How to Remember When You Forget To

The following article has been published with kind permission from Lew Mills, PhD, MFT, a Bay Area psychotherapist working with Attention Deficit in Adults.

by Lew Mills, PhD, MFT

The most common strategy used by adults with ADHD to improve their effectiveness is to “try harder.” Though very good advice—and it is certainly offered often enough by well meaning bystanders—in the end it is hardly ever helpful. The very thing which you would need to in order to try harder is that same “effort” that eluded you in the first place.

A similar dilemma arises in an effort to try harder to remember. You can’t really be aware of the need to remember something until in fact you have already remembered it. We have problems with remembering precisely when we have forgotten our resolve to try harder to remember.

Though we like to imagine that we can remember to remember, we usually fail to do so. What we need, and what this article is aiming toward exploring, are ways to remember important things, even when we are bound to forget that we want to remember them. We need to move beyond the unreliable strategy of “trying harder.” We need a strategy which does not burden our already taxed memory for important intentions. We need something external, something outside ourselves to make our good intentions happen.

I’ve always thought that a Jiminy Cricket character, sitting on our shoulder with wise reminders, would be ideal. In reality, it would be very useful to have another person remind us of our intentions and hold us accountable for their execution. This is indeed the premise of ADHD coaching.

But if a coach is with us only a limited amount of the time, how do we get those helpful reminders during the ongoing bustle of life. Consider that the ideal moment for a little “Jiminy Cricket talk” is just as Honest John is beckoning us to go and join the circus. And the message has to be clear enough that it overwhelms the temptations that would distract us from hearing it. Ideally, this message would come from a place that requires no thought, no consideration of the options, no hesitation. It should be an unambiguous, unarguable habit. It should not burden the already overwhelmed “executive functions” of the mind that make judgment calls and decisions.

To explain how this might work, I want to make an analogy with a manufacturing process. At any point in a process, a person might make a mistake. In designing a manufacturing process you would try to minimize the likelihood of these kinds of errors. One approach is to carefully train each person involved. Alternatively, each person could be more closely supervised. But a novel approach is to make the process itself more error proof. What if you could build into the process ways that would make it immediately obvious when a mistake was about to be made? Better yet, what if something in the process explained itself in terms of what should be done? What if instead of a complex set of behaviors to remember, you had only a few simple habits to remember which would automatically connect you to the appropriate behavior?

As an example, imagine the case where widgets keep getting in the gadget drawer and vice versa. You could train people to more accurately distinguish the two, admonish them to be more careful, and frequently monitor that they were doing it properly.

But an alternative would be to make the gadgets and widgets themselves “tell you” where they belong. Perhaps you could color them: make widgets blue and gadgets red. Then color the widgets drawer blue and the gadgets drawer red. Now the task can be done flawlessly without much thought. Just put things in the drawer of the same color. Not only is the process less prone to error, it takes much less effort to learn or remember.

I don’t have a comprehensive list of clever remedies based on this principle. I just want to share this idea, and then let you come up with the plan that works for you. Once you build your own systems, they can help direct you toward the effectiveness you want.

A calendar or “to do” list is a strategy like this that you are already familiar with. As you choose your activities for the day, you rely on the habit of consulting the calendar/list. That is so much easier than remembering tasks in your head that you already do it (or know that you should!).

Another strategy is to build habits around specific locations, like having a specific place for your keys, probably by the front door. Then as you walk out the door, you are automatically reminded of the keys. Having a very specific and exclusive place for bills that need to be paid is another good strategy. Don’t abuse it by putting other important things there in the hopes you will remember them too. You will dilute the significance of your “bills” location. Just keep it simple and clean.

Another category of strategies involves anchoring habits to already existing patterns. If you already brush your teeth every morning, use that habit to get another important task done too. Put your medications or vitamins near the sink where you brush and alter the tooth-brushing habit to include taking pills. This is much easier than trying to create a new habit. Soon you won’t be able to brush your teeth without automatically reaching for the pill case.

Rick LaVoie relates how he does a three pocket check every time he exits a building. He checks for his PDA, his cell phone and his wallet. If he has remembered to always keep them in the same pockets, this saves a lot of grief later.

Not everything is going to be amenable to these sorts of strategies. But if enough in your life can be consigned to rote in this way, it will leave more of your brain available for the things you really do need to think about. And you may remember to remember those.