Attention - Your Key to a Better Memory for Routine Actions

Dr. Purushothaman
October 2, 2013

Where is my key? Did I switch off the coffeemaker this morning? Have I locked the door? Do these questions sound familiar to you? At least they are old friends of mine. In the past, I have asked these and similar questions numerous times, and I have even gone back home to check whether the coffee maker was really switched off.

While serious diseases like Alzheimer will cause people to forget actions they have performed or need to perform, in most cases it is not Dementia that is at work. It is you and me operating on autopilot. We canâEUR(TM)t remember a specific action because we never committed it to memory in the first place. The problem is that our mind is mostly absent while we perform routine tasks.

Where is our mind then? Probably it has traveled to some point in the past or the future. Maybe you were already thinking about the upcoming meeting this morning while you were switching off that coffeemaker. Locking the door, switching off an appliance, and other routine tasks require little or no attention on our side, so our brain goes on working on other things. The problem however is that if we want to reliably commit something to memory, we need to give it our full attention. Our brain needs time to take in a particular event and create a distinct memory of it.
What makes matters worse is that we have plenty of old memories when we did switch off the coffee maker. Maybe you remember quite clearly that you did it yesterday, you are just not sure about today.

To improve your memory for routine tasks (where it is important that you remember them), you essentially need to keep your mind focused on what you are doing, and you need to create a distinct memory. One way to accomplish this is by reporting the action to yourself after you have performed it. So after switching off the coffee maker, look at the machine, notice that the red light really is off, and report: I have switched off the coffee maker. Also, look at your watch (or cell phone) and report the exact date and time.

In some cases, you also need to remember where you have placed an item (e.g. a key) or parked your car. Again, report the action to yourself after you have performed it: LetâEUR(TM)s say you are parking your car. After you have parked your vehicle, look around and check where you are. Then check the time and date on your watch (or cell phone) and report to yourself: It is Monday, the 15th, 10:02 am. I parked the car on the E-deck next to the soft-drink billboard.

It may sound a bit weird, but it is a powerful way to improve your memory for routine actions and their result. I suggest you give it a try. It is much better than having to worry about something for the whole morning or having to go on a search for your car when you are already late for your date.

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