Remembering to remember (practice)

The previous post talked about prospective memory (PM) research. Today's post is about learning to work with your prospective memory so you don't forget to remember what you want to do. (God, do we writers love playing with phrases like "don't forget to remember." Annoying.) Post-It Note Art Collage (PINAP)

PM requires you to plan ahead so that the retrieval cue will be spontaneously triggered. If you don't plan ahead, then your brain must spend precious cycles monitoring the environment for the retrieval cue. The human cognitive system can't keep up a prolonged task like that, so you have to keep a few things in mind (heh -- this stuff just writes itself) when establishing the PM task.

The following tips are explained in more detail below, but be prepared: you're going to hear stuff you've heard a zillion times before. Also annoying, I'm sure. If there's a theme tying these separate tips together, it's also the oldest theme in the book: mindfulness.

  • Remove the delay in delayed intentions: do it or lose it
  • Use good external cues
  • Anticipate the triggering cues: use implementation intentions
  • Beware of busy and demanding conditions
  • Address the special problems of habitual PM tasks

Remove the delay in delayed intentions: do it or lose it

A PM task is a delayed intention; the longer the delay, the likelihood increases that you will forget the cue. The delay can be more hazardous if you successfully retrieve the cue yet cannot execute the task for some reason -- just as you begin to do the PM task someone walks in and interrupts you, for example.

Thoughts fade from consciousness after only about 2 seconds without refreshment or rehearsal. If you're in a hectic or pressured situation, then it's even more likely you're going to forget what you intended to do. Therefore, if you can do the task now, then do it now. Don't delay.

But if you have to delay, then...

Use good external cues

The best way to ensure the PM cue will be triggered is to externalize your intention, put it in the environment where you'll be sure to either literally or figuratively trip over it. Assume, in other words, that you will forget and plan how you will work around that forgetting.

Hence the age-old advice: if you need to take your moss-covered three-handled family gredunza to work the next day, then put it by the front door where you'll see it before you leave.

You can extend that advice by associating a task or intention with any convenient object. If I wake up in the night and think of a task I want to do in the morning, then I'll take the box of tissues by my bed and stand it upright on the floor. If I'm working in my office and want to remember to check that the back door is locked before I go to bed, then I'll pull the trashcan out from under the desk and put it in front of the door. Once I've set the object in place, I can safely send the PM task to the background and continue with my foreground task. When I see the tissue box or trashcan, my first thought is usually, "What's that doing there?" quickly followed by, "Oh yeah! I wanted to ..." and the miracle of life goes on.

Other advice along these lines is to use a tickler file or leave yourself a voicemail or a Post-It note on the bathroom mirror. The goal is to get your attention by having the cue stand out from the quotidian.

Anticipate the triggering cues: use implementation intentions

I wrote a bit about implementation intentions here:

An implementation intention basically says. “I will do behavior x when y happens so that I can achieve z.” The objective is to have your environment deliver the cue for the behavior you want to encourage.

So avoid saying, "I need to remember to send Scott that email." Instead, say "I will send Scott an email immediately after I sit down at my desk so that he can order the tickets." These simple when-then directives can also support goals and encourage better habits. This method has proven effective across numerous populations: drug addicts going through withdrawal, schizophrenics, frontal lobe patients, and older adults.

To make the intention even more memorable, say it out loud and pat yourself on the head (laugh, but the subjects had to do that in a study where there were no other retrieval cues available).

A disadvantage of this method is that it requires time and mental energy to think of and then phrase an appropriate intention. If you are in a demanding environment, this may not be useful. So, if at all possible ...

Beware of busy and demanding conditions

We are poor multitaskers and in the middle of a swirling, hectic day you are not likely to remember any promises quickly made as you're walking to the printer or just before the phone rings. Even if you try setting implementation intentions, you need to clear some mental space by shutting out the noise and distraction surrounding you; that effort can simply overtax your cognitive processes too much.

Interruptions also take their toll; if you're interrupted just as you're about to execute a PM task, then it's important for you to set a new, strong cue as quickly as possible. Writing things down or setting reliable external cues, like alarms or reminders built into your email or calendar systems, can help you to remember to execute future tasks.

One of my practices, if someone asks me to do something while I'm in transit or can't write anything down, is to ask the person to send me an email. I am good about turning email into tasks, and that way I can simply track that task in my productivity systems. And if the other person forgets to send the email? Not my problem! I win!

Another underrated tool: the humble checklist, a standby of airline crews and, if they listen to Atul Gawande, medical teams and physicians. You can't think and do at the same time; you can do one or the other, but not both. In a stressed environment -- even life or death environments -- doing is easier if the steps are already laid out for you.

Side note: I have found that creating a checklist for certain procedures or workflows is a great way to capture long-term knowledge or experience, either my own or someone else's.

Address the special problems of habitual PM tasks

Habitual PM tasks are things like taking medication, closing the chimney flue, turning off the oven, making sure the door is locked. With such actions, you may repeat the task because you can't remember you performed it or you may think you performed it when you actually didn't. Again, using external aids -- like pill organizers or alarms or homemade checklists -- can help keep you on track.

Again, the challenge is to make yourself pay attention to what you're doing. You can manipulate some part of the environment to flag that you have or have not done the task. For example, I have sets of exercises to do when I practice my banjo. I use a sticky note to flag the set of exercises I do in the current practice session. The next time I sit down to practice, I can quickly see the exercises I practiced last time and the set I need to practice this time. Again, it's so simple as to sound almost trivial, yet it's those little tricks that often enable older adults to perform better in some prospective memory studies than young college students.

Other things you can try:

  • If possible, block out all other distractions and focus exclusively on the task. Don't think about anything else. In fact, describe aloud what you're doing as you're doing it. Engaging the vocal and aural areas of the brain will make the task more lively and memorable.
  • Try to increase the complexity of the task or execute it in an unusual or different way. Cross your arms as you take your pill, turn around three times and say "three-handled moss-covered family gredunza" as you close the flue -- anything you can do to make the task more memorable.
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