Category Archives: memory

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….

Cultivate memories deliberately

How much can we influence the memories that come upon us unexpectedly or the ones that we bring up when we reflect?

Sometimes, in the middle of washing the dishes, I remember standing on a footstool in my mother’s kitchen and washing the dishes there; she’d taught the three of us sisters to handle different stages of the dish-washing assembly line. I can see what prompted that memory. The connection is easy to understand. Other times, I’m not sure what drew me back to a time or place I’d forgotten. Some memories make me smile. Others remind me where I could’ve done better.

I’ve been thinking about long-term happiness, experiences, and memory. I imagine that at eighty or ninety years old, you’d want to have plenty of good memories. What’s worth paying attention to? What’s worth creating experiences for? How can you smooth the edges of rough memories and intensify good ones?

Here are some of my thoughts about the memories I want to cultivate through attention and understanding.

2015-01-31 What's worth remembering -- index card #memory

2015-01-31 What’s worth remembering – index card #memory

I’d like to remember, clearly and distinctly, the things that contribute to happiness: connection, mastery, triumph, little moments of joy. How can we get better at things like that? Paying close attention, and creating the situations where these memories can arise.

I’d like to remember the storms – not to dwell on them, not to feel a victim, but to remember that they’re temporary and that we’ve weathered them in the past. (No Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind for me!) I don’t write as much about these (in public, or even in my journals), but that doesn’t mean I don’t think of them from time to time. By not writing about them, though, I miss out on the opportunity to make sense of them, to fit them into a coherent narrative that helps me move forward.

I’d like to remember the things that will help me make better decisions: ideas, assumptions, consequences, lessons learned. Since it can be hard to remember details and one’s mind is often tempted to rewrite things more favourably, writing about these things is a good way to extend my understanding over time.

I have a lot of mental clutter. The time in school I wanted to experiment with fixing a memory with intense clarity, choosing (of all things!) the speckled ceiling to focus on. Many embarrassing moments, like the time a friend teased me for having mispronounced “adolescent” in a moment of inattention. Every moment contains a lesson, but I’m not sure that these lessons are worth the attention my mind gives them. I don’t dwell on these thoughts, but they skitter across my brain from time to time. It would be good to be able to acknowledge them and their underlying thoughts, and then put them on a mental shelf. Then, when they escape, I can say, “Oh, hello again! Do you have anything to add? No? Back you go.”

2015-01-18 Narratives -- index card #storytelling #perspective

2015-01-18 Narratives – index card #storytelling #perspective

By thinking about memories on my own terms, I can make sense of them my way. The narratives we tell ourselves have such power. If your story is “Everyone’s against me!”, it’s easy to find memories that fit that pattern, and you’ll feel worse and worse. If your story is “Actually, things are pretty awesome,” it will likewise be easy to find memories that fit. By thinking about the general types of memories that come up and connecting them to a positive story, it’ll be easier to respond to them positively when they come up at other times.

In addition to cultivating your existing memories, it’s also good to deliberately create good ones. The impression I get from how other people do this is that people plan Big Memories. The awesome vacation. The ascetic pilgrimage. The conquered marathon.

My life tends to be about small memories. The in-joke picked up from the movie W- and I watched a few years ago, blended with the pun of the moment. The amusing situations our cats get themselves into. Cooking with friends. There are big memories mixed in there too (family trips, graduations, weddings), but the small ones… How can I explain this? The small ones seem as richly flavoured as the big ones are. Big memories are easier to tell other people about, but the small ones are more plentiful.

(Unless you’re like my dad, generating big memories by the bucket-load because you’re always on interesting adventures.)

What would it be like to be a big-memory-full person, a bucket-list-crosser-outer, a grand adventurer? Maybe I’d go refresh my memory of a night sky so clear you feel the dimensions of space. Maybe I’d splurge on eating interesting food at wonderful restaurants. Maybe I’d go to more parties (some of my friends throw themed ones, even). Maybe I’d bike around more in the city, or take the train and try biking near Niagara. Maybe I’d get back into the habit of having birthday parties.

In “Memories Make Your Life Meaningful – Here’s How to Have More of Them, Ben Casnocha writes:

  • Prize novelty. Novelty leads to memories.
  • Take on challenges; endure struggle; feel intense lows and highs.
  • Do things with people. And use people as a key variable.
  • Seek novelty, yes, except when novelty itself becomes routine.
  • Review and re-live memories soon after the fact.
  • If you consciously focus on creating a great memory in the moment, it sticks.

More novelty, more randomness, more challenges, more people, more review, more attention. This slows life down, makes it denser with memories, and expands joy.

Cultivate memories more deliberately: make sense of your existing memories, and consciously build new ones. What would you like to remember in twenty years?

Writing: Open loops, closed loops, and working with forgetfulness

I think I’ve written about something before, but I can’t find it. I have thirteen tabs open with Google search results from my blog. I’ve tried countless keywords and synonyms. I’ve skimmed through posts I only half-remember writing. (Was that blog post really that short? I thought I wrote more details.) I still haven’t found the post I want.

I wonder: Did I really publish it? Or did I just outline or sketch it? Am I confusing it with something similar that I wrote, or someone else’s post that I admired?

Ah, well, time to write it from scratch. It’s a little like writing code. Sometimes it would take so long to find an appropriate open source module that you’re better off just writing the code yourself. Sometimes it would take so long to find an existing post that it’s better to just write it from scratch.

I was looking for that particular post because of a conversation with Flavian de Lima where I mentioned the benefits of blogging while you’re learning something. He resonated with the idea of sharing your notes along the way so that other people can learn from them, even if you’ve moved on to different topics.

Despite having a clear memory of writing about this topic, when I went to the post that I thought was related to it (spiral learning), it didn’t mention blogging at all. “Share while you learn” didn’t quite address it, either. After trying lots of searches, I gave up and started writing a new post. After all, memories are fallible; you could have full confidence in an imagined event.

The reason this came up was because Flavian described how he often took advantage of open loops when working on writing. He would stop with an incomplete thought, put the draft away, and let his subconscious continue working on it. Sometimes it would be days or weeks before he got back to working on the article. He mentioned how other authors might take years to work on novels, dusting off their manuscripts and revising scenes here and there.

Keeping loops open by stopping mid-sentence or mid-task is a useful technique often recommended for writing or programming. Research describes this as the Zeigarnik effect: an interrupted task stays in your memory and motivates you to complete it.

But after reading David Allen’s Getting Things Done, I had become a convert of closed loops: getting tasks, ideas, notes out of your head and into a trusted system so that you don’t have to waste energy trying to remember them. I noticed that if I kept too many loops open, my mind felt buzzy and distracted. To work around this, I got very good at writing things down.

In fact, I took closing loops one step further. Publishing my notes on my blog helped me get rid of the guilt and frustration I used to feel whenever I found myself wanting to move on to a different project. Because my notes were freely available for anyone who was trying to figure out the same thing, I could go ahead and follow the butterflies of my interest to a different topic. My notes could also help me pick things up again if I wanted to.

I didn’t stop mid-sentence or mid-thought, but I published in the middle of learning instead of waiting until I finished. Even my review posts often included next steps and open questions. So I got a little satisfaction from posting each small chunk, but I still left dangling threads for me to follow up on. I closed the loops enough so that the topics didn’t demand my attention.

Writing helped me clear my mind of strong open loops–but it worked a little too well. I tried to close things off quickly, so that I could revisit them when I wanted to. The trick was remembering that they were there. Sometimes I forgot the dangling threads for a year or more. I never followed up on others. Even with my regular review processes, I often forgot what I had written, as in the search that prompted this post.

Writing and memory have an ancient trade-off. Even Socrates had something to say about it, quoting an ancient Egyptian king in Plato’s The Phaedrus:

“…for this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves.”

as quoted in On writing, memory, and forgetting: Socrates and Hemingway take on Zeigarnik

In 2011, Sparrow, Liu, and Wegner showed that people remember less if they think a computer will keep their notes for them, and they tend to remember how to get to the information rather than the information itself. Having written the words, published the posts, and indexed the titles, I’ve forgotten the words; and now I can’t find my way back.

Hence my immediate challenge: sometimes I forget how to get to the information I’ve stored, like a squirrel stashing nuts. (More research: tree squirrels can’t find 74% of the nuts they bury. So I’m doing slightly better than a squirrel, I think.)

Google helps if I can remember a few words from the post, but since it tends to search for exact words, I have to get those words right. Hah, maybe I need to use search engine optimization (SEO) techniques like writing with different keywords – not for marketing, but for my own memory. It reminds me of this SEO joke:

How many SEO copywriters does it take to change a lightbulb, light bulb, light, bulb, lamp, bulbs, flowers, flour…?

My blog index is helpful, but it isn’t enough. I need to write more descriptive titles. Perhaps I should summarize the key point as well. Maps can help, as can other deliberate ways of connecting ideas.

Let me take a step back and look at my goals here. Linking to posts helps me save time explaining ideas, build on previous understanding, and make it easy for people to dig into more detail if they want. But I can also accomplish these goals by linking to other people’s explanations. With so many people writing on the Web, chances are that I’ll find someone who has written about the topic using the words I’m looking for. I can also write a new post from scratch, which has the advantages of being tailored to a specific question and which possibly integrates the forgotten thoughts even without explicit links.

It’s an acceptable trade-off, I think. I’ll continue writing, even with the increased risk of forgetting. If I have to write from scratch even when I think I’ve probably written about the same topic before, I can accept that as practice in writing and thinking.

Other writers have better memories. Flavian told me how he can remember articles he wrote in the 1990s, and I’ve heard similar accounts from others. Me, I’ve been re-reading this year’s blog posts in preparation for my annual review, and I’ve come across ones that pleasantly surprised me. Posts two or three years back are even fuzzier in my memory. I can try to strengthen my memory through exercises and processes. The rest of the time, I can work with the brain that I have. In fact, I’m inclined to build more memory scaffolds around myself, moving more of my memory outside my mind.

[I do not] carry such information in my mind since it is readily available in books. …The value of a college education is not the learning of many facts but the training of the mind to think.

  • Albert Einstein, as Wikiquotes cites from Einstein: His Life and Universe (2007)

And really, how much difference would perfect memory make? I might add more links, include more citations, cover more new ground. I can still learn and share without it.

Forgetful squirrels have their uses. Forgotten acorns grow into oaks for others to enjoy. From time to time, I hear from people who’ve come across old posts through search engines, or I come across old posts in a review. Loops re-open, dangling threads are taken up again, and we continue.

Moving my memory outside my brain

I don’t trust my memory. One way to deal with this is to force myself to use it more, like the way some people wipe their cellphone address books and make themselves commit phone numbers to memory. Another way is to learn mnemonic devices and use vivid imagery, such as those suggested in Moonwalking with Einstein. A third way is to arrange my life so that I don’t have to remember as much. I trust this way much more.

So I build these memory scaffolds around me. Appointments go on a Google Calendar that’s synchronized on all the devices I use. I hired an assistant who sets up meetings and doublechecks that all the information is there. I use Evernote to capture more and more of what I come across: websites, snippets, e-mails, pictures, scans. Blogging gives me an external public memory, which is great because people and Google have reminded me of things I’ve completely forgotten about. I have checklists for extraordinary things like packing, and I have them for mundane life as well: morning routines, evening routines, which sites to update when WordPress comes out with a new version, what to do every month… I practise confessing that I don’t remember someone’s name, and I winnow out from my life the people who take offense or who put people on the spot. I carry a belt-bag because I was always setting my purse down somewhere that I could not remember. I give things away, label cupboards, take inventory of drawers.

I’m learning not to fight the fuzziness of memory. I could be stressed out by forgetfulness, but that just makes things worse (Wikipedia). This is normal. I can work around it. Every lapse becomes an opportunity to make something better.

How do you deal with the fuzziness of memory?