There are so many things we have to remember to do every day, that we often end up forgetting quite a few of them. One way to remember them is to use external memory cues, which are objects or events that remind us of the things that we need to do. This article will explain to you how these cues work, give you example for various types of cues, and show you how you can take advantage of them yourself, in order to improve your ability to remember.
How cues help us remember
When we think about memory, we often think about retrospective memory, which involves recalling things that we experienced in our past. Prospective memory, on the other hand, is a type of memory which involves remembering to perform actions in the future. In this post we will focus on how cues can help with our prospective memory, by reminding us to perform necessary, everyday functions.
Simply put, memory cues can be any external item or event that helps us remember what we need to do. For example, if you remember to brush your teeth in the morning because the toothbrush is right next to the sink where you wash your face, you could say that the toothbrush served as a memory cue.
These cues work by triggering an action or a memory of that action. They can often be more effective in doing this than internal memory cues, which are things such as thoughts, intentions, and mental reminders.
(I won’t get into the specific cognitive mechanisms behind external cues here, but if you want to read more on the topic, you can start with this fMRI study on prospective memory and this paper on strategic and automatic processes in prospective memory retrieval).
Examples for external cues
Below are some examples for ways you can use external cues to remember to do things:
- If you need to remember to floss your teeth, you can put the box with the floss on top of your tube of toothpaste.
- If you need to remember to take a pill each morning, you can put the pills next to whatever you usually eat for breakfast, or in a visible location in the area where you eat.
- If you want to start the day by writing a paper for a class instead of procrastinating on social media, you could put a piece of paper with a reminder on top of your keyboard.
- You can also use cues to remember more abstract things. For example, you can use your watch as a reminder to take it easy, so that every time you look at it you remember to relax a little.
The worst kind of example
While memory cues can help with small tasks, they can often make a big difference.
Unfortunately, one of the most common examples of people going on autopilot and forgetting to do things is parents leaving their kids in the car.
A study which analyzed heat-related deaths of young children in parked cars, found that 73% of the children were left there by adults, half of which were unaware or forgot that they were leaving their child in the car. Often, the children were left by family member who intended to take them to childcare, but forgot and went to work instead.
One father tells a story of how he used to always run errands by himself on Wednesday. One Wednesday however, the relative who usually babysits for him couldn’t come, so the dad took his 10-months-old son Will with him when he went to run errands. “Luckily” for him, the kid fell asleep just as they left the house, and remained sleeping throughout the car ride. When they got to the grocery store, the dad rushed quickly out of the car and across the parking lot, in an attempt to avoid spending time in the freezing temperatures of the Massachusetts winter. Once he got to the grocery store, he realized that he forgot the grocery list on the passenger sit of the car. As he says next:
“When I realized what else I had forgotten, I learned the true meaning of “panic attack.” I just stood there, paralyzed by a deeper fear than I have ever known. I could try to sugarcoat it by saying I was sleep-deprived and out of my normal routine—factual statements—but there was no denying another fact: I simply forgot about my son. If not for remembering the grocery list, there is a very good chance my boy would’ve been frozen to death upon my return.”
This is an example for a situation where a simple memory cue made a huge difference. If you have a kid yourself, you can implement this solution using intentional memory cues, by leaving your briefcase, phone, or wallet next to your kid when you drive with them in the car.
Some people even advocate leaving something like your left shoe, with the idea being that there’s no chance of you not noticing that you don’t have your shoe on. While this could work for some people, the problem with this is that it causes more inconvenience than leaving something like your phone or briefcase.
While this is part of what makes it an effective reminder, using it is risky, because the more inconvenient a cue is, the less likely you will be to use it every time, which makes it unreliable. The best memory cue is the one that strikes the balance between serving as an effective reminder, and being convenient enough to use consistently.
How to use cues to remember things
Cues are relatively simple to implement. You can do one of two things:
- You can set up certain things that will serve as cues- this means that you intentionally set up a certain item or event which will appear at an appropriate time and serve as a reminder. For example, you could leave your phone next to your kid when you enter the car.
- You can also decide that certain things which occur normally will serve as a cue for you- sometimes, you can take advantage of things you already encounter, and use them as a reminder of things you need to do. For example, you could make the act of opening the car door a reminder to check your pocket for your phone and wallet.
Summary and conclusions
- Our prospective memory enables us to remember actions which we need to perform in the future, such as flossing our teeth everyday.
- External memory cues can aid our prospective memory, by triggering a mental reminder of actions that we need to perform.
- External cues can often be more reliable in triggering necessary actions than internal cues, such as mental reminders that we set for ourselves.
- You can either intentionally set up certain items/events to serve as cues, or you can pick things that you already encounter naturally in your life.
- The best reminders are those that are convenient to integrate into your routine, which ensures that you will use them consistently. Even the most effective reminder is worthless if it is inconvenient enough that you don’t use it in reality.