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May 7, 2018

Prospective memory and the future-heavy world

One of Lisa Cantrell’s podcasts begins with a tragic story of a young father who forgot his sleeping baby in the backseat of his car. Lisa and her guest examine the so-called the prospective memory – remembering to perform a pre-planned action. It is, in a way a memory of the future. Apparently, humans are especially bad at it, because we have not evolved to plan for the future without environmental cues.

The podcast prompted me to think about the school year that is drawing to the end. The College’s leadership group collectively monitored over 80 new projects, not including the routine procedures like part-time pool applications and contracts, class scheduling, six distinct cycles of RTP, probably about a dozen staff searches and six faculty searches, etc. Each of us also kept track of our individual projects. For example I had 52 big enough to get on my to-do list, plus who knows how many that got done without writing them down, or completed straight out of inbox. Each branch chair has a similarly sized list, and every staff member does, too. Every faculty member keeps track of a host of class-related activities, preparing for classes, grading, individual students’ strengths and weaknesses, jokes already told to one group, but not to another, etc. When I regularly taught classes, I though teaching ninety students takes up about half of my total mental capacity. Faculty also keep tasks related to many other commitments – writing, researching, serving on committees, all the external engagements. It is a complicated world with many moving parts; nothing like our ancestors had to deal with. We live in a very future-heavy world. Our brains struggle to remember things that have not happen yet.

We create artificial cues to combat the weakness of prospective memory. In Lisa’s story, her guests suggest putting a diaper on the front seat. We make lists, calendars, routines, activate reminders, create tasks, and ask other people to remember. The gimmicks work to some degree, but I can easily name a dozen things that I initiated with a full commitment to execute, and then forgot to see through. None of it is as tragic as one in the story, but nothing to be proud if either. Every one of my colleagues forgets things. Despite our best efforts to manage projects, some get away from us. “Dropping the ball” is one of the most damaging causes of our failures. Why is that?

People have invented many things to keep themselves on track. The more sophisticated they are (for example, the Gantt charts), the more time-consuming they become. There is a point of diminishing returns, a threshold, after which one can spend so much time on planning and monitoring that no time will be left for actually implementing. Therefore, we trade the risk of forgetting for more time to do things. For example, Outlook has a handy Tasks feature for some thirty years, and very few people use it: too many clicks.

What can be done other than going through panic attacks themed “Did I forget something?” Obviously, I do not have a good solution, or else I would remember everything. However, it helps to identify at-risk projects, and plant some extra reminders for them. The at-risk projects are new; they are not built into any calendars or anyone’s established job routine yet. They may not have a clear and pre-planned chain of events, and depend on the initiative of one or two people. At-risk projects develop an ambiguity about whose court the ball is in. At-risk projects usually begin as great ideas, which is why the decision to go through is taken with too much enthusiasm, without considering the bandwidth capacity.

However, the main solution is to pay attention to Lisa’s point: human beings do not have a good prospective memory capacity. Understanding out limitations is as important as understanding our abilities.

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