I have an excellent memory. I have a terrible memory.
Well, which one is it?
This is a confusing state to be in. It can be frustrating to people around me. How is it – my father used to ask me when I was in high school – that I could remember all the lessons and readings for my tests in school, and get all the good grades, but couldn’t ever remember to do the simplest task or household chore, or to bring with me the simplest item? And of course the fact that I remember these conversations from so long ago is a bit of a case in point.
So I’d like to introduce a distinction between different kinds of memory, a technical distinction made by mnemologists, which is what I wish people who studied memory were called:
- Retrospective memory is the memory we normally think of when we hear the word “memory”: it is the memory of what was. It is the type of memory that you use to look through the past. It allows you to recollect when you first met someone, or to explain the Fundamental Theorm of Calculus after a decade. Think of it like a database, where you can make queries against it.
- Prospective memory is less famous but equally important and equally deserving of the word “memory”: it is the memory of what to do. It is the type of memory that you use to make sure all your responsibilities and goals are handled. It allows you to remember to pick up milk for your partner, or to copy-edit before publishing your blog post. Think of it like the notifications from all the annoying apps on your phone; rather than you querying it, this type of memory makes requests of you.
My retrospective memory is solid, even legendary. I remember obscure conversations from years, even decades, ago – and I still feel some type of way about them! More privately but more troublingly, I remember embarrassing things I’ve done all the way back to Kindergarten, and still feel some type of way about those too. Whatever part of my mind is responsible for this type of memory and its concomitant long-term annoyance and shame is in perfect working order – in fact, I think I’d rather like to get hit in the exact right spot in the head to take that part of my brain down a peg! (Although, to be fair to that portion of my brain, it did help quite a bit with exams when that was part of my life, and it helps a lot now with remembering essential programming facts for my job, not to mention essential linguistics facts to tell my friends.)
My prospective memory, on the other hand… Well, I never remember to bring with me the things I need, prompting my German professor in college to ask me, “Ist es der Fall, dass du niemals deinen Kuli zur Klasse bringst?” (Is it the case that you never bring your pen to class?) It was indeed; I never did.
I will even regularly forget to brush my teeth in the morning, only to remember when I smell my own breath. I could put up a post-it note to remind myself, but I would forget to look at the post-it note.
I always used to forget to take my lunchbox from one class to another in school, so my mother ended up buying extra lunchboxes, and my lost lunchboxes wandering the school became such a trope that one group of people started calling me “Lunchbox” after how many times I’d abruptly run to a previous class to get one, or claim an old one that someone found with stinking spoiled food.
And those “senior moments” my parents and grandparents would joke about when I was a kid, where you’d walk into a room and forget what you were going to do? I felt like I was having those as often as an actual senior at 16, or even at 12… Imagine how I’ll be when they actually are age appropriate!
But more importantly, for me, this gets me in all the little things of life: the chores and the errands, and all the baby steps towards achieving my goals. I may have to check my mail, because a check is coming – or even if there is no check, if your mailbox is full they eventually stop bringing the mail.
I may have to make sure that when I next travel to my hometown, I bring along a book that I have to give back to a friend there, because people don’t understand how likely I am to fail at that task, insist it’s easy and that I’ll be able to do it, and then get really frustrated – and I feel really bad – when their book that they intended to have me deliver ends up disappearing to whatever afterlife objects go to when I no longer am exactly sure where they are. It’s bad enough when my own stuff goes there.
Write Everything Down#
I can whine all day about my particularly – even clinically – bad (prospective) memory. But I also know that even people with prospective memory much better than mine can benefit from organizational techniques. That’s why civilizations throughout history have created technology to augment our memory – both prospective and retrospective.
The biggest, grandest, most impactful such technology – the one that not only changed the course of history, but allowed history as we know it to even be possible – is of course writing. Whether implemented by using reeds to stamp symbols into clay or using pens and ink to draw letters on parchment or vellum or paper, or making stamps for those same letters, or storing the symbols in a binary encoding in computer memory, writing has spanned many technological and civilizational eras to augment our brains, to help us record bits of language, whether retrospective or prospective, whether it’s about things that have happened, or things that have to happen, beyond our natural brain capacity.
There are deep social consequences to this technology we call “writing.” Since it augments both prospective and retrospective memory, and literacy is now common-place and expected, standards have risen in society. A more and more complex society – with its chores and bureaucratic paperwork – requires more and more prospective memory to handle it. The advances of writing have been almost entirely consumed by increases in societal demand for organization. More and more jobs have become abstract instead of concrete, and also have required more and more prospective memory. Since writing is available to everyone, the ability to use it well has transitioned from being an edge and an advantage to being a necessity. For many jobs and many lives, even normal or good prospective memory is no longer enough without the aid of writing.
As someone with poor prospective memory, I have personally found writing to be invaluable. But it hasn’t always come naturally to me to use it as intensely as I have to. Most organizational practices assume a certain baseline of prospective memory and focus, often higher than I naturally have. Therefore, the way I use it can be peculiar, sometimes even intrusive: It is only recently that I’ve become comfortable using my system fully in my social life, with the confidence to pause my friend if they casually say something that generates a TODO item, so I can send myself an e-mail and make sure that that TODO item actually happens. Waiting till the end of the conversation like a normal person won’t work for me, and certainly neither will “just remembering” to do the thing.
See, I need to write everything down, every little obligation I incur, and a lot of things that I feel the need to write TODO e-mails for are things that other people would naturally remember. But that’s the thing: I won’t. Or at least, I don’t trust myself to. And I trust my judgment about my memory better than my friends'. So please excuse me as I whip out my phone to send myself an e-mail – I’ve gotten very fast at it.
And because text messages cannot be marked unread, often just asking for a text message with a recommendation (of something to read or listen to) isn’t enough. I often need to write a corresponding e-mail to myself to remember to go find that text message and actually do the thing. So it’s not just “text me the article,” it’s “text me the article while I make a note of it on my phone through e-mail.”
You Need a System#
Just “use writing” (or its digital equivalents) isn’t a complete answer. And it wasn’t just a lack of confidence interrupting conversations to write things down that was holding me back before. There are a lot of other questions that need to be answered:
- Where should I write things?
- What apps should I use, if any?
- How should these notes be organized?
- What tasks are required to keep them organized that way?
As I said before, if I were to just write everything on post-it notes, I would forget to look at the post-it notes. There’s a reason that “buy a planner” is widely panned as bad ADHD advice – ADHD makes using the planner hard, and the details of how you use that planner are equally, if not more, important. There needs to be a system, and that system comes with additional chores, and since this is the system that tells you what other chores to do, those chores need to become a habit.
As everyone’s brain works differently (whether ADHD or not), people differ tremendously in what their ideal organizational systems are. For me, I am much less productive if I have a less than ideal system – the stakes are very high. But even for people who can be productive on any system, I think that tailoring their system to their brain, their lifestyle, their job and schedule and hobbies, can have amazing results.
In my next organization post, I shall go over some systems that don’t work for me, and why they don’t. Finally, I shall lay out my system, which I already have discussed some already in a previous post.