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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Remembering to remember (theory)

One of the sweet ironies of my time at SILS was that I entered with a long-term interest in personal information management, yet I never took a single PIM class nor did any research on it. Remember Last Night?

Another of my long-term interests is human memory and my personal library has always had lots of memory books, starting with The Memory Book on up to Moonwalking with Einstein, with a diversion through Francis Yates' magisterial The Art of Memory.

My last literature review project as a PhD student combined these two interests. It was on the topic of prospective memory, a charmingly oxymoronic term that has been described as "remembering to remember." Herewith, a post that compresses some of that research because I thought it was too interesting not to share.

Prospective vs. Retrospective

Its opposite, retrospective memory, is what most of us are familiar with: a memory of an event that occurred in the past. This type of memory has been thoroughly researched for decades and has spawned a bewildering number of models: visual memory, semantic memory, autobiographical memory, sense memory, location memory, working memory, etc. We use retrospective memory to remember a small detail from a single day in our childhood or information we crammed the night before the test or hours of  Monty Python sketches. (I am surprised that there are so many different conceptual models attempting to describe only certain aspects of memory and that there is still no one model that encompasses all of them.)

By contrast, prospective memory (PM) research has only been actively studied over the last 20 years and the research protocols are still being worked out. Also, prospective memory is about remembering a specific piece of information that must be recalled at a specific time in the near future. Prospective memory’s two key components are 1) remembering to do a task and 2) executing the task at the opportune moment. If I forget to do the task at the time it should be done, the task is said to have failed. If I remember to do the task, but after the opportune moment has passed, then the task is considered failed.

For example, I need to buy pasta for dinner. The prospective component of that task is remembering that I need to buy the pasta on the way home from work. If I remember to do so as I drive past the grocery store, then I have a chance of successfully completing the task. I may not have thought of the task all day, yet I may spontaneously recall it when I see the Harris Teeter sign from the road. This means I have to interrupt my foreground task (driving home) to execute the PM task and then resume the foreground task. However, if I remember to buy the pasta only after I pull into my driveway at home, then I have failed the prospective memory task because the optimal time for its completion has passed. Prospective memory includes not just remembering the task to be completed, but also successfully carrying out the intended action. And after I've completed the task, I can safely forget all about it.

(Retrospective memory plays a role in any PM task. After all, I have to remember how to drive a car, the directions to the store, the brand of pasta to buy, and so on.)

PM Failure

An interesting note that is struck by some of the literature is the social/moral aspect of prospective memory failure. If one forgets an address or a phone number, it is simply chalked up to a failure in retrospective memory (“I’ve always had a bad memory for names”); it is seen as a property dissociated from the person. Yet, a failure of prospective memory may call my reliability into question; my wife may label me as “careless” or “complacent” (among other things) (Winograd, 1988; McDaniel and Einstein, 2007). I can handle breaking a promise to myself, but if you were depending on me to execute the task, then social pressure may affect how I choose to remember the intention (Meacham, 1988).

PM is also critical in medication adherence, which is a tremendously active and rich research domain in its own right. I could forget to take my medicine at the right time(s) or take it too often. Also, most memory errors made by airline pilots tend to be prospective in nature.

A PM task can fail for multiple reasons: I didn't encode the task properly, I was distracted when I attempted to encode the task or missed the retrieval cue, or I was doing some habitual action -- like commuting or getting dressed -- that interfered with the cue, etc. If I am on auto-pilot when driving home from work, then I may not remember to turn right instead of left and so we have no pasta for supper.

McDaniel and Einstein (2007) recount a heartbreaking anecdote of a new father whose failures of prospective memory—which included not ensuring a potent enough reminder cue and performing actions outside of his daily routine—led to the suffocation of his infant son in the back of his locked car. In this case, the father put his infant son's car seat in the back and the child fell asleep. As the man drove to work he fell into the daily rhythm of his commuting habit, thought about his workday, turned to go to work instead of turning the other way to go to the daycare center, parked, and exited the car having totally forgotten about his son. The authors emphasize that failures of prospective memory are not moral failings, but instances where the human cognitive processes are under such stress—interruptions, lack of sleep, too much sensory input—that the task cannot be recalled.

PM Skeptics

There are PM skeptics to be sure, and they make damnably good points.

For one thing, you can almost effortlessly recall lots of details about what you did and where you went today, even though you may not have paid much attention to events at the time. Retrospective memory happens without our even trying.

Prospective memory, on the other hand, requires that you be mindful, pay attention, and burn some cognitive energy considering where and what you'll be doing so you can encode a persistent cue in your environment to trigger the PM task. That could mean setting an alarm on your cell phone (time-based cue) or knowing that you'll see the Harris Teeter sign on the way home (event-based cue). But is the PM task really a memory task in this case or just good planning? PM may only be a convenient -- and confusingly named -- blanket term encompassing diverse processes: behavior, attention, awareness, planning, monitoring, and so on.

Crowder (1996) employed a devastatingly simple rejoinder to the use of the term “prospective memory,” a term that he believed distracted researchers from the real problem under study. If one took the phrase “I must remember to do that task” and removed the words “remember to,” then the problem simplified from one of memory to one of planning and intention -- "I must do that task." Revising “forget to perform” to “fail to perform” yields the same result (Crowder, 1996).

There is also the suspicion that, because prospective memory is explicitly defined as “successfully carrying out the intention,” what should really be studied are how people set intentions, what are the cognitive processes backing them, and so on. Memory is about forgetting or remembering; successfully carrying out a remembered promise is about something other than memory (social rewards or self-image, for example) (Crowder, 1996). Intention as a concept could be subdivided into the memory for the intention, remembering the intention, and then executing the intention (Smith, 2008).


If you want more (more! MORE!) then hie thee to the Wikipedia entries linked above. Suffice to say, it's a fascinating topic.

The next post will be about strategies to increase the chances of successfully completing a PM task. My references and other articles of interest follow below.


Bower, G. H. (2000). A brief history of memory research. In E. Tulving & F. I. Craik (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Memory (pp. 3-32). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Craik, F. I. M., & Kerr, S. A. (1996). Prospective Memory, Aging, and Lapses of Intention. In M. Brandimonte, G. O. Einstein, & M. A. McDaniel (Eds.), Prospective Memory: Theory and Applications (pp. 227-237). Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.

Crowder, R. G. (1996). Commentary: The Trouble with Prospective Memory: A Provocation. In M. Brandimonte, G. O. Einstein, & M. A. McDaniel (Eds.), Prospective Memory: Theory and Applications (pp. 143-147). Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.

Dobbs, A. R., & Reeves, M. B. (1996). Prospective Memory: More Than memory. In M. Brandimonte, G. O. Einstein, & M. A. McDaniel (Eds.), Prospective Memory: Theory and Applications (pp. 199-225). Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.

Dodhia, R. M., & Dismukes, R. K. (2009). Interruptions create prospective memory tasks. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 23(1), 73-89.

Einstein, G. O., McDaniel, M. A., Marsh, R. L., & West, R. (2008). Prospective memory: Processes, Lifespan Changes, and Neuroscience. In H. L. Rodiger III & J. H. Byrne (Eds.), Cognitive Psychology of Memory (Vol. 2, pp. 867-892). Oxford: Elsevier.

Ellis, J. A. (1988). Memory for Future Intentions: Investigating Pulses and Steps. In M. M. Gruneberg, P. E. Morris, & R. N. Sykes (Eds.), Interpersonal Relations and Prospective Remembering (Vol. Some Observations on Prospective Remembering, pp. 371-376). Chichester: John Wiley & Sons.

Ellis, J. A. (1996). Prospective Memory of the Realization of Delayed Intentions: A Conceptual Framework for Research. In M. Brandimonte, G. O. Einstein, & M. A. McDaniel (Eds.), Prospective Memory: Theory and Applications (pp. 1-22). Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.

Ellis, J. A., & Cohen, G. (2008). Memory for intentions, actions, and plans. In G. Cohen & M. A. Conway (Eds.), Memory in the Real World (pp. 141-172). New York: Psychology Press.

Elsweiler, D., Ruthven, I., & Jones, C. (2007). Towards memory supporting personal information management tools. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 58(7), 924-946.

Elsweiler, D., Baillie, M., & Ruthven, I. (2008). Exploring memory in email refinding. ACM Trans. Inf. Syst, 26(4), 1–36.

Gollwitzer, P. M. (1999). Implementation intentions. Strong effects of simple plans. American Psychologist, 54, 493-503.

Graf, P., & Uttl, B. (2001). Prospective memory: a new focus for research. Conscious Cogn, 10(4), 437-450.

Guimond, A., Braun, C. M. J., Rouleau, I., & Godbout, L. (2008). The relative importance of suboperations of prospective memory. Applied Neuropsychology, 15(3), 184 - 193.

Harris, J. E. (1984). Remembering to do things: A forgotten topic. In J. E. Harris & P. E. Morris (Eds.), Everyday Memory, Actions, and Absent-Mindedness (pp. 71-92). London: Academic Press.

Hicks, J. L., Marsh, R. L., & Russell, E. J. (2000). The properties of retention intervals and their affect on retaining prospective memories. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 26(5), 1160 - 1169.

Kliegel, M., McDaniel, M. A., & Einstein, G. O. (2008). Preface. In M. Kliegel, M. A. McDaniel, & G. O. Einstein (Eds.), Prospective Memory: Cognitive, Neuroscience, Developmental, and Applied Perspectives (p. xiii). New York: Lawrence Elbaum Associates.

Koriat, A., & Ben-Zur, H. (1988). Remembering That I Did It: Processes and Deficits in Output Monitoring. In M. M. Gruneberg, P. E. Morris, & R. N. Sykes (Eds.), Practical Aspects of Memory: Current Research and Issues (pp. 203-208). Chichester: John Wiley & Sons.

Kvavilashvili, L., & Ellis, J. A. (1996). Varieties of Intention: Some Distinctions and Classifications. In M. Brandimonte, G. O. Einstein, & M. A. McDaniel (Eds.), Prospective Memory: Theory and Applications (pp. 23-51). Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.

Marsh, R. L., Hicks, J. L., & Landau, J. D. (1998). An investigation of everyday prospective memory. Memory and Cognition, 26, 633–643.

Marsh, R. L., Hicks, J. L., & Cook, G. I. (2005). On the Relationship Between Effort Toward an Ongoing Task and Cue Detection in Event-Based Prospective Memory. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 31(1), 68 - 75.

McDaniel, M. A., & Einstein, G. O. (2007). Prospective Memory: An Overview and Synthesis of an Emerging Field. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.

Meacham, J. A. (1988). Interpersonal Relations and Prospective Remembering. In M. M. Gruneberg, P. E. Morris, & R. N. Sykes (Eds.), Some Observations on Prospective Remembering (Vol. Remembering That I Did It: Processes and Deficits in Output Monitoring, pp. 354-359). Chichester: John Wiley & Sons.

Park, D. C., & Kidder, D. P. (1996). Prospective Memory and Medication Adherence. In M. Brandimonte, G. O. Einstein, & M. A. McDaniel (Eds.), Prospective Memory: Theory and Applications (pp. 369-390). Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.

Rabbitt, P. (1996). Why Are Studies of "Prospective Memory" Planless? In M. Brandimonte, G. O. Einstein, & M. A. McDaniel (Eds.), Prospective Memory: Theory and Applications (pp. 239-248). Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.

Sellen, A. J., Louie, G., Harris, J. E., & Wilkins, A. J. (1997). What brings intentions to mind? An in situ study of prospective memory. Memory, 5(4), 483–507.

Smith, R. E. (2003). The cost of remembering to remember in event-based prospective memory: Investigating the capacity demands of delayed intention performance. Journal of Experimental Psychology-Learning Memory and Cognition, 29(3), 347–360.

Smith, R. E. (2008). Connecting the Past and the Future: Attention, Memory, and Delayed Intentions. In M. Kliegel, M. A. McDaniel, & G. O. Einstein (Eds.), Prospective Memory: Cognitive, Neuroscience, Developmental, and Applied Perspectives (pp. 29-52). New York: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Thöne-Otto, A. I. T., & Walther, K. (2003). How to design an electronic memory aid for brain-injured patients: Considerations on the basis of a model of prospective memory. International Journal of Psychology, 38(4), 236–244.

Winograd, E. (1988). Some Observations on Prospective Remembering. In M. M. Gruneberg, P. E. Morris, & R. N. Sykes (Eds.), Remembering That I Did It: Processes and Deficits in Output Monitoring (Vol. Practical Aspects of Memory: Current Research and Issues, pp. 348-353). Chichester: John Wiley & Sons.


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Assorted links

  • "A comparison of the 2008 population — using data from a variety of sources — with the first census in 1881 shows that the number of Cocks has shrunk by 75 per cent..." Read the rest for the context.
  • How to e-mail a professor. They may not notice, but then again, they do notice.
  • Saaien Tist on processing research literature, a topic that is becoming of increasing interest to me and that everyone has a different solution for.
  • Wonderful poem by B.H. Fairchild about "On the Waterfront," a small-town movie theater, and waiting to come of age.
  • I've always liked Brian Eno's Oblique Strategies. (More here, here, and here.) Now someone has created a Twitter feed for them (I think with new or homemade ones added, too): Oblique_Chirps.
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Two projects, two fuzzy ideas, two lit review processes

The 696 independent study is starting out as a literature review of risk in institutional repositories -- where it's perceived to lie, and, what's interesting to me, who makes the actual decisions? The OAIS model defines the functions of an archival process but leaves the specifics of implementation to each institution. So, for various managerial functions within an archive (archival storage and data management, for example), those functions could be carried out by one person or teams of people. It depends on resources and staffing. Carolyn has advised me to contextualize the risks within the OAIS model and within institutional repositories, which provides me with a good basis from which to select my sources and also (we hope) prevent me from flying off in all sorts of different directions (such as defining risk, decision making algorithms, how risk is managed in other contexts, and so on). I've collected a mass of documents and web pages that I now need to sort through, skim/read, and decide what the current picture of the situation is like. She reminded me at today's meeting that the goal is not to solve a problem, just to describe the situation.

She liked my abstract and suggested headings/subheadings, so she's assured that I seem to be moving in the right direction. The precise path I'm still working out, but the direction is fine.

For the 780 Research Methods course, we received very good comments and annotations on our Problem Statements, which were intended to help us think through the research problem we're proposing, start looking for some literature to support it, and define the research questions that will drive our projects. The key here is to ask the right questions and make sure they're right-sized, so to speak.

As I was writing my statement, I could feel the question and underlying assumptions change under my fingers. That's OK, that's part of the process. (And the value of deadlines, it must be said, is that they focus one's mind powerfully. Damn them.) The professor started out liking my topic and then seemed to veer toward, well, maybe what you're really asking is this. And I have to agree with her.

So, I need to work on that section some more.

Upcoming is a literature review that has to include at least 8 pieces, at least 4 of which need to be empirical studies. Based on my 696 and problem statement experiences, I can tell that I'll need to review/download about 25-40 items to find references that inform what I want to do. The trick here is being sure in my mind what it is I want to do.

I spent this afternoon at the library and found 4 books on community networks that I hope will have either good info I can use or leads on studies. Generally, once you've found a good article or lit review on the topic, that's the mother lode that can lead to more and better items.

Must keep in mind, though, that the finished piece is due in about 10 days, which isn't much time, given the day job, doing our taxes, getting my car worked on, and other obligations. I've reluctantly realized that I'll never get a whole day to just sit and do this work, so I will have to find a way to fit what I have to do into the interstices of my day. Next weekend, though, will need to be devoted to the writing up of whatever I've found so I can discover whether what I've got will support my research ideas.

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