Forgetting to remember isn’t just a senior moment
Before I became an adept user of Siri and had my phone remind me to remember to do things ranging from calling to schedule an appointment during office hours to picking up milk on the way home–I wondered where my brain was going sometimes. I kept realizing I was forgetting to do simple things that I meant to remember to complete. I wondered if it was finally aging catching up with me. Thank goodness someone finally did this research and we can let go of that stereotype!
Actually, many have done research on this topic but recently a researcher at NASA reviewed the literature and put all the information on what is called “prospective memory” into one readily accessible article. Prospective memory errors occur when we “form an intention to do something later, become engaged with other tasks and lose focus on the thing we originally intended to do”.
We hear about very sad failures of prospective memory when parents forget a child is sleeping in the back seat and leave the car during hot summer months. We hear about prospective memory failures in medical situations when surgical instruments or sponges are left inside a surgery patient and complications develop. More common by far though, are simple memory failures that result in no coffee creamer in the morning when it is desperately needed.
There are numerous situations where we are more likely to forget to remember a task. When we are multi-tasking, when we are interrupted, when we are in unfamiliar environments and don’t have typical cues that remind us to do things, and in “habit capture” scenarios (when we need to do something atypical–like drive to the library in the morning–but instead find ourselves on our regular route to the office). Various professions have instituted various safety measures like airplane pilot checklists or medical procedures requiring counting all instrumentation and sponges to ensure none are left behind inside the patient.
But what about routine, every-day memory joggers so we can all improve our prospective memory function? Dismukes offers five tips:
Use external memory aids (e.g., your cellphone calendar or reminder apps)
When one of your tasks is crucial, avoid multitasking
Carry out critical tasks now instead of procrastinating
Create reminder cues that stand out and put them in a hard-to-miss spot
Link target task to a behavior you’ve already established (like taking your meds with breakfast)
Additional recommendations from the Dismukes research review include not only forming the intent to do something later, but forming the intent to do something later and also identifying when and where you will perform the behavior. Then, once you have formed the intent and identified where and when–you visualize yourself performing the behavior.
This strategy was found to improve prospective memory performance by 2-4 times when used for tasks like exercising, taking medication and completing homework. On the other hand, it was recommended by research conducted in 1999 before the advent of many smartphone apps that disrupt our reverie at the appointed time and can be automatically ‘snoozed’ to remind us again later.
It’s amazing to consider how fast things change around us. From how we do research online rather than sitting in libraries and going through actual physical volumes, to hyper-linking briefs, to having books read to us while we drive or fly, to how we use technology in the courtroom. It’s no wonder we forget to remember simple errands and tasks.
What this research review on prospective memory tells us is that we simply need to integrate those random thoughts (“I’ll stop on the way home and get coffee creamer”) into a focused reminder–whether that is intention formation/scheduling and visualization or a smart-phone reminder or a scribbled note on a brightly colored Post-It.
We all get distracted and suffer from inadequate attention. But we can do better.
Dismukes, RK (2012). Prospective memory in workplace and everyday situations. Current Directions in Psychological Science DOI: 10.1177/0963721412447621