Have you ever put your mind to getting a simple task done, only to completely forget about it moments later? Whether it's paying a bill online, taking the trash out, or simply calling customer support about that weird thing your modem keeps doing, it seems like some things just slip right through the cracks of our memory. The good news is researchers think they’ve finally found a solution.
A new study suggests that remembering mundane, everyday tasks is all about providing the brain with distinct cues that are experienced at just the right time. In other words, your mind needs a reminder right when the task needs to happen, not when you still have time to procrastinate and, therefore, forget again.
A team from Harvard University and the University of Pennsylvania had 87 participants complete an hour-long computer task. These participants were told that they could have a dollar donated to a local food bank when they received their payment for helping in the study, but to get the dollar donated, they had to pick up a paperclip at the front desk.
This means that all participants had to do to get a free dollar donated to the food bank was remember to pick up a single paperclip after completing the hour-long test - a task that's so easy, it’s also very forgettable.
The team split the participants up into two groups when they finished computer test, and told one that there was an elephant statue on the front desk, and simply thanked the others for helping with the study.
In the end, the team found that 74 percent of the elephant group remembered to pick up their paperclips, compared to 42 percent of the other group. This suggests that the elephant statue provided a significant enough cue to jog the participants' memories.
"Our results suggest that people are more likely to follow through on their good intentions if they are reminded to follow through by noticeable cues that appear at the exact place and time in which follow-through can occur," said psychologist Todd Rogers from the Harvard Kennedy School.
Though the elephant worked well as a cue in the study, the team says that not all cues are created equal.
Basically, if the cue is ultra-boring, our minds skip over it. The researchers came to this conclusion by conducting a similar study that had participants answer a series of questions online, and were told they could have a dollar donated to a food bank, but only if they filled in a specific answer on a specific question in the survey.
During this test, the team changed the cue to see which ones worked the best. They found that the stranger the cue, the better it worked, especially over simple written reminders.
The one that worked best was of the alien from Toy Story, who popped onscreen to alert the participants of the special question and donation. So if the cue is something fun and a bit weird, your mind tends to pay more attention and will, therefore, be better equipped to remember the task.
In yet another study, the team examined 500 coffee shop patrons who were given a coupon that could be used for the next two days. Some of these coffee buyers were told that a green alien figure on the counter was there to remind them to use the coupon.
Over the next two days, the team found that 24 percent of the 'alien' group used their coupon, compared to 17 percent of those who weren’t given this reminder. This represents a 40 percent increase between the groups, thanks to that little green man.
So what’s this all mean? Well, if you want a better chance of remembering a mundane task, give yourself a distinct cue, because using a note or calendar doesn’t seem to work (at least not as well), based off of the team’s results.
Say you want to remember to take a letter with you to drop off in a mailbox on your way to work. Instead of writing a note on the fridge or setting an alarm on your phone, you might want to sit your trusty Albert Einstein bobblehead by the front door to remind you on your way out. Since you're not used to seeing Einstein nodding at you as you leave, you'll likely remember why you put it there: to grab that letter and take it with you.
For more on the team's findings, you can read their paper in Psychological Science.