"For me, an iPhone arrived, a baby arrived; in life you're constantly connected and there's always too much to do. My memory capacity has basically shrunk to zero at this point," complains working mom Katherine Milkman.

You can probably relate to her predicament. Our lives are crowded with things to remember -- gallons of milk to buy, favors to return, tasks to complete -- and our mental capacity to remember them all is limited.

You might think that reminders, either via an old-fashioned Post-It note or a cutting-edge productivity app, are the solution. But our lives are also crowded with reminders. And with so many pings and Post-Its clamoring for our attention, most of us manage to miss the memory cues we've set up for ourselves too.

Thankfully, Milkman isn't just your average overworked parent. She's also a Wharton School professor, who thoughtfully decided to solve this problem not just for herself and all the other scramble-headed professionals out there. Together with a colleague from Harvard, she succeeded in finding a cure for her forgetfulness. Just brace yourself, it sounds a little wacky at first.

Weird associations to the rescue

The basic idea is a simple, well-worn memory trick: association. We remember things better when we link them up with other images or ideas in our mind. The trouble with this technique is that we usually just link to-do items with something dull and everyday -- you see your coffee mug, you recall you like milk in your coffee and need to buy milk, and you promise yourself that you'll see that mug at the end of the day and go to the store.

But that mug is always on your desk and in the whirl of your workday you soon forget not only your reminder (the mug), but the milk too. What you need to do instead, Milkman tells Knowledge@Wharton, is set yourself a way wackier memory cue.

"You want the [cue] to be distinctive," she explains."Reminders by association need to be eye-catching, something that is going to prompt you to stop and pause - that's why it does the trick in a way that paper reminders can't."

Does your office have enough aliens and cartoon characters?

What does this look like in practice? If a boss wants her team to change their passwords more often, she could try setting up a large cardboard cutout of a cartoon character by the office entrance at regular intervals and telling her team to switch things up each time they see their cartoon friend. They'll remember every time.

Or, if you want to remind your customers to use a coupon or loyalty card, try putting a picture of an alien on it and then sticking a stuffed version of that same alien on your cash register. Again, they're sure to pause -- and to recall your deal.

Milkman's trick is very flexible. All you need to do to ensure you remember a task is to link it to something wacky, whether that's a funny image of dog playing soccer pinned to your monitor to keep you focused on picking your kid up from the game or 'report' spelled out in magnet letters on the fridge to make sure you don't leave that important document sitting on the entranceway table.

But whatever you do, don't rely on just your brain. It's unreliable. "People are overconfident in their ability to remember without tools," Milkman warns, noting that in her experiments participants routinely forgot tasks even when doing so cost them significant amounts of money.

Published on: Sep 1, 2016
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