Effective Standing Orders

 Posted by on 28 January 2008 at 8:00 am  Advice, Psycho-Epistemology
Jan 282008

Usually, when a person needs to remember to do something, he gives himself a standing order associated with some trigger, e.g. “check the tire pressure and wiper fluid when changing the oil on the car.” Sometimes, however, new standing orders will not stick to well-automatized actions. Case in point:

Early last spring, I bought a well-reviewed, cheap car seat heater. I’m using it regularly this winter. Unfortunately, it remains fully operational — and so drains the car battery — if left plugged into the cigarette lighter when the car is off. Predictably, I left it plugged in a few times accidentally, despite my best efforts to remember to unplug it when turning off the car. I should just be able to add it to my standard leaving-the-car checklist, I thought. That didn’t work at all, however. A few weeks ago, I finally managed to drain my car battery. (Thankfully, I did so at a convenient time, as I was home and didn’t need to go anywhere. Paul gave me a jump.) Given the inflexibility of my teaching schedule, that’s not a consequence I could afford to risk in the future.

After that, I considered buying a “battery drain guard” (like this one), but I hate to spend $20 on a silly memory problem. So I decided to try a different solution. Instead of trying to remember to unplug the heater, I plug it in in such a way that I can’t forget. I run the rather long cord over my thigh so that it’s totally out of the way — until I try to leave the car. Then I need to unplug the heater to get out of the car smoothly. So far, I’ve found it totally reliable: it’s easy to remember to plug it in via that convoluted route and impossible to forget to unplug it.

The basic reason why this new method works whereas my old method failed is that my getting-out-of-the-car routine is very thoroughly automatized. I’m not thinking of the car seat heater; I have no immediate reason to do so. That’s not true of plugging in the car seat heater; it happens whenever I notice that I’m cold. So while I’m already thinking about it, I can easily plug it in by a slightly odd route.

So I’d put the general principle as follows: If you’re trying to automatize some new action, don’t attempt to force yourself to remember ex nihilo, but instead find some way to connect to it to your natural patterns of thought.

Notably, that’s precisely what a well-managed (i.e a GTD-type) task list does. Instead of overloading your mind with the task of remembering all that you need and want to do, you only need to automatize checking and managing your task list. For people with lots to do like me, such a task list is essential not only to productivity but also to basic peace of mind.

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