Stop Forgetting to Remember!

Remembering to complete tasks that we have planned or intended to do is something that most people’s lives require every day- but despite our best efforts, nobody can keep on top of everything little thing 100% of the time!

Remembering intentions, or “remembering to remember,” is a special type of memory called prospective memory. Some examples of prospective memory tasks are:

•       Remembering to send an email or place a phone call;
•       Taking medications correctly;
•       Grabbing object X to bring along before leaving the house;
•       Stopping at the store on the way home from work to pick up milk

Some researchers think prospective memory might be the most important type of memory we have. This is because prospective memory is all about FUNCTIONALITY– using your memory to accomplish a goal, rather than just remembering information for its own sake. We usually experience memory as a “recording” of our past, but constantly storing information about our experiences for no specific reason has suspicious evolutionary value to a species. Scientists think that our memory system ultimately serves to help us prepare and plan for the future (Schacter & Addis, 2007). Successful prospective memory involves using parts of our episodic memory, and other cognitive skills such as attention, to do just that.

Prospective memory generally requires 4 steps (according to a leading theoretical model; Kliegel et al. 2002):

1.     Form the intention (e.g., I think to myself that after dinner, I will call my sister)
2.     Retain the details (e.g., when = after dinner, what = call my sister)
3.     Notice the correct circumstances (e.g., recognition that after dinner, I am supposed to do something)
4.     Perform the task (e.g., pick up the phone and dial my sister’s number)

Want to improve your prospective memory? Here are some of the important factors and some tips for success!

•       Forgetfulness isn’t an inevitable result of getting older. In fact, for some prospective memory tasks, older adults perform better than younger adults. To be fair, this finding is most robust for simple and/or highly salient tasks and age may not benefit performance on complex tasks (Ihle et al, 2012). On the other hand, some of the most critical tasks fall into the first category, including medication adherence. Research suggests that younger adults actually make more medication adherence errors than older adults!

•       Stress affects our prospective memory. It’s probably no surprise that when we are stressed out, we are more likely to forget things that need to be done. Things like interruptions to our routines, unexpected circumstances, and multitasking make prospective memory errors more likely to occur (Dismukes, 2012).

•       Form good intentions! No, I don’t mean the intention to do good (although generating good karma is never a bad thing!). I mean form strong, memorable, cue-able intentions that work for you. One technique that is relatively easy to learn and apply is called Implementation Intentions, which Wikipedia defines as “a self-regulatory strategy in the form of an ‘if-then plan’ that can lead to better goal attainment.”  This website outlines the technique nicely. Another relatively simple strategy that can be used alone or alongside implementation intentions is visualization- using sensory imagery to imagine yourself enacting the intention in vivid detail. NOTE: Both of these strategies sound simple but require a lot of practice to be truly useful, so don’t get frustrated if they don’t work perfectly right away!

•       Use your devices. Our brains can only process and store so much information at a time, and as our world arguably becomes ever more complex at an unyielding pace, technology can help take some of the pressure off of our cognitive systems. Use those iPhone/Android calendar and reminder apps, Google or Outlook calendars, etc., even if the task seems simple. If the OS-native apps don’t work for you, there are many more options out there. See the following pages to learn more:

•       12 apps to help forgetful people remember things
•       10 apps to stay on time
•       Pillboxie, a medication reminder app
•       Physical “tags” that prevent you from forgetting your keys, etc.

•       Try not to beat yourself up if you forget something! These errors are common, and most people of any age or ability level are likely to commit them daily. Getting older, experiencing medical problems or psychological difficulties, or being under a lot of stress can make us extra sensitive and more likely to attribute mistakes to these problems rather than to normal variations in our attention and memory throughout the day. If you are worried about your memory, talk to your doctor or other medical provider and ask for an evaluation.

Disclaimer: References herein to any specific commercial products, process, or service by trade name, trademark, manufacturer, or otherwise, does not necessarily constitute or imply its endorsement, recommendation, or favoring by the VA or the United States Government. The views and opinions of the author expressed herein do not necessarily state or reflect those of the VA or the United States Government, and shall not be used for advertising or product endorsement purposes.


Kliegel, M., Martin, M., McDaniel, M. A., & Einstein, G. O. (2002). Complex prospective memory and executive control of working memory: A process model. Psychologische Beiträge, 44, 303–318.

Schacter, D. L., & Addis, D. R. (2007). The cognitive neuroscience of constructive memory: remembering the past and imagining the future. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences,362(1481), 773-786.

Dismukes, R. K. (2012). Prospective memory in workplace and everyday situations. Current Directions in Psychological Science21(4), 215-220.

Ihle, A., Schnitzspahn, K., Rendell, P. G., Luong, C., & Kliegel, M. (2012). Age benefits in everyday prospective memory: The influence of personal task importance, use of reminders and everyday stress. Aging, Neuropsychology, and Cognition19(1-2), 84-101.

Wilson, E. A. H., & Park, D. (2008). Prospective memory and health behaviors: Context trumps cognition. In M. Kliegel, M. A. McDaniel, & G. O. Einstein (Eds.), Prospective memory: Cognitive, neuroscience, developmental, and applied perspectives (pp. 391–407). New York, NY: Erlbaum.

Dr. Joshua McKeever is a Postdoctoral Fellow in Rehabilitation Psychology at the Palo Alto Veteran’s Affairs Medical Center. He has several years of clinical and research experience in rehabilitation psychology/neuropsychology and currently works primarily with veterans and individuals with multiple sclerosis. Dr. McKeever received his Bachelor of Arts in Psychology and English at Bowdoin College and his Master of Science and Doctorate in Clinical Psychology from Drexel University.


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