FAQ: How do you remember to notice something you can’t predict?

Habits, Thinking Tools

People often ask me how to remember to do something in the future. The answer usually is, make a plan. Then remember to check the plan. But some kinds of actions cannot be planned. 

For example, I started a humor notebook at the recommendation of comedian Judy Carter. She says, “Notice anything that is weird, scary, hard, or stupid.” Then write the incidents up in your notebook, so you can turn them into comedy.

This is great advice, but it works best if you pay attention to the weird, scary, hard, or stupid incidents at the time. If you wait until the next day, you won’t remember many details. You won’t have enough substance to create humor.

You cannot plan when weird, scary, hard, or stupid incidents will occur. You need to notice them — and the details — while they are happening. How do you do that?

This is the challenge of setting a  “standing order.” A standing order is an instruction to yourself to remember to take a particular action every time some particular thing happens. Standing orders are crucial to changing habits.

Some time ago I wrote up advice on how to set them. My main piece of advice was to tie the standing order to a concrete, physical event that you know will happen. Perceiving the physical event then triggers the reminder.

I still recommend using a physical trigger, if possible, but sometimes it seems like there is no physical trigger to use. What to do? You can use a mental trigger, if you know the exact words that will run through your mind.

I figured this out by working on my humor notebook.

One morning when I opened the kitchen wastebasket, I was shocked by a pungent aroma:

Ripe banana and garlic.

It was a weird smell. Very weird. A smell only a monkey afraid of vampires could love.

“Weird.” That’s what I said to myself. “That’s weird.” And when I heard that word, I thought, “Oh, hey, I should put this in my humor notebook.” So I did, and as I wrote it up, other funny ideas related to smells occurred to me. (I have an unusually sensitive sense of smell. This has led to a lifelong aversion to fish. Not to mention mildew.)

I noticed a number of “weird” things after starting my humor notebook. This is a word that actually occurs to me, and therefore I can set up a standing order to respond to it.

In contrast, “hard” hasn’t triggered a single entry. Over the years I’ve thought so much about how to make “hard” work easier that I don’t bother to say the words, “This is hard.” If I start feeling stuck, I immediately name something more specific, such as “I’m confused.”

I need a better word to trigger myself to notice the comedy potential of some difficult situation. I’m trying out “I hate this.” I think it would be great if I could turn situations I hate into comedy. 

You need to tie the standing order to a word, not a feeling. You can’t just tell yourself, “Notice when you find something amusing.” Or, “Notice when you feel aversion.” These are ephemeral states that we experience but don’t necessarily notice.  It takes a special act of awareness to notice the feelings, and another to put the feelings into words.

But when you put something into words, you are aware of it. You hear sounds in your mind — or maybe you even say them aloud. This creates a perceptual concrete to notice: the word.

Therefore, here is my advice for setting standing orders when there is no predictable perceptual concrete. Find the words you use in those situations.

For example, suppose you are trying to be more firsthanded. You can’t set a standing order to catch secondhandedness: it’s too abstract. But you could set a standing order to catch a specific phrase you use, such as, “Who am I to judge?” or “What will people say?” When you say those words to yourself, you can notice them, and challenge them.

Or if you are trying to lose weight, notice the words you use before you eat. Do you say, “I’m hungry”? Or do you say, “When’s dinner?” The words that regularly occur to you can trigger a reminder to yourself to respond differently.

Yes, it is easier to tie a standing order to a predictable physical event. But if there is no such event to trigger your action, find the words that you will hear going through your mind, and use them to trigger your new action.

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