One of the things which any writer worth his salt will tell you is that figuring out what to write is more difficult than writing that out.
And the trouble with ideas is that they can come at absolutely any time. Like the idea to write this piece came just as I was getting ready for my afternoon siesta. The first thing I did was make a note of it in a diary I maintain for smy ideas.
If I hadn’t noted down the idea, by the time I would have woken up, it would have slipped out of my mind. Of course, one has learned this through experience. In the past, when an idea has come at an inconvenient moment, I have felt confident enough to be able to remember it later, haven’t noted it down and forgotten about it totally.
In fact, why just ideas, this happens to all of us on a regular basis. There is some simple everyday chore that needs to be done. We suddenly remember about it. We don’t note it down but place it somewhere in a checklist that exists in the back of our minds. But by the end of the day we have totally forgotten about it. We only remember when we are reminded about it by our spouse, parents, siblings, colleagues etc.
In fact, sometimes it is something as simple as going from one room to another to do some chore and forgetting what one intended to do. As Robert Cialdini writes in Pre-Suasion—A Revolutionary Way to Influence and Persuade: “Before cursing your faulty powers of recollection, consider the possibility of a different (and scientifically documented) reason for the lapse: walking through doorways causes you to forget because the abrupt change in your physical surroundings redirects your attention to the new setting—and consequently from your purpose, which disrupts your memory of it.”
What is the scientifically documented reason that Cialdini talks about? We all know about the Russian scientist Ivan Pavlov. Pavlov could get dogs to salivate to the presence of something like the sound of a bell. As Cialdini writes: “To accomplish the trick, [Pavlov] just rang the bell immediately prior to introducing food to them on repeated occasions. Before long, the dogs were drooling at the sound of the bell, even in the absence of any food.”
The trouble is that this is the part of the story that gets recounted repeatedly. But there is more to this story. After many tests Pavlov wanted to share his finding with others. The trouble was whenever Pavlov invited others for a demonstration it would fail. The test would also fail when one of his assistants set up the experiment and then asked Pavlov to view the results.
Often, the dogs wouldn’t respond. This left Pavlov mystified. Nevertheless, he finally figured out what was happening. As Cialdini writes: “It finally dawned on Pavlov that he could account for both breakdowns in the same way: upon entering a new space, both he and the visitors became novel(new) stimuli that hijacked the dog’s attention, diverting it from the bell and food while directing it to the changed circumstances in the lab.” This is further linked to the fact that to survive, every animal needs to be aware of the changing surroundings around him.
Hence, “the potent effect of a rapid change in environmental circumstances on human concentration can be seen in” everyday mundane occurrences. Given this, we tend to forget the simplest of things in everyday life.
The solution to this problem is very simple. It is to maintain a checklist of things to do. But that requires some amount of discipline. Now only if being disciplined was so easy.
The column originally appeared in Bangalore Mirror on November 30, 2016