Automation and prospective memory

Your memory impacts each task you perform. But there are different types of memory, requiring different types of effort.

One such influencing factor in the way we perform tasks is prospective memory. That is, remembering things we intend to do or need to do later.

  • “Must reply to Sam’s email after lunch”
  • “I should make some slides out of that report when I get the chance”
  • “There’s a typo in that ad copy”

When our prospective memory fails in the workplace, tasks are neglected. Bottlenecks and issues build. Office niggles form. Poor prospective memory, in short, can negatively impact job performance.

But there is a technological ally that can help. Automation software, when implemented in the right touchpoints, can keep our prospective memory from facing extra, unnecessary hurdles.

What is prospective memory?

Prospective memory is the name for a type of memory that involves remembering planned intentions and completing previously planned actions. It’s the skill of making a plan, retaining that plan, and retrieving it once prerequisite events have occurred.

Prospective memory can be time-based. Here, you must remember to complete an action at a particular point in time.

Or, prospective memory can be action-based. In this instance, you must remember to perform an action once a specific circumstance or event has happened.

Either way, your prospective memory is what prods at you to complete those mental ‘to-do’s that stack up throughout a day.

Another way to understand prospective memory is by understanding its opposite: retrospective memory. Retrospective memory is the memory of past experiences — people you’ve met, conversations you’ve had, tasks you’ve completed, etcetera.

So, where retrospective memory deals with past events, prospective memory is all about what you will/need to do in the future.

Prospective memory in the workplace

Situations and tasks that require prospective memory are often referred to as deferred tasks. Such tasks are common in daily life — from remembering to replace the cap of the toothpaste tube, to calling a family member.

This constant cascade of deferred tasks also spreads into our working lives. On any given day, there can be dozens of tasks that we defer for later completion. This could be to maintain focus and efficiency, or it might be because something else needs to happen before a task can be completed.

For example, remembering to reply to an email. Sometimes, we don’t reply to important emails right away. We must wait for key information to come through, or a different piece of work to reach completion first.

Prospective memory, then, is a core part of the workplace. It ties directly to time management skills, to project delivery, to team collaboration and communication. It’s what allows workers to manage their time, energy, and attention effectively.

In some cases — aviation, for example — the failure of prospective memory can have severe results. In others, it results in inefficient work or the non-completion of an important task.

Prospective memory vs interruptions

Our prospective memory fails when we forget to complete a planned task. In the workplace, this might look like unsent emails, non-completed reports, forgotten data entry, and so on.

So, what makes us forget? Studies suggest that interruptions are a core component of prospective memory failures. When our train of thought and plans gets interrupted, we don’t always remember everything once the interruption is dealt with.

For instance, in a study involving 60 college students and a flight simulator, it was found that interruptions substantially increase the risk of forgetting to come back to an intended task. In other words, they have a significant negative impact on the reliability of prospective memory.

In short, a known enemy of prospective memory is interruption or distraction. And that’s where automation comes into play.

Automation vs interruptions

So, how exactly does automation help support good prospective memory? The answer lies in two areas.

  1. Automation can minimise interruptions
  2. Automation can automatically complete some deferred tasks for you and alert you to others – massively reducing the need to rely on prospective memory at all

So, automation can reduce interruptions by dealing with common admin tasks on the fly, as and when they pop up. Automation software can complete common tasks so that you don’t have to. For example, manual data entry, document processing, ticketing — even system maintenance. These are the kinds of tasks that can frequently pop up as interruptions. With automation software taking them on, then, it means fewer interruptions to disrupt prospective memory.

You can also use automation to set up auto alerts. That is, the software can remind you of planned tasks and interactions based on triggers you outline. So, for instance, you might get an automatic reminder to complete a form once someone has replied to a request for information. (Or, better yet, have the form auto-completed and auto-sent.)

Finally, automation can reduce the impact of interruptions and prospective memory completely by taking on some of the tasks for you. You don’t need to remember to save that new invoice in your inbox to an intranet folder, because you’ve set the automation software to do it for you.

Automation and prospective memory

There are all sorts of factors that impact job performance, from the tools available, to our mental energy, from our memory, to the tasks in question, and a host of other things in between it all.

Improving performance means:

  1. Spotting these factors
  2. Finding ways to promote the beneficial
  3. Finding ways to manage the detrimental

Fortunately, automation software is often a powerful tool for doing so.

Automation is all about increased efficiency. But importantly, that’s not just in your computer use. Automation software can improve the efficiency of your mental resources — like prospective memory — to boot.

Useful links

The do’s and don’ts of automated emails

Everything wrong with manual data entry

Automation and the concept of mental energy