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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The Splurge List

I don't remember where I got this idea, but it's one I've been using more lately. The idea uses wishlists and a form of timeboxing to help me reduce my impulse spending, especially online. It's so, so easy to buy a Kindle ebook or an MP3 album on Amazon, especially when the items are priced in the cheap single-digits. The downside of this is that by the end of the month, I may have bought lots of little stuff and their total is in the double-digits.


So, as I run across these little gems I put them into my Amazon wishlist. The  Amazon wishlist browser extension lets me put stuff on the list that Amazon doesn't sell (like shareware or recordings/books from small publishers). I also have a "splurge" tag in my Pinboard bookmarks, which is mainly a holdover from before I used the Amazon extension.

So when the impulse to buy something online strikes, I just click the button in my browser and, bah-dah-boom, that item is out of sight and, for a little while, out of mind. I can then move on to the next shiny object.

On the last day of the month, I get an email from that says, "Congratulations! You can now redeem an item or items from your splurge list for $25. Have fun!" I then spend a happy few minutes considering the items I might want to buy for myself. I also cull the list of stuff that I'm not interested in anymore.

I now can decide whether to blow the $25 on a single book, or two CDs, or a mix of cheaply priced ebooks and MP3s, whatever I like. The key, though, is that what I buy has to be fun or frivolous. That's the carrot and it's what makes this process doable for me. (It's similar to the idea of a cheat day or reward meal for dieters.)

This trick may not banish all impulse purchases, but it's been working for me this year. I believe the grown-ups refer to this practice as "delayed gratification," but I am only a recent and reluctant member of that grim tribe, so I cannot say for sure.



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My event planning template

In 2009, I was recruited by The Ineluctable Cassidy  to be an event planner for the local ASIS&T group she was leading. We had a pretty punishing schedule of four events per academic year, and planning involved mailing lists, searching out event locales, creating a flyer, sending out emails, arranging refreshments, etc. These were a lot of separate tasks that needed to be planned, managed, and tracked.

I had read at some point a post on Mark Forster's forum that made a big impression on me. When talking of productivity, the writer said to think about what needed to be done in terms of tasks, routines, and habits. Tasks require a lot of attention and energy, routines less so, and habits are automatic. The trick to being more productive at the office (or anywhere) was to routinize as many tasks as possible, and if appropriate, make them habits that required little conscious attention at all.

Events Calendar

Example 1: Working out in the morning? Establish a routine for setting out the weight bench the night before and put your sneakers and shorts right on the floor so your feet hit them when you get up the next morning.

Example 2: I have a monthly report I produce that requires multiple steps across multiple files. After creating about 7 or 8 of these reports, I finally created a 3-page procedure that walks me through every step. Until I wrote out those steps, I didn't realize how many little decisions I had to make along the way and why I kept putting off this relatively straightforward chore. This task will never be habitual, but it is now more of a routine.

So I wondered about event planning, and how I could be more systematic about the planning and tracking so that I didn't have to remember anything.

I researched various event checklists on the web and developed my own events template, with separate sections for things like contact information (all the people I had to contact for an event), copies of all the emails I sent, a screenshot of the flyer we sent out, a lessons learned section, which I filled in as part of a debrief meeting after the event, and many other informational bits and pieces.

ASIS&T required its member groups to file an annual report of its activities. So, I included blanks in the form for the data they wanted to see. My goal with the event planning document was that it would be a package of every word we sent, every person we contacted, every  problem we faced. That way, we could review them if we chose to return to a particular venue or to see what attendance was like for a specific event. These documents also  encapsulated a lot of experience so that when new members of the board came in, they could look at our historical record and see how we planned and executed events.

When I took on the National Night Out planning responsibilities again this year, I pulled out the event template and used it to capture everything related to this year's event. I can now pull out the document when it's time to plan next year's event, and most of the hard thinkwork will have already been done. I'll just need to plug in new dates and new names.

Feel free to download the template document below. I've also included a generic event planning document that I compiled from various sources around the web; it provides a week by week countdown of everything that you may need to have in place for a successful event. These are in Microsoft Word 97/2003 compatible format. Feel free to edit at will and use for your own events!

eventtemplate (Word 97/2003 compatible doc file)

eventplanningchecklist (Word 97/2003 compatible doc file)

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On starting before you're ready

When I first got the idea to restart the blogging, my first thought was: "No, don't start this Monday, start next Monday." It felt like the safe option: give myself time to scope out other blogging tools, come up with a list of topics,develop a workflow, etc.


And then the second, more challenging voice of The Coach came in: "Why wait? Start tomorrow. Just get started. If you wait till you're ready, you'll never be ready." And I knew that starting before I felt I was ready was the wiser course.

Now, were I starting a military campaign or PR blitz, yes, sure, plan to the nth degree and get your ducks in a row, etc. But for a personal project like this, starting before I was ready meant I had to eschew the perfectionism, set up some quick ground rules to prevent myself from putting up higher and higher barriers (I've now reduced my first draft writing time to 15 minutes to inspire faster writing and shorter drafts), and just dive in.

My banjo teacher, who is also a spiritual teacher, said one time that "The perfection is in the doing." It's so easy for me to forget that, to get hung up on the result or the desired outcome before I've taken a single step.

One of the great teachings of Constructive Living for me was that you cannot control the results, you can only control your behavior. So starting -- and starting imperfectly -- is better than not starting. Starting is in your control. Once I started, I discovered in the doing several little tricks that would not have occurred to me had I relied only on planning. And even if I had planned everything to a faretheewell, I'd have had to adjust my plan based on what I discovered as I was doing. So the better course of action was to fire-ready-aim-fire.

So start the diet today, start exercising today, start writing today. Starting -- and starting again fresh tomorrow -- is always in your control.



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