The “oh shit, where did I put that?” is a ritual every person about town has probably performed a time or two this spring. Now that we can go outside again, it can feel harder than ever to remember all the things we need to bring with us when we venture out of our homes.
Phone, wallet, mask, headphones, ke—wait, where the hell are my keys? I swear they were in my tote bag two seconds ago… unless I put them on my desk… or maybe they’re in my other tote bag… UGH! Why can’t I remember anything?! It’s a shitty internal monologue that feels worse and worse the more often we perform it.
If you’re one more pre-Uber scramble away from tattooing reminders like “WALLET IN BLACK DENIM JACKET, DUMBASS” on yourself like the guy in Memento, drop the ink and repeat after me: “I am not the only person who gets frustrated with myself for being a little forgetful.” Instead, here’s why you might be a little more inattentive than usual, how to search without tearing your hair out, and how to work on building up routines that will keep you from melting down when you misplace your goods.
You’re running on autopilot
News flash: things are busier right now than they have been in a really long time! For a lot of us, that means we’ve got more on our minds than we did even a couple months ago—something that’s not conducive to focusing in the moment on life’s forgettable little tasks. “You can forget pretty much anything if you don't have the cue available at the moment,” Daniel Schacter, a psychology professor and author of The Seven Sins of Memory, told VICE. “When you're thinking about what am I going to say to my friend when we meet up? or what am I going to have for a meal at this restaurant? you're just heightening the chances of forgetting something like your phone charger.”
That’s why Schacter recommends making the most of the times when you are keyed into planning and acting immediately. If you know you’ll want a portable battery or a water bottle with you in the park, put them in your bag and put your bag by the door so you don’t find yourself thirsty and pissed halfway to the hangout. “Capitalize on moments where you are aware and that will help you to avoid the problem that arises when you're not thinking about your phone charger at the moment you leave me you close the door and leave.”
You’re beating yourself up over your ‘bad memory’
If you often find yourself making the same mistake over and over again—losing your credit card in a messy bag, forgetting a tampon until you’re on the verge of free-bleeding on the dance floor—it might be hard not to get angry at yourself. But it turns out, telling yourself you’re a doofus who sucks at making memories doesn’t make it easier to remember things.
“There's all these negative associations with having a poor memory that just compound the situation,” Susan Krauss Whitbourne, a psychology professor emerita at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, told VICE. “It becomes a very self-perpetuating cycle, where you're now so mad at having forgotten that you're exploding with anger, and that's going to impair your memory even more.” It’s not hard to see how taking the leap from “Oh no, I forgot something, that’s annoying” to “I am a forgetful person who sucks” can take a toll on your self-esteem, so do your best to nip it in the bud. Take a few deep breaths when you find yourself getting steamed, and try to call to mind exactly where you last saw your missing item.
Not only is this good for you in the long term, but it will be clarifying in the moment when you’re searching for something you misplaced. “You have to peel back all those layers of anger, frustration, poor self-esteem, self-stereotyping, and get down to the real basics of what you're trying to do, which is pay attention to what you're doing,” Whitbourne said.
In fact, Schacter said features of a so-called bad memory, like absentmindedness, serve other purposes, like allowing us to focus on the bigger picture instead of life’s minutia. “There are benefits to being focused on more important things than our routine,” he said. “That's why a lot of our behavior can be carried out automatically, because it frees us up to deal with more important things.”
Search with purpose, not in a panic
When we do lose something important, especially in a time crunch, it’s easy to give into the impulse to turn our living spaces into a disaster zone in order to find what we’re looking for, Tasmanian-devil style. A more systematic approach, however, is the best policy when it comes to hunting down your headphone or whatever else might have wandered away.
“The main mistake people make is to become immediately annoyed and begin to search for the missing object in a random and unsystematic fashion. It is only human to do so. But it is a grave mistake—what I call the Basic Blunder,” Michael “Professor” Solomon, author of How to Find Lost Objects, told VICE. “The first of my twelve principles [for finding objects] is ‘Don't Look for It;’ that is to say, don't look for it until you have some idea where to look and are in the proper frame of mind.”
If you’re having persistent problems remembering where you left something or whether you’ll need it on a day out, it also might not hurt to make a note for yourself—in writing or verbally. “Just say the words, ‘I put my keys on the right side of my dresser,’ use words to label what you're doing,” Whitbourne said. This might not work all of the time—especially when you live with other people who might be liable to move your goods around—but at least it could provide a roadmap and prevent a frantic search.
Another tip? Setting up a designated drop zone and sticking to it. “One thing I have found helpful for things like keys and glasses is to try to always put them down in one place in my house,” Schacter said. “That doesn’t eliminate the problem, because part of the issue is that you're unaware that you're putting down the keys or glasses when you do it. But if you try to train yourself to say ‘I'm only going to put my things in one place, I found that really reduces it quite a bit.”
This zone can also help hem in your search—something Solomon said is critical to his method of finding. “My most useful single principle is Principle Ten: the Eureka Zone. It's amazing how often the missing object is to be found literally within eighteen inches of where it's supposed to be, or where we last had it, or where it has been found in the past,” Solomon said.
Remember that you’re (probably) normal
All three experts stressed that little lapses in memory happen to everyone, even if they’re frustrating as hell. “It is an ineluctable part of the human condition to lose things,” Solomon said. “That's because: a) we have so many things, and b) the mind can only deal with or remember or process one thing at a time.”
According to Schacter, unless you’re having so much trouble finding things that it’s actively interfering with your life, you don’t need to start with any kind of self-diagnosis. “Are you actually unable to carry out your job, for example, because of forgetfulness? If the answer to that is yes, it might be something worth following up on,” he said. “But for most of us, the answer to that would be no, it's just an annoyance from time to time that can be dealt with.”
Whether you stashed your Metrocard in the pocket of your shorts just before you spilled a jar of kimchi or you accidentally chucked your keys under your dresser while you were wondering if that cool guy you met at a party thinks you’re weird, distractions happen when life gets busy. That’s inevitable. Giving yourself a hard time isn’t.
Follow Katie Way on Twitter.