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3 Ways to Remember to Do What You’re Supposed to Do

New research shows how to toggle your brain from off to on to get things done.

Key points

  • Remembering what you're supposed to do, or prospective memory, is an essential life skill.
  • New research shows that prospective memory is a skill that you can acquire.
  • Making up your mind to remember what you need to do is a big factor in building your own prospective memory.

How many times in the day do you forget to carry out an action you knew you had to complete? Going through your morning routine, do you ever think you got the coffee going only to find out after you've taken your shower that the pot is still sitting there, cold and neglected? How about the time you promised to call your best friend to decide where to meet for lunch only to realize at 4 p.m. that the afternoon slipped right past you?

Although memory is usually thought of as applying to past events, a variant called “prospective memory" (PM) applies to future actions. Your mind may shoot backward when you try to recall whether you actually turned the lights off before you left your home for the day. However, it also shoots forward prior to leaving your home as you make the vow to hit the off switch before your foot crosses the threshold.

The Thing About Prospective Memory

What makes PM such an odd phenomenon within the psychology of memory is its forward-facing quality. PM also has significant implications for the quality of your everyday life. It's troubling to forget an event from your past, especially if you’re trying to remember if you did what you intended to do (as in the coffee example). However, it’s not just troubling but potentially harmful to forget to carry out an action in the future. Your electricity bill will suffer if you constantly leave the lights on after going out, but, even worse, you could lose your friends if you chronically demonstrate how unreliable you are at keeping promises.

According to new research by Heidelberg University’s Jan Rummel and colleagues (2022), “a substantial portion of the thoughts we engage in on a daily basis are future oriented…with a considerable amount of these future thoughts being concerned with planning and rehearsing short-term intentions” (p. 1). Prior research investigating how to use future-oriented thoughts productively identified obvious factors such as importance of the planned action, conscientiousness of the individual, and overall quality of one’s memory. However, these studies come up short because they were conducted in the artificial context of a psych lab, not "in the wild," as the authors point out. Labs are not ideal places to try to replicate the myriad interruptions between an intention and an act that occur in everyday life.

Testing Prospective Memory in the Wild

The German research team enlisted a community-based sample of 250 adults (18 to 65 years old, median age 23), asking them to list their intentions for the upcoming five-day period and then record which of these they’d actually completed. They also tested the contribution of personality in the form of the Five Factor Model’s traits, working memory, and importance of the intention. On the sixth day, participants reported whether they carried out their intention and whether they’d used an external memory aid (“intention off-loading”).

During the five-day period, the researchers also probed whether participants had thoughts related to their future intentions by presenting these statements to choose from:

  1. I planned to do something in the future.
  2. I thought about a future plan I had made earlier.
  3. I mentally simulated a future event.
  4. I engaged in fantasies regarding how the future may be.
  5. I envisioned how I may feel in a future situation.
  6. I thought about a problem I may face in the future.

People who chose #1 or #2 were considered to be more heavily engaged in intention-related thinking relative to their general thoughts about the future. As it turned out, 45 percent of all future-oriented thoughts reported by the German participants involved planning or rehearsing their intentions. In other words, trying to remember a future intention takes up considerable real estate in people’s minds.

The 3 Keys to Remembering Your Intentions

Statistical analyses predicting successful intention completion yielded support for these three, in order:

  1. Importance of the intention: The higher the number on a 0–100 scale, the greater the chances of carrying out the intention. If you perceive an act to be important, chances are you will carry it out.
  2. Use of external memory aids: It’s one thing to want to remember to do something, but if you want to be sure, program a reminder that you will actually be able to see and use. Strings on the finger are the old cliché for this aid, but greater specificity is required for intention off-loading to work.
  3. Social value: This predictor of PM involves thinking about others more than yourself. Low social value applies to acts that benefit only you, such as turning out those lights, but high social value means you won't leave your lunch friend in the lurch.

There was good news in the factors that were not predictive of intention completion. One was working memory capacity. It seems as though you can have a poor memory and still remember to carry out your intentions.

Personality also played a minimal role, and not exactly in the way that the authors predicted. People high in conscientiousness were more likely to carry out their intentions, but personality openness to experience, or enjoyment of thoughts and ideas, was not. People who like to dabble in the activity of the mind apparently don’t enjoy any special benefits when it comes to remembering to carry out their future plans.

Also surprising was the fact that intention-related future thoughts were not strongly predictive of intention completion, but the authors reasoned that they may have underestimated this effect. When taking other factors into account, they concluded that there is, after all, “an adaptive value of intention-related future thoughts” (p. 11).

To sum up, the three keys to following through on your intentions appear to be worthwhile to put into practice the next time you’ve got an important obligation to complete. Fulfilling those intentions can thus be the key to fulfilling your goals, especially those you value the most.

References

Rummel, J., Snijder, J.-P., & Kvavilashvili, L. (2022). Prospective memories in the wild: Predicting memory for intentions in natural environments. Memory & Cognition. https://doi.org/10.3758/s13421-022-01379-y

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