another GTDer, but at my age I fear being bested by a 7 year old.

    1. Hey John. My Mother-in-Law is over 7. Give it a shot!

  2. Machinist need to use right angle trig frequently. Machining isn’t what you would call a PC profession:

    Oscar Had  (Opposite over Hypotenuse)  

    A Hunk  ( Adjacent over Hypotenuse)

    Of Ass   (Opposite over Adjacent)

    Sally: Sine

    Came: Cosine

    Too: Tangent

    Jon Banquer
    San Diego, CA

    1. Love it, Jon. A PC world is a very boring place.

  3. Frank77477 · ·

      I have hundred of thrown down lists just for the specific purpose of remembering lists.    The lists are all generate by several mnemonic software programs I have put together   over the years.  For this list I used the 12 months of the year items.   Jamba, Ferrari, Mafia, Appaloosa, Mackeral, Jungle, Juliet, Auditorium, Seattle, OctopusJamba juice has new post it note flavorFerrari hit by flying hammersMafia bosses eat bullet riddled applesAppaloosa horses have light bulb like earsMackeral heavy as leadJungle has log cabin (Log Cabin Maple Syrup)Juliet read Romeo a book while skiing in the AlpsAuditorium collapes after being hit by PorscheSeattle has cold mountain crayfishOctopus in parades ride dogsPost-it note Hammer Apple Light bulb Led Zeppelin Maple syrup Book Porsche Crawfish Dog

      I also have a useful list for the 12 days of Christmas lryic.

    1. Thanks Frank! You have the right idea. I’m going to introduce a different mnemonic system… but it’s really the same technique. Having run a blog for awhile, I can say that you sometimes get spam comments made up of all sorts of random words. When I first glanced at your comment, that’s what I thought, too!

      Then as I read it, I realized… “hey, this guy knows how to speak mnemonics!”

      1. Frank77477 · ·

             Sorry about the way the message got was formatted.  In the future I will try and
             send clean easy to read comments.

  4. Frank77477 · ·

    10 essential amino acids verse

    These Treacherous Humans
    Are Like Lard
    In Musical Victorian Plays

    1. Very nice… did that come right out of the custom software you wrote? Or you head?

      1. Frank77477 · ·


             The amino acid mnemonic came from a database of around 5 million parsed poetry
             phrases.  I also use a lot of pharses extracted from the Seinfield TV series scripts.
             I can mix and match the various databases depending on the output I need.  Sometimes
             I spot a phrase that will work just my changing one word. 
             I would like to put together some type of index or glossary for the various areas
             of study that people are having the most trouble with memorizing.  Any suggestions
             or comments are appreciated????


  5. Frank77477 · ·

      Here is the amino acid mnemonic from Seinfield scripts.

    Think That He’s A Look Alike In Morty’s Vintage Pants  (Morty was Jerry’s father in the series)
    tryptophan threonine histidine argenine lycine leucine iso-leucine methionine valine phenelalanine

  6. Frank77477 · ·

      Here is the amino acid mnemonic from Seinfield scripts.

    Think That He’s A Look Alike In Morty’s Vintage Pants  (Morty was Jerry’s father in the series)
    tryptophan threonine histidine argenine lycine leucine iso-leucine methionine valine phenelalanine

  7. […] you do memorizing the list of 10 items from my last post? Here’s the list […]