You might have a decent memory, but can you recall like an elite memory athlete? Did you even know such a thing existed? It does.
“Four-time USA Memory Champion” is a very real entry in the unforgettable resume of one Nelson Dellis. After his grandmother died of Alzheimer’s disease, Dellis was inspired to keep his mind as strong and healthy as possible. He quickly discovered the USA Memory Championships and set out to win the competition.
Success bred obsession, and Dellis grew addicted to training his mind. Eventually, he became one of the world’s foremost memorizers and attained the objectively cool title of “Grandmaster of Memory.”
Along with his brain, Dellis trained his body. As a mountaineer, he’s summited Mt. McKinley and made three runs at Everest, with a fourth attempt planned. Many of his climbs support the Alzheimer’s charity Climb for Memory, which, yes, Dellis founded and also runs. On top of that, he’s the author of the new book Remember It!, which is full of memory tips and advice for the everyman.
We wanted to learn how Dellis balances his many pursuits and manages to crush them all, and he offered up these seven keys to success. You should probably write them down.
Train your brain like you train your body
What does a healthy brain have to do with a six-pack? More than you might think. “Learning memory techniques or any mental exercise can help with your overall health, including your bodily health,” Dellis says. “Having a sharper mind gives you the clarity to help with so many different things. After all, your mind is what’s running your body.”
Building both starts with a ton of focus and mental energy, and requires consistent exercise. “A lot of my training revolves around recreating the things I memorize at the competition,” he says. “I’ll spend a chunk of my day focused on one of the disciplines (memorizing cards, dates, names, binary numbers, etc.), doing drills and mock sets of memorization.”
If it’s cards, for example, he’ll do speed drills to get seeing the images of each card as quickly as possible. Then he’ll practice memorizing the order of decks of cards for time—as many as four to five.
In order to recreate the exact conditions of the competition, he’ll turn up the TV or music or train in public. “I’ll do anything to mimic the nerves and elevated heart rate I experience under nerves at a real competition,” Dellis says. “It’s all about recreating what it will be like at the competition as closely as possible. If I can train under those conditions, then at a competition it’s just another training day.”
Build towards big physical goals incrementally
When sizing up Everest or Mt. McKinley, Dellis knows he can’t tackle it all on day one. He builds slowly towards his goals. “I never really thought [summiting Everest] would even be an option or a possibility, but I was fascinated with the idea of pushing my body to climb a mountain,” he says.
“I took a course 10 years ago and we summited a tough peak. From there, I made smaller goals for the next one that were a bit loftier than what I had just done.”
Big gains don’t happen overnight, as anyone who has ever pushed through the early stage frustration of a new gym routine will tell you. They’ll also tell you that breakthroughs usually follow from seemingly minuscule achievements. No matter the endgame, slow and steady wins the day.
Supplement your diet
A healthy diet is important to any success, but you might be missing some key ingredients. That’s why Dellis believes in supplementing his diet.
“In addition to training, there’s a lot of upkeep through diet,” he says. “To get some of the things I can’t always get through dieting, I take antioxidant supplements MitoQ makes that help reduce the oxidative stress on the body.”
Research suggests that reducing oxidative stress can help enhance energy and memory. The MitoQ supplements Dellis takes achieve this by targeting a cell’s mitochondria to help improve function and neutralize free radicals. This supports optimal organ function, healthy energy levels, and overall physical well-being. With his body operating at its peak, Dellis finds it easier to train his mind at an elite level.
“It all feeds itself,” he says. “When I take that every day, it helps my clarity so I can train.”
Do it for yourself and forget the rest
Dellis has made three attempts to summit Everest, and next spring he’ll try again. What’s he doing differently to prepare? Worrying less. “This time around, I’m trying not worry so much about what it means to people outside of me,” Dellis says.
“In the past, I’ve had sponsors that cared a lot about what I was doing for them, and it almost jeopardized my climbs and my strength. I want to impress people watching me and make them proud, but ultimately, I have to go into this thinking, ‘This is for me. This is just a dream that I had 10 years ago as a young 20-year-old.’” Whatever your Everest is, do it for you.
Focus on what’s in front of you
Whether on the mountain or in a competition, blocking out distractions is critical to Dellis’ success. “When you meditate, you try to focus on one thing and declutter your mind,” he says. “That’s essentially what I’m doing when I’m memorizing. I’m trying to focus solely on the information in front of me. I need to block everything else out.”
Spending some time doing healthy mindfulness or meditation can go a long way to powering your focus and brain health.
Stop using your phone as a crutch
Boosting your brainpower can be as easy as memorizing a few digits. “The reason many of our memories suck is because we don’t try,” says Dellis. “We rely on devices to be our brains. We put all our phone numbers in our phone and we have apps to keep track of things we want to remember. While that’s helpful, it’s detrimental to our memory.”
Dellis recommends trying to memorize phone numbers instead of writing them down immediately, or making a goal of memorizing ten names at the next party you’re at. “You’ll be surprised how much better you are at memorizing when you actually have to or when you focus on the act of doing it,” he says.
Wake up early (and do something)
You might prefer to hit the gym after work rather than waking up extra early to get there. But morning workouts have been linked to better sleep, both in terms of powering down faster and producing more human growth hormone. These and other purported benefits of pre-dawn gym sessions have made Dellis a believer.
“One of my biggest keys to success is that starting the day early does wonders,” he says. “Starting the day by going to the gym sets the pace. When I’m done, I’ve already done a lot of work for my body and I’m ready to go. I don’t know how I would get through a day if I woke up late.”
Spread out your to-do list
Binging on big projects can be tempting but Dellis knows that he has so much work to do that practicing his brain training straight for hours would only lead to burnout. “I could practice my brain training for hours straight, but I tend to break it up just because it’s more refreshing,” Dellis says.
“I feel like I’m more productive and more efficient that way.” Dellis finds that spreading out what he has to do keeps him motivated and keeps him going in the long run.