Wait... Did I Lock the Front Door??
Updated: Jan 21, 2021
It's bad enough that we often forget to do the things that we're supposed to do, but as many of us can attest to - it can also be a struggle to remember the things that we've already done!
You've likely experienced this yourself. Maybe you left the house and then found yourself wondering if you had locked the front door, or worse, if you had turned the stove or oven off. Or maybe you've forgotten if you've taken that pill yet today or not. It's a problem that happens to everyone from time to time, as made painfully clear by the number of times you've heard someone lock their car with a remote fob in a parking lot, only to hear them lock it three more times on their way into the store.
Forgetting if we have done something can range from mildly annoying in the case of minor tasks like locking your doors, to potentially dangerous when ovens, stoves and daily medications are involved. Luckily there are a few crafty tricks we can use to help when we draw a blank on what we just did... or didn't do.
For the first strategy, remember that our brains tend to hold on to odd, surprising, or unusual information more than the familiar or mundane. See here for a post on the benefits of thinking in memorable ways. We can use this fact to our advantage by doing something unusual as you are completing the task, or very shortly after. For example, if you were to raise your hand in the air, or snap your fingers after locking your front door, you'll be more likely to remember that you did in fact lock the door when you question yourself about it later.
Consider though that the unusual acts you might associate with the activity you want to remember, will quickly transition from unusual to mundane. So, to keep it memorable, you'll have to keep thinking of new unique actions - maybe a small hop, a clap, or touching your shoe? Get creative - the more unusual, the more memorable it will be.
The second strategy I want to highlight for you here requires less creativity, but more structure and routine. It goes by a few different names, including 'seeing it and saying it', or 'pointing and calling'. The idea is to sharply draw your attention to what you are doing at a critical moment (e.g. turning off the stove), by making a conscious effort to notice it, and vocalize it. So for example, when turning the stove off, you might take a brief moment and say out loud "I'm turning the stove off". Odd? Yes. Silly? Maybe. Effective? Certainly.
By drawing our attention to the task at hand, we prevent our minds from wandering on to thinking about other things - which is very often the starting point of difficulties with memory. You would never expect your brain to remember the plot of a movie you hadn't watched, right? Yet, we often let our attention drift completely off what we are seeing, hearing, or doing in the present moment, and expect our memory to have faithfully captured what we didn't even give it a chance to.
How effective is this 'pointing and calling' method of remembering what we've done? Effective enough to reduce accidents and save lives. Conductors and safety staff in the Tokyo railway system utilize this technique to identify, physically point at, and verbally name aloud each aspect of operating their trains. They will point at signals and say "signal is green"; they will point along the edge of the platform and say "all clear"; they will point at timetables and schedules and call out the exact time the train is leaving. It is estimated that pointing and calling reduced errors in the system by a whopping 85%, and accidents by 30%. A similar system of 'point only' was introduced in the MTA subway system in New York City and was able to reduce the incidence of incorrectly berthed subways by 57%.
The lesson here is that our attention is a powerful thing, and the absolutely essential starting point for the process of memory. By pointedly focusing our attention on exactly what we intend to remember with these strategies, we give our memory a fighting chance.
For more tips on memory (and to share your own tips) - check out: https://www.sharpthinking.org/sharptips