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December 29, 2009 7:39 PM   Subscribe

Help! I am incredibly absentminded.

I am forgetful and easily distracted; I constantly lose things and space out on important appointments and deadlines. While some of these problems (e.g. appointments) can be solved by being more organized and developing a rigorous system involving calendars and reminders, this won't help with everything (e.g. losing things). FWIW I have never been diagnosed with ADHD or anything of the sort.

Is there anything I can do to train my brain to become more focused, disciplined and less... well, scattered? Mental exercises? Dietary supplements? Animal sacrifices to Strictor, the god of having your shit together? Thanks in advance.
posted by anonymous to Grab Bag (22 answers total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
I forget things very easily. Things I do not (or can't) forget I write down. I keep a small calender with me and on that I put any important things (Meeting w/ Mrs. Jones @6:00pm, Dentist @2:30; Dinner w/ Sarah @7pm--pick her up!). I also keep a notebook with me most of the time and in that I keep track of anything important I need to do. Sometimes it's a to do list, sometimes if I'm really busy it's a schedule for the day/week, sometimes it's just something that I need to write down otherwise I'll forget (Jane wants socks for Christmas, FEED THE FISH, etc).

Good luck.
posted by lucy.jakobs at 7:50 PM on December 29, 2009

If my own life is any guide, you won't change yourself. You can only change your coping mechanisms. What I do is:

Write notes, as many as necessary
Leave key objects leaning against other objects in order to remind me to take care of one before using the other (say, finishing packing a lunch bag, or remembering an umbrella)
Compose short, stupid mnemonic rhymes
If notes don't seem necessary or there's no time, write THING WITH THE THING, or similar, down somewhere at least -- this will jog my memory because I have to think, "Now why the hell did I write that?"
posted by Countess Elena at 7:56 PM on December 29, 2009

What has saved me is my Blackberry. It syncs with my home and work computers, and so every time I make an appointment or think of an errand I need to run, it goes straight into my calendar or to-do list. I check it obsessively, and I use it as my "memory." I'd imagine that any reasonable smart phone could serve the same purpose.
posted by decathecting at 7:58 PM on December 29, 2009

Oh, also, unclutter your life. Get rid of enough of your stuff so that everything in your home and office can have a specific place where it lives. Keys get hung on the hook by the door, cell phone gets plugged in on the desk, corkscrew goes in the little drawer next to the stove, etc. That way, you won't have to look for things. You can even get a label-maker and label your storage spaces, if you think that will help. But make sure you're not tossing your stuff around randomly.
posted by decathecting at 8:00 PM on December 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

+1 to decathecting's "everything has a place" at home strategy. I find it's also possible to use the same strategy on my person: every pocket has a function. Keys, left front. Cell phone, right front, wallet, left rear, etc. Eventually you get a sort of peripheral kinesthetic awareness of about how heavy each of these pockets should be, and feel a little naked if you walk out the door with the balance off. Or you can do the 2-second pat every pocket to check dance, if you are OK with subtly slapping your own ass in public.
posted by dr. boludo at 8:06 PM on December 29, 2009

--Have a set place for things. The phone lives in the purse or on the charging table next to the bed; the keys and wallet live in my pants pocket or a bowl by the door.
--Reduce the number of things you have to keep track of. Again, I only carry my wallet, keys and phone; I only carry a purse in the summer when I wear lighter clothes with fewer pockets.
--Make your system, whatever it is, easy to follow. This article talks about how to survive with interruptions and how to do a "brain dump" -- in essence, just using a single plain notebook (like a Moleskine) or open Word document to list everything you have to keep track of. That keeps everything in the same place, which then means you only have to look in that single place.

I LOVE my iPhone. I've never been able to keep track of appointments or make notes, but having everything integrated into my phone is fantastic.
posted by Madamina at 8:09 PM on December 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

I am you. A little Moleskine notebook changed my life. I'd just make a note about the simplest stuff- 'Move files to USB', 'Call Embassy' etc etc ' and leave it in a place I'd see every day. I also instituted mental checklists- Do I have my keys, my phone, my wallet etc etc? Not that it kept me from forgetting my phone this morning, but my batting average is way, way up.

I don't do great with the 'everything has a place' idea. I either forget where the place is or I move the place or, worse, this assumes I will be diligent enough to put that thing in it's place everyday.
posted by GilloD at 8:14 PM on December 29, 2009

In terms of losing things, the most helpful thing I have taught myself to do is put things back in the exact same place. If you are one to carry a bag (pocketbook or otherwise) on a daily basis, having dividers and small pockets that I can designate for particular items like keys, cell phone, and wallet helps me track the daily items that I need but am apt to misplace. Also, devoting particular drawers or spots to items, while initially time-consuming, has saved me a lot of stress and time. I may not put everything back 100% of the time, mostly because I am a born procrastinator who is also inexplicably stubbornly lazy at times, but 85% of the time I do, and that other 15% always ends with me putting whatever it is back where it belongs and reminding myself how much energy I could have saved myself if I did that in the first place.

Perhaps you should examine your diet and sleep habits. It sounds simple I know, but low blood sugar and lack of proper, quality sleep can really hinder our mental acuity. As for strengthening actual memory skills, I bet spending time doing memory games, even incredibly simple ones, could help. It's a way to exercise and strengthen that area of the brain. Lastly, IANAD and have never tried it myself, but some say that gingko biloba helps memory. I bet you could find a number of homeopathic remedies that supposedly assist memory, which may or may not actually help, but might also give you some other ideas at well. Good luck!
posted by katemcd at 8:14 PM on December 29, 2009

The iPhone is great because it will beep to remind you of things you put in your calendar on your computer (provided you set an alarm).

When I need to take something with me out of the house, I put it IN FRONT OF THE DOOR so I would have to actually step over it in order to leave the house without it.

Set up systems like this to obviate having to remember things. Have a bag with all the stuff you need in it. Take that bag, always.

Write down everything you need to do. Put it in your Calendar app.

Never write anything down on loose paper. Write it on a spiral notebook that you never throw out. When you put it in your computer, cross it off, but don't throw it out.

It's all about systems.
posted by musofire at 8:17 PM on December 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

posted by callmejay at 9:02 PM on December 29, 2009

As an alternative to "everything in its place," or maybe a degenerate case of that depending on how you look at it: put everything in the same place. I have a basket in my bedroom and one in the living room. All my small items go in there - no putting it down on the countertops, end tables, or whatever. Keys, phone, wallet, pocket notebook, etc., all that, in the basket. On the way out the door, I can pick through them quickly to see what I want, so I don't forget anything. And if I'm missing something, there are only two places it can be.

The other thing I do, for away from home, is keep a moleskine in my pocket. At first, all I tried to do was notice every time I put something down somewhere. I made myself log it every time in the moleskine. Just writing it down made it stick in my mind. If I did run off and forget anyway, well at least I had a record of where it was. Now I'm just used to noticing, so I don't need to write it down unless I especially think I'm going to forget.
posted by ctmf at 10:15 PM on December 29, 2009

I've given the same advice here a few times. I agree with everyone saying "everything in its place", but that doesn't help you if you set stuff down somewhere else. So it's the act of setting something down that you have to train to modify.

Don't ever set something down unless you're absolutely sure you're going to be able to find it again. Generally this means that you put it in the most logical place for the item; the place that is (or should be) its home. If it's inconvenient, tough. Keep holding on to that thing until you go put it where it belongs.

It's not so much that you train to remember things as it is you train to compensate that you forget things. You are constantly arranging your present surroundings to help your future self. Keep asking yourself, "what will make it easier for me when I come looking for/at this again?" I've found my notes to myself have improved as well. It seems like I can scribble something that makes perfect sense now but is incomprehensible to me in the future, not having the benefit of the context I wrote it in. It's as if I somehow expected myself to have the exact same mental state when I read the note as when I wrote it; this would be difficult for many people much less the scatterbrained.

So for notes, take care to remember the fact that you're going to have no idea what you were thinking about when you write the note. Read it again and see if you could give it to someone else right now and have them understand it. If not, make it clearer.

Besides reminders, setting an alarm every day at the same time to review your schedule can be helpful as well.
posted by RikiTikiTavi at 10:33 PM on December 29, 2009

A phone or PDA with timed reminders for stuff would help. (I use Remember the Milk in my Gmail but that works for me because I work from home and thus am always in my Gmail. Were I out and about more, I'd use the task system in my phone.)

The other thing that makes a difference for me is a mantra of the essentials. I repeat "keys, phone, money" outside my door and PHYSICALLY CHECK for each of those items before I shut it. I tend to figure that whatever else I've forgotten, I can fix as long as I have the Modern McGyver tool set of keys, a phone and my wallet.

Lastly, I got smart about the shit I'm dumb at. I bought a wallet to which I could attach a key fob; my keys are now stuck to my purse, and my purse is now big enough to hold my phone. If I have to remember something like a packed lunch each day, I'll stick a post-it to my purse.

So basically, you need to centralise and connect your stuff. If you only have to remember three things - wallet, task list mechanism, keys - you can then rely on having those three things to get you through your day.
posted by DarlingBri at 11:25 PM on December 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

I found long ago that I can keep track of at most three things, and that I can lose any paper within a week. A PDA is great - mine was a simple thing that I created shortcuts for my routine tasks (at the time, homework per class) and developed a symbol notation for item status. I immediately wrote down anything assigned.

Now, I use a paper notebook at work for that (due to some electronics restrictions) and otherwise use online tracking so I can't lose the tracker (thank you, Google Docs!). These things can be set to remind you via email or SMS or whatever.

For misplacing and forgetting things, I've trained into myself a 'pocket check'. If I don't have keys in right pocket, cell phone in left (and, before I switched to a purse, my wallet in my back pocket), I failed pocket check. I trained in a rather regular check that runs subconsciously now. Also, now that I use a purse, to remember something I put it on my purse or in front of whatever path 'out' it is (i.e. the front door) after everyone's come in for the night.

If you're really good at losing important things, you could look into the electronic tags with a central locater. They were all the rage in the in-flight "SkyMall" magazines a couple of years ago, but I'm not sure what they're really called.

I guess a last thing that was useful for me conquering (at least partially) my absent-mindedness was checklists in a visible location.
posted by bookdragoness at 11:39 PM on December 29, 2009

+1 for meditation. Find a quite place and take a few minutes to breathe.

And go over your schedule and priorities. Its ok to cut out things.
posted by shinyshiny at 1:43 AM on December 30, 2009

nthing all recommendations for training yourself to put things in a certain place as soon as you walk in the door (no leaving one of the big three in your pocket, no wandering off and setting it down somewhere else just for a sec cos you have to pee). This needs forcing until you get used to it.

I am absentminded enough that I can be standing three steps away from my computer, look at it, think 'Oh, yeah, I wanted to book those plane tickets I keep forgetting to book', and by the time I sit down and jiggle the mouse I'm like 'I'm bored. Wonder if there's anything new on X' and then I browse randomly for four hours.

I trained myself to do the mantra 'phone-purse-keys' with Peter Falk pocket patting before I move on from wherever I am, and I usually pull my front door shut while looking at my keys that I'm holding tightly and reassuring myself tactile-ly are really in my hand. When I come in the house, the phone and purse (wallet thing) go on a tray on a table (the phones go where I go and only charge at night on the bedside table).

Before I got an android phone and Astrid (which I can't recommend highly enough) I set alarms for myself on my phone, sent myself emails and texts, and relied heavily on my butt pilot/hipster pda/notes on the back of my hand. Lists are only useful if you remember to look at them. Or even remember they exist. Astrid rocks. Anything where you can combine a to-do-list item with an alarm that tells you why it's going off, anything where you can delegate the task of remembering and make something else tell you 'do this now' is good. There's only so much you can do to get less spacey, but you can change your behaviour and what tools you use in order to compensate for it.

(also ps very important to actually do the thing you're prompted to do when the alarm goes off, immediately, or reset the alarm to go off again, otherwise it gets forgotten in nanoseconds. potentially. hypothetically.)
posted by magdalenstreetladies at 2:51 AM on December 30, 2009

When I was a kid, my mother would recite "keys, money, hanky, bus pass" before she left the house. She'd feel in her pockets for each item before leaving.

I do the same thing, but keep the things I need to leave the house with in two places. My keys, mobile phone and car keys are in a dish on the side while my coat, hat and gloves are nearby. It takes a little bit of focus every time I come in to put everything in it's right place, but it helps that the things are nearby. I associate removing my coat with hanging it up and putting the hat and gloves down inside the sleeves, and then I remove the keys, car keys and mobile and put them in the dish. It took a few weeks of doing this before it set, but now I do it without thinking.

I used to lose stuff a lot too, until I got rid of everything that I kept losing. I figured that if it wasn't important enough to me to keep track of, I didn't need it. With a couple of notable exceptions, this has worked quite well. I seemed to lose things deliberately, but unconsciously. With the stuff I needed to keep, I made sure it had somewhere to go. In the same way that I have an underwear drawer, I now have a drawer for computer bits. I make sure to focus (in exactly the same way I used to have to when I come in and take my coat off) to put something away when I'm done with it. It takes a bit of work at first, but it seems to work. Now, I know exactly where something is liable to be.
posted by Solomon at 6:20 AM on December 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

I have the same problem and I've noticed that stress exacerbates the situation. When something stresses me out, I'll forget appointments, names, routines, keys, anything. So, my suggestion, which I only partially heed myself, is to do whatever you can to reduce stress in your life. Exercise, meditate, get organized, declutter, send your kids to boarding school--simplify your life.
posted by HotPatatta at 6:38 AM on December 30, 2009

I came to suggest what Solomon's mother does: a recitation of a list of items you may not leave without. I still use it, and am amused because it is antiquated (includes a pen! how weird!). I check pockets any time I leave any place I spent any time. It's funny, because when I travel, I don't carry my house keys, so I constantly miss them. But it's been decades since I last lost a wallet.
posted by Goofyy at 7:44 AM on December 30, 2009

You say you've never been diagnosed with ADD but have you ever been tested for it? Just having a diagnosis can make a big difference for some people. If you're worried about medication, there is a lot of non-medication help a psychologist can provide (e.g. coaching and help developing coping strategies).

Even if you don't have / don't want to get tested for ADD, you might want to look at ADD books. After all, a lot of those books are aimed at coping with the symptoms, some of which include what you've described. Driven to Distraction is a commonly suggested book.
posted by chndrcks at 8:26 AM on December 30, 2009

Minimize the number of important, time-sensitive, organization-sensitive tasks you need to do. For those that are very important, enlist a helper. Help: we all need it sometimes.

Oh yeah and Adderall.
posted by kathrineg at 8:32 PM on December 30, 2009

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