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Absentmindedness is something that affects all of us at some time or another. Absentmindedness is the natural consequence of being able to do as much as we do. By being able to perform an activity without thinking about it we are able to perform many more tasks than we would otherwise. However, sometimes things we would like to remember get overlooked in the process.

It isn’t possible to eliminate forgetfulness or absentmindedness, but there are techniques and strategies that can help reduce how often it happens. With practice and memory training you can develop the skills necessary to reduce absentmindedness.

Paying attention

Often the reason absentmindedness occurs is because we weren’t really paying attention in the first place. You can read more about the importance of attention in learning and remembering on the attention page.

There are two main reasons that can reduce attention. These are:

  1. Familiarity – you are engaging in a task that is routine or habitual, or you are working in a familiar environment that doesn’t require effort to pay attention.
  2. Distraction — caused either by events in the external environment or through being preoccupied with something

Past and future forgetfulness

Both of the factors mentioned above can contribute to forgetfulness or absentmindedness. Specifically, this can occur for two different kinds of remembering:

  • Retrospective memory — remembering what you have done in the past, like where you left your glasses or the car keys.
  • Prospective memory — remembering to do something in the future, like buy bread on the way home from work.

Retrospective remembering

There are generally two ways problems with retrospective memory can contribute to absentmindedness — forgetting if we did something, and forgetting where we put something.

It is common to forget if you did something — we generally remember that we have to do something but afterwards can’t remember if we did it or not — such as turning off the iron or the stove before leaving the house.

Since not attention is a common cause of this kind of forgetting one way to overcome it is to pay extra attention when performing tasks that you know you will want to recall in the future. This can be done by repeating to yourself what you have done (“I have turned off the iron”, or, “I parked on 2B”). This can be further helped by mentally picturing the task (for example, picturing the keys on the refrigerator using proper visualization techniques). With practice, this can become something you will increasingly do out of habit.

If you don’t make the effort to remember when you perform the activity there are still things you can do when you are trying to remember. Retrace your steps and try and remember the sequence of events around what you are trying to remember. Sometimes thinking of related information can help cue the recall of what you are trying to remember.

Another common problem people experience is to go into a room and forget why they went in there. The same techniques already discussed apply here as well. Pay more attention and make an effort to establish what you want to do before you do it by saying to yourself what you want to do and/or visualize yourself doing it.

Prospective memory

Problems with prospective memory typically aren’t with remembering to do something (we often achieve this) but remembering to do it at the right time. How often have you remembered that you have to go to the bank after it has already closed for the day?

One way to remember a task that you perform regularly, such as take a multivitamin, is to incorporate it into your daily routine. If you associate taking your vitamin with eating your breakfast you will have a greater chance of remembering it — especially if you put your vitamins in visual view of where you eat your breakfast (or you can use a pill box organizerExternal Link). Structuring your life this way can supplement, or even replace, memory. However, problems can occur if your routine is disrupted.

A technique that can be useful for remembering both routine activities as well as one time events are to make an association between the event and the thing that needs to be remembered. For example, if you have to remember to take a letter with you when you leave the house, make a visual association between the front door and the letter. This way when you see the front door when you are leaving the house it will trigger your memory of the letter.

Procrastinators are generally more likely to have lapses in prospective memory. This is just another reason why you shouldn’t put off doing something.

External memory aids

Sometimes the best approach to remembering something is to use an external memory aid. This can increase the chances of remembering something without having to put in a lot of mental effort. There are many external memory aids that you can take advantage of, some of which are described below.

Even if you don’t have a notebook handy you can always modify your environment in some way to act as a cue to remember — similar to the proverbial tying a string around your finger to remember something. However, you have to make sure you associate what you want to remember to the environmental cue using these visual association techniques. Things you can try are:

  • turn your shoes upside-down to remember something before leaving the house
  • change your watch to another wrist or a ring to another finger
  • Alter something on your bedside table at night to cue your memory in the morning

Another simple and effective way to help remember things is to always carry a small notebook or planner and a pen with you to write down things you have to do. Similarly you can have an erasable board or notepad on your fridge for writing down temporary reminders or things to buy on your next shopping trip.

Other things that can be useful are written lists, memos, plannersExternal Link, timers, alarms, sticky notesExternal Link or letter boxes to help remember outgoing mail.

A useful way to remember where you park your car when you go shopping is to always park in the same area of the parking lot.

For a practical guide to improving your memory, please take a look at my review of Ron White’s Memory in a Month course

Related Pages

Increase Your Memory With Mnemonics
Overcome Absent Mindedness