Memory Cues: How to Set Yourself Up to Remember

Benefits of Memory Cues


Memory cues are objects or events that help trigger an action or a memory of that action. Memory cues can either be things that we set up intentionally in advance, as in the case of a reminder on our phone, or they can be unintentional, as in the case of seeing a product at the store which reminds us of something that we forgot to add to our shopping list.

Memory cues are a useful tool, that can be implemented in a wide variety of contexts. As such, the following article will explain to you how memory cues work, give you examples of different types of cues, and show you how you can use memory cues to help you remember things better.


Types of memory cues

There are two main types of memory cues (sometimes also referred to as memory aids):

  • Internal memory cues. Internal memory cues are patterns of thinking that help trigger a specific memory. For example, mental imagery, which involves visualizing a certain scene happening, can serve as an internal reminder of an event that happened.
  • External memory cues. External memory cues are objects or events that trigger a memory that they are associated with. For example, a glass of water next to your bed is an external reminder to drink water when you wake up.

The present article focuses on the use of external memory cues, which are generally more effective and more practical than internal cues, especially when it comes to remembering tasks that we need to perform.

Note that, external memory cues are especially helpful when it comes to our prospective memory, which is a type of memory that involves remembering to perform actions in the future. This is different from our retrospective memory, which involves recalling things that we experienced in our past.


How memory cues work

When it comes to their practical uses, memory cues work by helping us with our internal intention retrieval process, which means that they remind us of intentions that we had stored in our memory. For example, if we have the general intention to take our keys with us when we leave the house in the morning each day, placing the keys on a shelf next to the door can trigger this intention and remind us to take the keys just as we are about to leave the house.

This facilitative effect is largely automatic, which means that it requires little to no conscious effort on our part, and that we can use cues in order to trigger important memories even when we’re not actively searching for them. However, in some cases, it can take us some time to connect the cue that we’re observing to the intention that it’s meant to help retrieve; when this happens, we might have the feeling that we’re forgetting something that the cue is supposed to remind us, without being certain what it is that we’re forgetting.

Finally, note that we’re not always consciously aware that a certain cue triggered our memory. For example, some song that is playing in the background might subconsciously trigger a certain memory for us, even if we didn’t notice that it’s playing.


Examples of memory cues

An example of a memory cue is a toothbrush placed next to the sink where you wash your face in the morning, which can help you remember to brush your teeth.

Below are some additional examples of 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 can 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 things easy, so that every time you look at it you remember to relax a little.


An extreme example of memory cues

While memory cues usually help with small things, they can also make a big difference, and one of the most notable examples for this is in the case of parents forgetting their kids in the car.

This sort of event is unfortunately common. A study that 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 behind by a 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 grocery shopping. “Luckily” for him, the kid fell asleep just as they left the house, and remained asleep 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 seat 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 of a situation where a simple memory cue (the grocery list), 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 behind, 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. This 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 that you use it consistently.


How to use memory cues to remember things better

Cues are relatively simple to implement. There are two main ways to go about this:

  • 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 something which occurs naturally will serve as a cue. This means that you intentionally take advantage of something that you encounter naturally or which occurs naturally in your everyday life, and use it as a reminder for something that 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

  • Memory cues are objects or events that help trigger an action or a memory of that action.
  • Memory cues work by helping us retrieve an intention from our prospective memory, which is responsible for remembering things that we need to do.
  • Memory cues can range from something such as writing down a reminder in your calendar, to checking that you have your wallet on you every time you lock the door of your house.
  • You can either intentionally set up certain items and events to serve as memory cues, or you can use things that you naturally encounter in your everyday life.
  • The best reminders are those that are convenient to integrate into your routine, which ensures that you will use them consistently, since even the most effective reminder is rendered useless if it’s inconvenient enough that you don’t use it in practice.