A deeper dive into absent-mindedness and misplacing things

I haven’t misplaced anything today, but I know I will at some point. This week? This month? Definitely this year, and probably more and more as the years go by. It got me thinking about misplacing things, and what I might be able to do about that.

When or why do I misplace things?

  • Active
    • Putting something down in one of many frequent places
    • Putting something down in an infrequent place
    • Getting distracted half-way and putting something down somewhere I don’t remember
    • Putting something down because my hands are full and I need to pick up something else
    • Putting something in a place that’s similar to but not the same as the place it should be, and not catching the mistake
    • Putting something somewhere near it should be instead of where it should be because that place is occupied or inaccessible
    • Putting something away for the long term, then forgetting where it is
    • Putting something away, then forgetting whether I have it or not
    • Putting aside something in progress or waiting for something else, then forgetting where it is or when I need to get back to it (ex: mismatched socks)
    • Shuffling things into similar things (ex: papers)
    • Making a mental note of where I put something, but not remembering it well enough
  • Passive
    • Someone moving or dislodging something from where I expect it to be
    • Forgetting to check for things that have accidentally fallen or been left behind (ex: gloves, scarves, things in pockets)
    • Leaving things in an opaque container for convenience, and then not taking them out and putting them away (ex: gloves)
    • Things falling out of pockets or through linings, un-noticed
    • Familiar tasks in familiar environments lead to automatic thinking and reduced attention
    • Forgetting to prepare or take something
    • Gaps when retracing steps
  • Retrieval
    • Skipping over something because something else is covering it or obstructing my view
    • Looking at something but not recognizing it
    • Limiting my field of view unnecessarily
    • Misremembering things that are similar to things I remember getting rid of, so I don’t look for them
    • Not searching in a systematic manner
    • Having a false memory of putting something away in a different place
      • Confusing with previous memory
      • Confusing plans with reality

What tools and tactics do people use to minimize the hassle of misplacing things?

  • Build automatic habits
    • Have one clearly defined place for each thing, or very few clearly defined places
    • Explicitly encode memories around picking things up or putting things down
      • Looking
      • Mental note
      • Note to self, out loud
      • Text note
      • Audio note, recorded
      • Picture
    • Have a handy holding place for in-between things or miscellaneous things, and review this frequently (ex: bin, belt bag)
  • Reduce retrieval costs
    • Regularly tidy with fresh eyes
    • Make lists of where things are
    • Label containers with their contents (ex: cabinets)
    • Keep things clear and tidy
  • Label
    • Label things so that in case they’re lost, someone might be able to return them to you
    • Offer rewards
  • Reduce the need for the item
    • Replace or supplement often-misplaced identification with always-present information or more frequently used devices (ex: biometrics, keycodes, smartphone)
    • Buy or budget for replacements (ex: pens)
    • Keep extra stock of items in multiple places (ex: pens)
    • Minimize the number of unneeded things you carry, and keep other things in a known place (ex: infrequently-used keys)
    • Eliminate the item entirely
  • Add alerts
    • Track location (ex: smartphones, parking)
    • Add proximity alerts (ex: smartphone-laptop Bluetooth proximity detection, tracking stickers)
  • Fill in gaps
    • Retrace steps
    • Ask someone else who might be able to look with fresh eyes or who might have different memories

When are these tools particularly useful?

From “External and internal memory aids: when and how often do we use them?” (Intons-Peterson and Fournier, 1986):

  • When intervening events may interfere
  • When there’s a long delay between encoding and retrieval
  • When accuracy is important
  • When information is difficult to remember
  • When there’s limited time to remember
  • When you want to avoid the effort of remembering

Based on these thoughts, what can I tweak about my life? Maybe I can pay closer attention to incidents of misplaced things and other action slips over the next few weeks so that I can see where the gaps are….