Have you ever been sitting at home watching something online or on television and had the awful realisation that you were supposed to do something earlier that day - and you’d forgotten until that very moment? Perhaps you’d intended to make an important call, acknowledge an order, or speak with a colleague about something and it was only when you were watching your programme that a scene in the drama triggered a thought about what you should have done, but haven’t.
The human memory is good at recognition but not at recollection
The problem is that our brain is only good at remembering things when prompted. It’s easy to demonstrate this. Try showing a sequence of around twenty images to someone, asking them to remember what they have seen. Then show them the images again, this time replacing a few of them with similar but different pictures from before. Your observer will find it easy to indicate whether they have seen the image before, or not. Their answers will be unambiguous and even where two images are similar, they will be able to identify correctly whether they have seen them before or not. If you simply show someone a sequence of images and then ask them to recall them for you, they are most likely to remember some, but not all the images they have seen. So unprompted memory is unreliable and incomplete, whilst prompted memory tends to be accurate and total.
Why do we forget?
We forget because we’re human. We haven’t evolved to think about everything all the time - indeed that would be impossible. Imagine constantly thinking about all the things you learned at school, all the people you’ve met in your life, all the experiences you’ve had…. It’s not possible. Instead, our brain stores all this information and provides it when it’s useful. Imagine (just for a moment!) that you’re a rabbit. You don’t munch grass thinking about foxes all day, but if a fox appears you make a dash for your rabbit hole! A stimulus triggers a reaction. Similarly, with the human brain. A cue or ‘memory jog’ will bounce the brain into recollecting a piece of information. But recalling that information without a stimulus isn’t reliable. Hence the reason you remember that you were supposed to get cheese when you went out shopping this morning and it’s only when you see the cod fillet in your fridge that you remember that you’d planned to make a mornay sauce.
How to stay on track and not forget
If we understand that our memory isn’t very good at unprompted recall, but is good at recognising things and responding to triggers, we can help ourselves to remember tasks and overcome the tendency to omit things.
Furthermore, if we understand that as humans we have a propensity to be distracted, and that distractions mean we lose our train of thought and forget what we were doing before we became absorbed in something else, we’ll help ourselves to stay on track.
Take for example, a series of tasks in a process. It’s not uncommon to find that a task isn’t completed properly because a vital stage has been overlooked and not completed and that’s often due to distraction followed by forgetfulness. Once distracted, it’s easy not to resume where you left off. A key aid in this instance is the use of an effective checklist.
Checklists are a subject in their own right. Suffice it to say here that many are poorly written and encourage a ‘tick box’ mentality which doesn’t engage the user in proactive thinking. However, a well-designed checklist, used at the end of the task as a way of confirming all stages in a procedure have been properly completed, is very useful. Another useful approach is ‘negative thinking’. Asking yourself, ‘What could have gone wrong here?’ or, ‘What have I missed out?’ is an effective way of proactively looking for, and finding, omissions.
We all know that to-do lists are a good idea. But even though they are an established tool and everyone says they use them, most people don’t use them well. We get into bad habits and don’t update them, we don’t prioritise them and we fail to allocate sufficient time to complete items properly. Simply writing a to-do list doesn’t organise your time, identify priorities or get the work done. And if you don’t update it, your to-do list won’t help to remind you to do things either! Keeping a concise, well organised and up-to-date to-do list will keep you on track and is a very useful aide memoire. Certainly, writing down or keeping an electronic list of tasks means that you don’t have to recall everything from unprompted memory - but a to-do list only works if you use it properly.
A final useful trigger for remembering things is ensuring that you keep your mind as engaged as possible through being ‘present-minded’. If you consciously focus on what you are doing and if you engage proactively in the wider context of your work environment, you are much more likely to spot potential omissions and much less likely to forget to do something. For example, the so-called ‘balloon payment’ was due on my car this week and I knew quite a large sum of money was going to be taken from my account by direct debit. I was therefore very conscious of the date when this was going to happen and made absolutely sure there were funds available on the appointed day.
I proactively thought about what action I needed to take, took it, and checked that the money was where it needed to be. If it matters, you must ensure you don’t forget. Set yourself reminders, take the appropriate action and check that what you expected to happen, has happened. I was very ‘present-minded’ about my car payment. We can apply the same mindset to tasks at work. Make sure you set yourself memory triggers, so that you don’t have to rely on unprompted memory. Ensure you have relevant stimuli along the way to prompt recall. Use diary reminders, sticky notes, alarms or whatever other tools are available to you. We all live in busy worlds but we can still get things right. And we don’t need to forget.
Catherine de Salvo, Director, Scott Bradbury Ltd. April 2018
About Accuracy Skills
Many of the ideas touched on in this short article are included in our one-day workshop Preventing Mistakes at Work. You can see details of this programme here.
Our core programmes Developing an Eye for Accuracy (about reducing data error) and Preventing Mistakes at Work (about reducing human error) enable participants to work accurately and efficiently, and are proven to reduce error. They include learning about overcoming distractions, developing concentration skills and managing the causes of error-inducing stress.
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