Your brain is a complex network of neural interconnections that allow you to successfully carry out extremely complex tasks. In fact, it’s thanks to this that, as humans, we’re able to acquire and develop new knowledge, learn a new craft, or even build rockets that take us to the moon. However, your brain doesn’t work perfectly, and it sometimes makes silly mistakes that can end up being rather costly to you.
This paradoxical functionality of the mind leads to the question of why you sometimes forget things. Furthermore, what you can do to remember certain things you have to do. In this article, we’ll briefly review the causes of forgetfulness. Then, we’ll give you seven tips to help you remember things.
There are several factors that might make you forget. They often involve changes in your environment or yourself. With these changes, your memory can be weakened by the passage of time, contextual changes, and interference.
The passage of time is one of the factors that has major effects on your memory. In fact, in terms of your daily experiences, you tend to forget information if you don’t review it. That’s because traces of most memories fade over time.
Baddeley, Eysenck, and Anderson (2010) affirm that the cause of forgetting due to time is because memory traces become weakened. This idea of weakening over time is known as the decay theory. It’s an explanation that’s not been proven, nor is it free from criticism. For this reason, it isn’t taken as a cause in itself. However, it’s associated with two other factors: contextual fluctuations and interference.
Contextual fluctuations or changes can mean you’re more likely to forget more when your information retrieval context doesn’t correspond to the context where you encoded the information.
This forgetting curve is based on the fact that, with the passage of time, scenarios change. Consequently, the context of retrieval and encoding end up being very different. Naturally, this doesn’t facilitate memory retrieval.
Interference suggests that you accumulate experiences and configure new memories. This makes it difficult for you to access the information that you stored. Furthermore, the more similar the information, the more likely it is that interference will occur.
As a result of interference, information in your long-term memory can be confused or combined with other information during encoding. This can distort or interrupt your memories (McLeod, 2008). The interference can be of two types. It can either be retroactive (the new information interferes with the memory of the old one) or proactive (the old information interferes with the memory of the new one).
Seven tips to help you remember
Based on the explanations that we’ve briefly examined, we’ve developed seven tips to help you remember what you have to do.
We’ve seen that memory weakens with the passage of time. Therefore, you must help your cognitive system. For instance, you could write down in an agenda or on a post-it note the tasks that you have to carry out. Because writing not only helps you remember, it also makes it easier for you to consolidate the information. That’s because you’re reviewing it when writing it.
High levels of stress can negatively affect the cognitive operations involved in the formation of your explicit memories (Sandi, 2012).
Sometimes, you’re overwhelmed with the number of things you have to do and you get stressed. This means you don’t give your brain time to process and properly encode the information that you want to remember later. For this reason, taking a few seconds to relax, breathe, and pause can be beneficial to help you remember things you have to do.
3. Make use of your emotions
You tend to better remember those events that have been permeated by intense emotions. This has been evidenced in several studies. Indeed, they confirm the fact that emotional events are remembered to a greater extent than neutral ones. Therefore, emotional arousal positively influences and affects long-term memory performance (Cahill and McGaugh, 1995; Bradley et al., 1992).
Based on the above, to increase the probability of remembering what you have to do, you could link the tasks with some kind of emotion, preferably pleasant. In this way, you facilitate their consolidation in your memory. For example, you might think about what you want to achieve and connect it with the task. For instance, if you have to do math homework, you could connect it to your desire to graduate and how happy you’ll feel when you do so.
4. Organize to-dos
We’ve seen that similar information tends to produce interference. Therefore, when organizing your schedule of pending tasks, you must try, as far as possible, not to schedule two identical tasks for the same day. That’s because they can interfere with each other when you’re trying to remember them.
5. Use multiple retrieval cues
Another way of remembering is to create several retrieval cues. However, these must be important or meaningful to you. “Retrieval hinges on the number and quality of the cues available during recall. When irrelevant cues are used, retrieval can fail. Retrieval can fail when a cue that was previously relevant changes over time”. (Baddeley, Eysenck, and Anderson, 2010, p. 229).
To achieve this, you could set an alarm to remind you of the task, write a note and paste it in a visible place, or ask someone to help you remember when the time comes, etc.
6. Sleep well
In order not to forget things you have to do, you need to have encoded and stored the information well. In fact, you have to consolidate the instruction in order to later be able to remember it. There’s one process that can help you in this consolidation: sleep.
Diekelmann et al (2013) conducted a study that found sleep can benefit your memory. In other words, it has a positive effect on the acts of remembering to do something (prospective component) and remembering what to do (retrospective component). Therefore, you should try and make sure you always sleep well.
7. Encode and retrieve in the same place
We know that information is more easily remembered when the signals present during encoding are also present when the information is retrieved (Tulving, 1974). On this basis, a key to remembering what you have to do is to try to remember where you encoded this information.
For example, if you have an assignment to deliver to the university within three days, the best thing you can do is record this information (“I have to deliver an assignment in three days”) in your room where you study and spend most of your time. In other words, you encode the information in the same place where you intend to retrieve it.
Therefore, you shouldn’t try to store such information while you’re traveling on a bus, for instance, as this isn’t the place where you want to retrieve it. The objective is that the context where you encode or store should be the same as where you’ll remember it. For this reason, if you ever have the choice, make sure you elect to take an exam in the same room in which you were taught.
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