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How to remember lists

Having trouble remembering all the things to do before the big day? Psychology lecturer Katharina Schnitzspahn explains how you can improve your ‘prospective’ memory.

People often describe the Advent season as a time of contemplation and peace. Somehow it never quite feels like that to me!

It is usually in November, when the Halloween decoration and products in the shops get replaced by Christmas items that I start realizing that the year will soon come to an end… and how many things still need to be done on the run up to Christmas! What presents should we get for our friends and family? Who do we have to write a Christmas card to? What are we going to eat and drink during the festive period? The list goes on and on and requires us to remember to do a lot of tasks.

The ability to remember planned intentions and perform them in the appropriate moment in the future is called Prospective Memory.

Studies suggest that the majority of everyday memory problems are prospective in nature. Did you ever send off an email before adding the attachment? Forget to switch your mobile phone off before the lecture? Or leave a letter on the table that you intended to post? These are all examples of Prospective Memory failures. The more tasks we have to remember to perform, the more difficult it gets.

Further, research done in the School of Psychology at the University of Aberdeen suggests that being in a strong emotional state makes it even more difficult to remember and initiate intentions. Thus, given the stress that we may experience in the Advent season caused by exams and the preparation of travelling home and celebrating Christmas, our Prospective Memory is facing a very challenging time!

Now, what can we do in order to remember all those important tasks that we need to fulfil? Research suggests that good planning can be key.

Take the time to thoroughly plan your intentions in an “If... then I will...” format. For example, “If I am at Union Square on Saturday afternoon, then I will go to Paperchase to buy wrapping paper and cards.”

It can also help to close your eyes and imagine the future situation and the action that you are planning to perform in as much detail as possible. Can you see yourself sitting at your desk this evening sending off your Amazon order to make sure that the presents arrive in time?

Of course, writing a to-do list can also be a good thing, but make sure that you check it regularly and preferably put it in a place that you cannot miss.

Sometimes it can also help to ask other people to remind us or to set alarms. But never do so during a Christmas party, as research shows that alcohol intake causes temporary Prospective Memory impairments…

Dr Katharina Schnitzspahn, Lecturer, School of Psychology