MIND
August 22, 2012

How to Remember Not to Forget

We all forget to do what we need to do at times. There are ways, however, to remember what you need for dinner and to write that dreaded email.

How many times have you forgotten to return a phone call? Or to bring home a carton of milk? Failures to remember actions that you intend to perform later on are called lapses in prospective memory. For most people they're merely annoying. For some professionals, they can be life threatening

Serious cases of this sort of forgetting may make the news. Like when a doctor forgets to take a forceps out of a patient during an operation, and the patient comes back weeks later complaining of pain. Or when an airplane pilot is interrupted during a safety check and afterwards forgets to perform it, leading to a plane crash. Most everyday cases aren't so serious, but they do add a lot of unpleasantness to people's lives.

Don't plan on fixing that leaky faucet sometime soon; plan on fixing it Saturday at noon.

An isolated incident of "Honey, I forgot the milk" probably won't put too much stress on a marriage. Do it over and over and it can be more toxic to a marriage than having cold feet in bed is. Forgetting to return an occasional phone call can be forgiven. Doing it routinely is extremely annoying. It can cost you friends and career opportunities.

Fortunately, there are ways to help stop forgetting.

The most useful one for professionals, such as doctors and airplane pilots, is to use a checklist, checking off each step as it's done. For the rest of us, there are other helpful approaches.

  • Set a definite time to perform an action. Don't plan on fixing that leaky faucet sometime soon; plan on fixing it Saturday at noon. This strategy has been shown to raise completion rates by two to four times in tasks as varied as taking medication, exercising and completing written assignments.
  • Use external memory aids. Set an alert on your cell phone, write the task down on a calendar or have someone remind you to do it.
  • Create cues that remind you of the task and put them in easy-to spot places. If you're at work in the morning and plan to return a call in the afternoon, put a picture of the person you plan to call at a prominent spot on your desk. Preferably, a picture showing the person scowling, to remind you how upset they'll be if you don't return the call.
  • Carry out the task now instead of leaving it for later. That way, you won't have to remember. This is a good strategy for the more important tasks.
  • If the task is an important one, avoid multitasking around it. Juggling three of four tasks at the same time is a sure-fire recipe for forgetting about at least one of them.
  • Link the task to a well established habit. This could be taking a pill right before you walk the dog or delivering a document to a co-worker during your daily coffee break.

An article reviewing prospective memory problems and describing solutions to them appears in Current Directions in Psychological Science.

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