Before I head to the gym I need to remember five items: my wallet, phone, car key, iPod, and lifting gloves. Historically, my success rate in remembering all five items on the first try was approximately zero. I always ended up going back into the house to grab a forgotten item or two.  Often I would get all the way to the gym before realizing I didn't have my iPod or gloves. It was exasperating.

Apparently, remembering five items is too much for my tiny, overextended brain. I spend much of my day in a thick creative fog, watching idea fragments float past my consciousness while I try to assemble them like a puzzle. I can go so deeply into my imagination that I sometimes snap out of it in a public place, such as the mall, and literally check to see if I'm wearing pants. So remembering five different items for the gym is far beyond my practical abilities.

I considered making a list of my five necessary gym items, but I knew a list wouldn't work for me. I find that lists only work when I first make them. After a week, I stop seeing the list. It's as if I need a second list that reminds me to look at my first list. But I did come up with a solution that has worked for the past six months.

My solution is the number five itself. I simply remember that for a trip to the gym I must bring five items. If I only count four items, I know I'm missing one. At that point I just run through the list in my head and I know what else I need. It works like a charm.

The other day I was considering blogging about this little memory trick when I got an email from my brother. We're not twins, but we think so similarly that it is freaky. My brother's email asked what method I use to remember the items I need to buy at the grocery store. My brother's solution is to remember the number of items. That's enough to ensure he comes home with everything he intended to buy. He and I designed the same memory trick at about the same time. Weird.

I'm considering assigning a number to my other standard trips as well. For example, any outdoorsy trips that involve sun also require my hat, sunscreen, and sun glasses. That's three items on top of my wallet, phone, and car keys. Outdoor trips are a six.

I'm assuming your lives are equally complicated. It's a challenge to get your spouse and your kids in the car without one of you making a go-back trip to the house for a forgotten item. As a fix, what if you assigned each family member a number before everyone heads to the car? For example, maybe one kid always needs an iPod, charger, and headphones. That's three items. Your spouse might need sunglasses, phone, purse, and digital camera. That's four. As everyone is getting ready to leave, you make sure everyone knows their number: "Timmy, you're a three. Sally, you're a four."

Try it. You'll be amazed how well it works.

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Dec 27, 2012
I do the same. And I have different numbers for different activities. For the longer lists, I have a spreadsheet. On that one are lists for "going overseas", "going on a picnic", going to the beach, weekend away, camping, and running my seminars. They are priceless. And, for example, if I am going overseas, I copy the SS to my desktop and as I pack something, I delete it from the temp file. Works a treat. But the numbers for everyday activities works brilliantly. Have not asked my siblings if they do the same. Will next time I see them.
Nov 30, 2012
@Phantom - "Have you never heard of a checklist? "

Pretty sure Scott has heard of 'em - "I knew a list wouldn't work for me. I find that lists only work when I first make them"

It's not a solution if what you're suggesting has already been tried and found not to work.

You're welcome.
Nov 27, 2012
Have you never heard of a checklist? When I was a Navy fighter pilot, checklists were our life. There was one caveat: checklists do you no good unless you use them.

It was a little more important for us than for you. Whereas you would say, "Gee, kid, you didn't bring your iPhone," we would say, "AARGHHHH!" just before we died.

So it became important to not only have checklists, but to actually use them. Try this: if all of you have the same needs every time, print out copies of a checklist, and insist that everyone uses them. If you don't, then before every outing, have someone who knows what they're doing put down on a piece of pater what each person needs.

Then, make sure everyone USES the checklist. Having it does nothing for you. Using it does everything.

Once again, you're welcome.
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Nov 26, 2012
My version is equally simple: put all the crap you need when you go outside always in the same place in the house. Drop it there when you enter, pick it up there when you leave.
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Nov 25, 2012
Like someone else here noted, what you're doing is a kind of a checksum. I've been using it too, but I noticed that if I have to take an unrelated additional item with me, e.g. the trash when leaving my apartment, I might forget one of the items I'm actually supposed to take.

So be careful :)
Nov 23, 2012
In my family, we do that with the dogs. We've got eight of them in our country estate, so when I'm letting them in or out of the house, I always take a quick headcount before opening the door. Only if the count comes up short do I try to figure out which one is missing by name.
Nov 22, 2012
Speaking of memories and memorable ideas, the title is a forgettable title. It sounds like a lame but difficult what-not-to-do trick for same gender couples.

Retitle it as "Memory Hotkeys for Mammals because Mammals have Mammaries" and everyone will remember this particular memory trick.
Nov 21, 2012

Actually the missing keys is really only troublesome in these two instances:
Modern USA TSA security checkpoint. If you set off the metal detector, they put you aside for an even more invasive search. You don't want that so you go overboard in removing metal: Rings, watch, wallet, glasses, belt, shoes, jacket... you end up with your boarding pass in hand, a shirt, pants, undergarments and probably socks. If you are from a cold weather climate you may end up feeling naked at that point.
After walking away from that checkpoint and putting "everything" back on it could be really bad to forget something as unattended luggage is another security risk, so I run a check to make sure I have "everything" and find out that my typical key pocket is empty, which just adds to the already increased stress level of the security checkpoint.

The other is in crowded areas. I just got bumped by somebody, was that a pickpocket? Lets see if something is missing.... Ah, that constant and familiar weight of my keys is missing! Oh wait, I have everything else...

Though, I do not think there is any memory trick that will prevent the 3 seconds or so lost in both of cases from getting lost. With the motor memory, people just might stare at you strangely as you tap an empty pocket repeatedly, during those 3 seconds or so. Be careful with storing things in a shirt pocket, otherwise TSA might start looking for a "Legal Guardian"!
Nov 21, 2012
People with poor memory are a minority whom it isn't just acceptable to abuse, it's considered virtuous to do so. In fact, Scott, you've done it yourself in Dilbert. When I explain to someone how some task that is utterly trivial to them is simply impossible for me--like remembering someone's name after meeting them once, or for me to remember at three o'clock that an alarm went off at five minutes to three and told me to do something at three o'clock--they think I'm lying to them, to conceal some sinister or base motive.
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Nov 21, 2012
I don't have kids, so I can't comment about when the number gets up to 137. I think on the whole, if you have kids, you'll just have to accept moderate attrition. But given the stress of traveling, especially in areas where one's command of the language is lacking, I'd say the number system has saved me forgetting bags or papers about a dozen times.

Hmm... That's interesting. I certainly have the same problem in the first day or two of any trip. But then the contextual change kicks in (habits are strongly modulated by context) and I don't have a problem for the rest of the trip. But I only put my keys down at home, at work etc, they're always in my pocket between uses.

Do you put your keys down in multiple places? There's evidence from the perceptual learning literature (disclaimer: I'm about to generalize in a way that can also be labeled wild speculation) that when one is trained for a task in one part of the visual field, it stays localized (say, discriminating whether a line is tilted more or less than 45deg thousands of times) but if you train in two locations it generalizes over the entire visual field... and it doesn't even have to be the same task to cause BOTH tasks to generalize (but this isn't true for all task pairs).

The interaction between contextual cueing and habit formation/procedural memory is something we don't understand much about.. but it's been my experience that as long as I form habits in specific contexts, the downsides you mention, such as minor panics over keys, are limited.

Nov 20, 2012
I use the same trick....4 things needed to go to work. Phone, wallet, badge, keys. I just remember that there are 4 things and eventually work out what's missing.
Nov 20, 2012

The motor memory trick does help a lot. Though it has a flaw.

Personally, my keys are big, heavy and full of metal. Which is fine for day to day, but when traveling via airplane, they are best left at home.
This means during the entire time traveling, every motor inventory check fails until the trip is over. These failures can be rather disconcerting when already out of your natural element.
Nov 20, 2012
I've used this trick for years.
Number of items for the shower: 6
Number of items for my lunch: 4 (Ironically I've added extra items, but kept the same number... I might now have 10 things but only count up to 4, apparently some things do not deserve a number and somethings that is just more of the same get to share a number)

Pro Tip: Do not count out loud, leave these numbers internal only, otherwise your spouse gives you that odd look, asks if you are OK as they start to dial the psychiatric hotline.

It is comforting to know that others are using the same counting mechanism and I'm really not crazy!
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Nov 20, 2012
My personal best using the number trick is 12 items to purchase at Costco.
As I put item 3 in my cart I realized that I had walked right past item 4 to get it.

I had unconsciously assigned the number 3 to Cheerios when I prepared my count.
I passed by red pepper flakes because that was the 4th item in my count.
That wasn't true for the last several items, just for the early items up to about 4.

I normally know everything i need just by knowing the count.

But kudos to cparkburke who pointed out that it's also hashing.
When I think I have everything, I count the items to confirm.
99.5% of the time I have everything, no memory searching needed.
Nov 20, 2012
I've also been using this trick for years, especially since there were generally 7 things I needed to pocket before going to work. It also helps to have standard places for things, e.g., to take everything out of my pockets at night, before I get undressed, and place them on the bureau, then look for them there in the morning when I'm getting dressed.

Since I change & shower at the gym, all the gym-specific stuff (including shampoo and a lock with its key on a chain) goes in a gym bag.
Nov 20, 2012

[The number memory trick is especially useful for traveling situations. ]

Really. I would have thought that that was one situation where burgels observation about this system breaking down with a large number of items would apply.
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Nov 20, 2012
As a manager in a Dilbert-type workplace, I always have at least five things to do at any one time. Unless I write them down, I always forget one or two of them. It is very embarrassing to walk out of my office, get ten feet from the door, and then spin around and go back for something I forgot. It is very distressing. My employees think it is hilarious.

Back in school when my memory got a constant workout and was in its prime, I used a certain method to remember lists of items or attributes. Stupid, but it worked. Your blog recalled it to mind and I might try using it again.

I used the old ROYGBIV method; that is, the initial letter of each item made a word in a sentence. But I made each sentence from a string of obscene or vulgar words that, connected with articles and adverbs and nasty adjectives, expressed weird thoughts.

The method was good for short sprints, only. I don’t know why it worked, and maybe it says something about me, but it often proved useful.

For instance, I took Introduction to Music as an elective. The course book was filled with lists and I used the above method to memorize them all. It took about four hours to construct and memorize the obscene mnemonic sentences that contained about 300 items from the book. The campus jocks thought it would be an easy course. And it was, until the final test that was all fill-in-the-blank with most of the items I had memorized.

In short, I got every one of the questions right. It was my greatest triumph. Of course, after a week I no longer remembered all of it. I have often wonder why this method worked so well. It might be because at that stage of my life I seldom used obscenities and such thoughts stood out as shocking.
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Nov 20, 2012
You should check out the work of the magician Henry Loryane on remembering things (edit this comment if you'd like me to e-mail you a pdf). Using his really simple mnemonics systems, I can memorize a list of 20 words, in order, in about a 1 minute, the order of a shuffled deck of cards in 10 minutes or so, and a long number is a snap.

Each number 1-9 is given a sound, and then you use those sounds to formulate words for 1-99. It takes a couple hours or so of practice to get those down. Then, you can just associate any image you want with your number words, and you can remember really long lists with no problem at all. It's absolutely miraculous how well you can remember arbitrary things after a little time practicing his system.
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Nov 20, 2012
I also use this trick.
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Nov 20, 2012
I have to admit, a list works fine for me.
My important lists, badminton (12 items) and swimming (9 items) are stuck right beside my door and the ritual is to read one item, fetch it and then only read the next item. When I've arrived at the bottom of the list, I'm finished.
Remembering multiple items or changing the fetching order makes me forget things.
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