external memory aids

Remembering to do things

  • Remembering intentions is more difficult than remembering past events
  • It's the lack of cues to remembering that make remembering intentions so difficult
  • That's why using physical objects to cue our remembering is so common
  • To remember intentions without relying on physical reminders, it's best to concentrate on working out an event or time that will trigger your remembering. Set your mind to remember the link between the trigger and the intention, not the intention on its own.

Planning memory contains your plans and goals (such as, “I must pick up the dry-cleaning today”; “I intend to finish this project within three months”). Forgetting an appointment or a promise is one of the memory problems people get most upset about.

Why remembering to do things is so difficult

Remembering intentions is in fact much more difficult than remembering events that have happened, and the primary reason is the lack of retrieval cues. This is why, of all memory tasks, remembering to do things relies most heavily on external memory aids. Reminder notes, calendars, diaries, watch-alarms, oven-timers, leaving objects in conspicuous places — all these external aids are acting as cues to memory.

In partial compensation for the paucity of effective retrieval cues , planning memories are more easily triggered by quite marginal cues. Thus a friend of mine was reminded that her son’s friend would be spending Saturday night with them when she saw an advertisement for a movie about John F. Kennedy (the child’s father had the same initials: JFK).

Setting up effective cues

When we form an intention, we usually link it either to an event (“after we go to the swimming-pool, we’ll go to the supermarket”) or a time (“at 2pm I must ring Fred”). But these trigger eventsor times frequently fail to remind us of our intention.

This is often because the trigger is not in itself particularly distinctive. Your failure to remember to ring Fred at 2pm, for example, may be because you paid little attention to the clock reaching that time, or because there were other competing activities triggered by that same time signal.

Moreover, not all planning is linked to a trigger event or time. Quite a lot of planning simply waits upon an appropriate opportunity (“must buy some stamps sometime”). Such intentions usually need quite explicit cues. Thus, if I happened to see stamps on sale, I would probably remember my intention, but walking past, or even into, a shop that happens to sell stamps, may not be enough to trigger my memory.

On the other hand, I might keep being reminded of my intention when I am in the same context as when I originally formed the intention (when I am not in a position to carry it out!) — hence your increasing exasperation that you can never remember a particular intention when you can do anything about it.

Link the trigger and the intention

To deal with opportunistic planning, you should try to specify features of an appropriate opportunity. Thus, to remember to buy bread on the way home, you should think about what actions you need to take to buy the bread (for example, going a different route) and try to form a strong link between the trigger event and your action (“today when I get to the traffic lights I’ll turn left”).

A reminder of your intention is much less effective than being reminded of both the trigger event and the intended activity. Even being reminded of the trigger event is better than being reminded of the intention on its own.

To remind yourself to do something, focus on the trigger not the intent itself.

Don’t assume that because something is important to you, you will automatically remember it — somewhat to their surprise, researchers have found no evidence that personal importance has any effect on the likelihood of remembering to do something.

You can read more about planning memory strategies in my ebook on planning memory.

You can download a free extract (pdf) from the book below.


  • Guynn, M.J., McDaniel, M.A. & Einstein, G.O. 1998. Prospective memory: When reminders fail. Memory & Cognition, 26, 287-298.
  • Morris, P.E. 1992. Prospective memory: remembering to do things. In M.M. Gruneberg, & P. Morris (eds.) Aspects of memory. Vol.1: The practical aspects. 2nd ed. London: Routledge.

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Smartphone training helps people with serious memory impairment regain independence

April, 2012

A smartphone training program, specifically designed for those with moderate-to-severe memory impairment, was found to significantly improve day-to-day functioning in a small study.

While smartphones and other digital assistants have been found to help people with mild memory impairment, their use by those with greater impairment has been less successful. However, a training program developed at the Baycrest Centre for Geriatric Care has been using the power of implicit memory to help impaired individuals master new skills.

The study involved 10 outpatients, aged 18 to 55 (average age 44), who had moderate-to-severe memory impairment, the result of non-neurodegenerative conditions including ruptured aneurysm, stroke, tumor, epilepsy, closed-head injury, or anoxia after a heart attack. They all reported difficulty in day-to-day functioning.

Participants were trained in the basic functions of either a smartphone or another personal digital assistant (PDA) device, using an errorless training method that tapped into their preserved implicit /procedural memory. In this method, cues are progressively faded in such a way as to ensure there is enough information to prompt the correct response. The fading of the cues was based on the trainer’s observation of the patient’s behavior.

Participants were given several one-hour training sessions to learn calendaring skills such as inputting appointments and reminders. Each application was broken down into its component steps, and each step was given its own score in terms of how much support was needed. Support could either comprise a full explanation and demonstration; full explanation plus pointing to the next step; simply pointing to the next step; simply confirming a correct query; no support. The hour-long sessions occurred twice a week (with one exception, who only received one session a week). Training continued until the individual reached criterion-level performance (98% correct over a single session). On average, this took about 8 sessions, but as a general rule, those with relatively focal impairment tended to be substantially quicker than those with more extensive cognitive impairment.

After this first training phase, participants took their devices home, where they extended their use of the device through new applications mastered using the same protocol. These new tasks were carefully scaffolded to enable progressively more difficult tasks to be learned.

To assess performance, participants were given a schedule of 10 phone calls to complete over a two-week period at different times of the day. Additionally, family members kept a log of whether real-life tasks were successfully completed or not, and both participants and family members completed several questionnaires: one rating a list of common memory mistakes on a frequency-of-occurrence scale, another measuring confidence in dealing with various memory-demanding scenarios, and a third examining the participant's ability to use the device.

All 10 individuals showed improvement in day-to-day memory functioning after taking the training, and this improvement continued when the patients were followed up three to eight months later. Specifically, prospective memory (memory for future events) improved, and patient confidence in dealing with memory-demanding situations increased. Some patients also reported broadening their use of their device to include non-prospective memory tasks (e.g. entering names and/or photos of new acquaintances, or entering details of conversations).

It should be noted that these patients were some time past their injury, which was on average some 3 ½ years earlier (ranging from 10 months to over 25 years). Accordingly, they had all been through standard rehabilitation training, and already used many memory strategies. Questioning about strategy use prior to the training revealed that six participants used more memory strategies than they had before their injury, three hadn’t changed their strategy use, and one used fewer. Strategies included: calendars, lists, reminders from others, notebooks, day planner, placing items in prominent places, writing a note, relying on routines, alarms, organizing information, saying something out loud in order to remember it, mental elaboration, concentrating hard, mental retracing, computer software, spaced repetition, creating acronyms, alphabetic retrieval search.

The purpose of this small study, which built on an earlier study involving only two patients, was to demonstrate the generalizability of the training method to a larger number of individuals with moderate-to-severe memory impairment. Hopefully, it will also reassure such individuals, who tend not to use electronic memory aids, that these are a useful tool that they can, with the right training, learn to use successfully.





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