The Productivity Giants Series with Nelson Dellis, USA Memory Champion


Know that annoying feeling when you have trouble remembering something? Well, Nelson Dellis doesn’t ever have that problem. Nelson is a 4x USA Memory Champion and one of the leading memory experts in the world. He regularly travels to compete as a Memory Athlete, Memory Consultant, and a keynote speaker. He also is an avid mountaineer and climber,  and preaches a healthy lifestyle that combines both physical and mental fitness.


Born with an average memory, Nelson was inspired to start memory training in 2009, when his grandmother passed from Alzheimer’s disease. He was motivated to keep his mind strong and healthy throughout his lifespan, and in a short period of time, he transformed into one of the leading competitive memorizers worldwide. He’s claimed four U.S. titles over the years, the elite Grandmaster of Memory title, as well as many U.S. memory records for:


  • Memorizing the most names in 15 minutes – 201 names
  • Memorizing the most words in 15 minutes – 256 words
  • Memorizing the most digits in 30 minutes – 907 digits
  • Memorizing the most decks of playing cards in 30 minutes – 9.02 decks


Here’s Nelson memorizing a deck of cards – on the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro, no less. Subscribe to his YouTube channel to learn memory techniques.




Helping find a cure for Alzheimer’s is a big goal of his, so he works on a research project called the Extreme Memory Challenge. If you would like to help move the needle on this important project, you can take their memory test online to contribute to the research.


Now, onto our own interview with Nelson about his email habits, productivity tips, daily routines, and more!


What does the first 90 minutes of your day look like?


I typically walk my dog, then head to the gym and spend about an hour or so doing high intensity workouts and some strength training.


What’s your number one productivity tip?


I’m a big fan of the Pomodoro Technique. Usually I’m pretty good at finishing the things I need done, in a timely manner. But I often procrastinate. The Pomodoro Technique is super helpful for when I’m just struggling to get something done. It works by getting you to work in small chunks of time (around 20 minutes) and then rewarding you with small breaks in between. Anyone can work on something for 20 minutes, right? With that mentality, when I do a few Pomodoro sessions back to back, I can manage to get a lot done!


Any favorite tools?


My favorite tool is I use it for all of my memory training. I encourage readers to check it out for learning techniques and creating memory systems. I also use Trello boards to organize my work as well as Google Docs – I have every template, work document, etc. organized and filed in my Google Folders. I also use Slack, which is great for communication with my team on bigger projects.


Do you have a pre-bed/nightly routine?


I like to play with my Rubik’s Cube. I’m big into the blindfold solving of cubes by memory, so I’ll typically memorize it and then try to solve it in bed. Either that or just read a little bit from whatever book I’m reading.


How often do you check your inbox?


Wow, I’ve never thought about it, but probably close to 40 times a day, I’d say. Is that a lot? That sounds like a lot, haha.


What’s your #1 email tip?


Don’t be afraid to follow up. I hate pestering people by email, but my work requires me to constantly follow up on my leads or else I risk losing them. I can’t tell you how many times I closed a deal or secured a gig because I was persistent. That wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t followed up.


What’s the biggest hindrance to your productivity, and how do you combat it?


I love watching YouTube tutorials for skills that I’ll probably never master, but wish I did, haha. When I watch one video, I just keep clicking and watching more and more. It’s hard to stop. In other words, my biggest hinderance is pointless distractions, which I think everyone can relate to. This is where that Pomodoro Technique comes in, though. It helps me stick to a time limit.


When you lose focus, what do you do to regain it?


I try to break up whatever I’m doing in a drastic way. Break the chain. Get up, go outside, memorize something, read something, have a snack, etc.


What have you learned from your failures?


To be honest, all my failures have led me to some of my greatest accomplishments. Without those failures, I don’t think I would have been as successful. I lost my first two memory championships (in dramatic fashion) before winning four. I lost a book deal, which led me to re-write my book and finally resell it this year. I failed to reach the summit of Everest 3 times, and while I haven’t summited yet, those failed attempts have driven me in so many different ways.


What bad advice do you hear often?


I often hear or see people go about getting everything done on their own. They swear they can get everything done alone faster and more efficiently. But in my experience, that’s not the case. I used to believe that I could do everything myself. And if it was something I needed to learn in order to get it done, I was convinced I could learn it and master it. And I guess I still believe that, but what would happen is that I just would never get around to it and then it wouldn’t get done.


Since then, I’ve learned to get help. I can get a lot farther by running with a pack, than going solo. On top of that, I only hire A+ players. If I’m going to outsource some of my work, I want the best. This mentality has been a game changer for me.


What book has changed your life and why?


One book that changed my life was Douglas Hofstadter’s “Gödel, Escher, & Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid.” I read it for the first time in college but it just opened my eyes to the joys of math, music, and logic. It challenged me and led me to head into the more cognitive areas of my career. You might say it subconsciously led me to memory.


What’s the most worthwhile investment you’ve ever made?


Training my memory, hands down. It’s changed everything for me. Obviously I reap the personal benefits, but it’s also given me a career where I have as much freedom as I like.


What’s your definition of productivity?


Being in the creative “zone.” When you’re feeling “it” and getting things done without being distracted. When the effort and problem-solving thought processes are just flowing, it’s a great feeling. Also, for me, I feel more satisfied with my daily productivity when at the end of the day I can look back and say that I did all of the memory training I wanted to do.



Follow Nelson on Twitter.