Stop Losing Your Stuff

Can’t find your keys—again? Cognitive experts can help you stop searching (and stressing)

Angela Haupt Updated: May 18, 2023 18:13:30 IST
Stop Losing Your Stuff

Sasha Bradford doesn’t have time to lose things. She’s a working mom with lots of hobbies, and when she misplaces her keys or leaves her purse at a restaurant, she becomes frustrated and irritable.

“It impacts me greatly,” says Bradford,35, a Washington, DC-based federal contracting officer . Bradford has attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), which, she says, makes her “prone to put things places and not remember where I put them.”

Her angst is probably familiar to anyone whose phone is MIA a dozen times a day, or who can’t find the TV remote until 10 minutes after a favourite show has begun. Such lapses might be accompanied by a nagging fear: Is something wrong with me?

Probably not, experts agree. “It’s a common occurrence and certainly annoying,” says Daniel Schacter, a professor of psychology and director of the Schacter Memory Lab at Harvard University . “Most of the time, losing things results from absent mindedness. That’s a breakdown at the interface of attention and memory, where we’re focussed on something other than the object we’re going to lose—be it the TV remote or a phone or glasses,” he says. “We’re thinking about something else, and then we never really encode the information into memory about where we’ve put the object, because we have other concerns occupying our attention.”

That’s not necessarily a bad thing, he says; we could be busy pondering something productive, such as a work task or what to make for dinner. Or there could be another innocuous factor at play: “It might be that I mindfully put something down somewhere—maybe it’s a book I’m reading—and I know I won’t be able to get back to it for a few days,” he says. “And then I can’t remember where I put it.” This is a perfectly normal example of ‘transience’, or the decreasing accessibility of memory over time.

Schacter, author of The Seven Sins of Memory: How the Mind Forgets and Remembers, has tried to train himself to keep track of where he puts his reading glasses and car keys, to the point that he sets them down only in certain places and would notice if he strayed from that routine.

Sometimes, when we’re operating on autopilot and not truly focussed on our surroundings, even the best of intentions might not suffice, Schacter says. But for the most part, he thinks people can overcome the tendency to misplace things.

Sasha Bradford has learned to adapt, in part by writing down where she has stored items and by setting specific goals. For example, she says, “Every time I travel, I typically forget or lose something. So now I think of one thing that’s really important to remember, and I focus on that.” She also coaches herself not to panic when an item goes astray.

If, like Bradford, you have ADHD, you’ve probably struggled with way-ward objects throughout your life, says Stephanie Moulton Sarkis, a psychotherapist based in Tampa who specializes in the condition. To determine whether you need help, consider the intensity, frequency and duration of the tendency to lose things: “Which means, how much is it impacting your day-to-day life?”

Sometimes, people who have ADHD report that losing things affects their work or relationships; for example, if they can’t find their keys and are late to the office or a dinner party, they could anger their coworkers or friends. In that case, Sarkis says, it’s worth being evaluated by a doctor. There are many effective medications that can “make it so your brain is able to put something back where it belongs,” she says.

Many people ask Gregory Jicha, director of clinical trials at the University of Kentucky’s Sanders-Brown Center on Aging , whether they should be worried about misplacing items. Often, it’s simply a normal part of ageing. Still, some worry it’s a harbinger of Alzheimer’s disease, Jicha says, overlooking the fact that the problem has existed since they were teens.

If you’re afraid you’ve developed a problem that could indicate cognitive decline, he suggests turning to a trusted confidant: “ Reach out to a friend or family member—and they may tell you that you’ve been losing your keys all your life,” he says. “What we’re really looking for is a change from past performance.”

A new tendency to misplace things, or an increase in severity, can indicate you need to see a doctor. More than half of patients who begin experiencing memory problems have a non-dementia cause that can be effectively treated, Jicha says, such as thyroid problems or a lack of sleep. Sometimes medication is causing the forgetfulness, or vision or hearing troubles could be behind it.

Here is some advice from experts about how to overcome a tendency to misplace things:

When you put something down, say its location. One way to be more mindful of where your things are is to verbalize where you put them, says Mareen Dennis, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Kentucky College of Medicine . “You’d say, ‘ I’m setting my mouse to the right of my computer .’ And saying that, either in your mind or out loud, focusses your attention on where you put it,” up-ping the odds that you’ll remember its location later.

Make up a song or rhyme. Turn keeping track of your items into an opportunity to be creative. You could makeup a rhyme, or sub in your own lyrics to a catchy song. “I’ve got a few people that use the tune ‘Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes,’ ” Dennis says. “That one works really well. I’ve had somebody sing, ‘My remote is sitting by the lamp. By the lamp.’ ”

Take pictures. Ever wander around the parking lot because you can’t find your car? Take a picture of your parking spot, suggests Susan Whitbourne, a professor emerita of psychological and brain sciences at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst . The same advice applies to lots of things: Photograph all those spots where you store easy-to-lose objects, and when you can’t find them, pull up the photo.

Make your belongings stand out. Dennis recommends designating a colour that you love and using that colour key ring and phone case, “so that, when you’re scanning, you’re always looking for your favourite colour.” You could also put reflective tape on the TV remote, which will make it easier to find when it inevitably vanishes.

Invest in technology. There are many gadgets designed to keep track of items: You can attach an Apple AirTag to a product you often misplace, for example, and an app will guide you to its location, Sarkis says. There are also fobs you can put in your wallet or purse that will ring like a phone when you press a button on either another fob or a phone app.

Set up a routine. Dennis coaches her patients with ADHD to make a “home for everything.” That might mean placing a basket by your front door where you drop your keys and wallet immediately upon entering your home, or designating one drawer as the scissors drawer. Then, at the end of the day, “scan the areas where you’ve been, find the items that need to be taken back home, and return them to their spots,” she says.

Take a breath. If you’ve misplaced something, “ give your brain a minute or two,” Jicha says. “[The location] will come, in the vast majority of cases.”

Be kind to yourself. It’s certainly understandable if you’re frustrated with your tendency to misplace things. But if you keep beating yourself up about it, it could “become a self-fulfilling prophecy, and you start to think that you’re losing it, that there’s something wrong with you, and you get anxious about that,” Whitbourne says. When your thoughts spiral in such a manner, you’re even less likely to be able to focus and keep track of your possessions. So, remember to give yourself a break.

From The Washington Post (10 February 2022)

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