Do we outsource our memory too much?

Recently I started a new course that’s rather stressful and time-consuming. To prepare for it, at work, I wrote down everything I have to do between now and my August holidays. For Unclutterer, I didn’t do anything because Jacki has a lovely Google Calendar with all our publishing dates. And I informed my husband of when I would need to work on my course so that he wouldn’t feel ignored.

All good things, right? Communication, written task lists, and using sharing technology to its fullest. The height of personal organization.

But then, at work in doing one of my monthly tasks, I left half of it undone. Plus I didn’t go look at Jacki’s calendar and almost missed a publishing date (thanks for reminding me, Jacki). The only thing that didn’t go wrong was my relationship.

I asked myself why that happened.

I began by looking at my task list at work. When I’d written down the monthly task, I wrote down only the information for the first part of the task and nothing about the second. When I relied solely on my memory, I always went through a mental checklist to make sure I wasn’t missing anything. Having written it down, I didn’t feel the need to go through that list and didn’t even remember the second part existed and it’s something I’ve been doing monthly for over 3 years!

Then I thought about the calendar and why I didn’t consult it. Lack of habit and assuming that I already knew it. I have to admit that last one is a biggie for me. I get convinced of something so much that I don’t bother checking to make sure that it is true.

This led me to wonder about using lists, relying on memory, or employing technology. Which works best and why?

With smartphones and prior to that day-planners, we have external memory devices around us all the time. No need to actually remember anything, right? But is that lazy of us? Over on Life Hacker, Thorin Klosowski did a personal experiment back in 2012 where he stopped relying on anything other than his brain to remember what he had to do and where he had to go.

To make sure he did everything he needed to, he would walk himself through the day each morning, similar to what I did for my monthly work tasks before making the mistake of half-writing them down. He found the experiment extremely helpful and although he didn’t stick to a brain-only memory prompt, he did decide to rely less on paper and technology.

Fascinated by Klosowski’s experiment, I thought I’d go see what else was out there and found an article in Wired from 2014 that looked at an experiment that tested people’s ability to remember things with or without the ability to write it down first. The results did not support note-taking as a memory tool. Those who relied solely on memory performed better.

“Okay, okay, maybe these are two isolated incidents,” I said to myself. “Let’s see what else is out there.”

Moving up to 2016, Motherboard published an article about how using technology to remember tasks makes it easier to forget them.

The author, Rachel Pick, was in a situation really close to mine — lots of commitments with different dates and requirements and no simple way to merge them all into a single list. She tried a physical planner, but just like me, she forgot to take it with her. She then tried apps, which were either too complex or too restrictive.

She finally tried Google Keep (which I use to remember restaurants in other cities, birthday gift ideas for my husband, and things that we have to take to the cottage). And she liked it, so much so that if something wasn’t written down in the app, it was like it never existed.

Being a curious person, Pick spoke with a neuroscientist to find out why this was happening. What he told her was basically what Klosowski discovered on his own — Pick was outsourcing her memory to Google Keep and was changing the way neurons were firing in her brain.

What was the neuroscientists advice? Rely more on memory and less on tools.

With so many things going on in my life, I can’t rely on just my memory, but what I have to do is start asking myself, “Are you sure that’s all? Are you missing anything?” and go through my mental checklists with paper and technology acting as prompts and light support only.

8 Comments for “Do we outsource our memory too much?”

  1. posted by Laura on

    Funny to read this. This last couple of weeks/months I’ve been doing the opposite!
    I have Autism Spectrum Disorder and as some other ASD may find as well, I tend to try to keep every little detail in my short-term memory and working memory 24/7, just in case Armageddon suddently happens. (My memory recalling things/appointments is excellent by the way and in certain areas extraordinary, but still I don’t trust myself being able to recall stuff) In general I tend to overthink everything all the time. Not practical, to say the least.
    Working with lists more often actually gives me room to breathe and to be more productive, to get stuff DONE.

  2. posted by littleblackdomicile blogger on

    Oh how timely this article is and you hit it on the head! We are working with a client now who as a young Mom has so many “systems” in place for organizing her family that she says she now can’t remember to fill everything in and her kids keep saying, “Mom-you didn’t put it on my board!” I’m sending this post to here right away. Our internal computers might be the best ones we have.-Laurel Bledsoe

  3. posted by Nancy on

    I find that just the act of writing something down seems to make it stick better in my memory. I can ‘almost’ see it on paper.

  4. posted by Gail Burlakoff on

    Sorry, but I’m still laughing at the idea of “outsourcing” memory!! Funny the way words take on meaning to some people and just seem ridiculous to others! But then–I am old. I do not have or use a “smartphone” or any digital devices to keep track of things but (fortunately!) my brain still works. I *do* have a paper calendar next to my work area and a small 2-year one in my purse, which are easy to synchronize with pen or pencil and to access wherever I am, whether there’s WiFi or not. I play games when I drive–especially on the turnpikes–keeping track of the license plates from different states (arranging them geographically in my head so that they’re easy to recall, and counting them, as well). I do the same with grocery lists: alphabetically and then by location in the store. Clearly, this works only when you’re familiar with the layout of the store. I have a little address book in my purse with addresses and phone numbers and email addresses (and a small physical Rolodex next to the phone). And I seem to do okay with this. And although I don’t rely exclusively on my brain to remember things, I do laugh at the concept of “outsourcing memory!” Thanks for the article and the chuckle 🙂

  5. posted by M. Ward on

    This is interesting. I remember learning of an ancestor who lived in the are now known as the Georgia-Florida border. He owned lots of land, properties, assets, and apparently did well by loaning money to many people. He was illiterate, although very successful, and he kept all of his accounts in his head. I can’t imagine keeping track of loans, not to mention other enterprises, properties, farms, etc. all in one’s head! I believe this was a common practice not that long ago, though.

  6. posted by Andy Chow on

    I’d rather outsource my memory and not have the clutter in my head. It works well if you outsource it to a single place.

    Most of my work is very technical and contains hundreds of details. So I write down procedures, and magically all the clutter in my mind goes away and into that document. Then I feel free to think bigger picture and not worry about whether something is forgotten.

    Also, I can take that procedure and give it to a lower-paid person, and if they make a mistake, we can trace it back to where in the procedure things broke down. This tests the system.

    That’s work. In my personal life, I find I can remember what is important just fine, and if I don’t, it’s because I don’t care about it. I still use a calendar, but an old fashioned one next to the exit door of my house. For stuff that I don’t care about, but have to do out of obligation.

  7. posted by Kim on

    I find the same as Nancy, that just by writing it in my “bullet journal” I feel freed up to remember more than what I have written down and know that it is important for me to check my “bujo” regularly to avoid forgetting the details I have placed on those pages. If I don’t review the material on a regular basis, it does seem to get misplaced. I used to have much better memory for all if my appointments and commitments but after depression and medication to help control the symptoms and missing important appointments too many times to be random, I realized that I needed support in this department in order to be more successful. It works when I have reminder beeps from my phone and keep track of my schedule. It does not work if I don’t use the schedule and get lost in my own little tiny part of the world. Great article, complete with research, shared research and checking if the research fits your personal experience. Very insightful.

  8. posted by Shady Al Aref on

    Actually I agree with the saying “Our brians were built to be factories, not warehouses”. You can keep important stuff in the factory to be used directly in product, in the process of creating new things. But keeping huge amount of stuff in your brain that are not needed at the moment, this normally slows down creativity and highly decreases productivity.

    Great ancient civilizations relied on writing and drawing to memorize and record history. You can see that on the walls of the temples, the ancient papers and books.

    Depending on your role in life and the current distractions that we see everywhere, you need to rely on physical or even digital tools to be more productive.

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