Setting Standing Orders

Habits, Thinking Tips

I’m a believer in using checklists and notes as memory aids. But sometimes you need to be able to rely on your own memory. This is particularly true for things you want to remember every time, like:

  • Remember the car keys.
  • Pronounce that word PREF-ur-u-buul, not pruh-FUR-uh-buul.
  • Take that medicine with breakfast.

How do you program yourself to always remember something? The process is called “setting a standing order.” It’s a “standing order” to your subconscious memory banks to send you a reminder every time you need one.

Here are a few tips for making sure that your standing order is obeyed — that you do, in fact, remember at the appropriate time.

1) Tie your standing order to a concrete, physical event that you know will happen. For example, I set a standing order as follows: “When I get out of a car, I need to remember to look at the seat to make sure I didn’t leave anything inside. I will remember that when my feet hit the ground to stand up.” My feet hitting the ground is the physical event that triggers the reminder.

2) Make the order positive, not negative. If you want to cut out “ums” from your speech, give yourself the instruction to “pause silently” when you have an urge to say “um.” That’s easier — you know exactly what TO do. Otherwise, you know only what NOT to do.

3) Always act on the reminder when it occurs to you. No excuses. When I go to bed at night, I have a standing order to double check that the door is locked. I do it whether I’m tired or not, and even when I am “certain” that it “must” be locked. Unfailing repetition reinforces the standing order and makes it become second nature.

4) Only set a standing order if the action is truly important to you. If you ignore a reminder because it’s “not really important,” you may feel a little guilty for not following through. Guilt is demotivating. It will undercut your commitment to act on the next reminder you get.

5) Automatize just one standing order at a time. Adhering to the “no excuses” rule takes some willpower. Overdoing it can wear out your commitment. So, if you are actively trying to cut out “ums,” don’t also try to change how you gesture. Wait until cutting out “ums” has become second nature.

See also my Blog post, “How do you remember to notice something you can’t predict?”

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  1. Paul Richardson



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