Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images


Mastering the art of forgetting on purpose

Put down the to-do list – being deliberately forgetful could actually help you stay positive, argues Viv Groskop 

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By Viv Groskop on

I have uncovered a mind trick which has changed my life: forgetting about bad stuff. This is serious professional advice (really) and it came courtesy of Srini Pillay, executive coach and author of Tinker, Dabble, Doodle, Try: Unlock the Power of the Unfocused Mind. Pillay is known rather disturbingly as “the rock star doctor of neurocoaching” and is the sort of person who shares a platform at conferences alongside Arianna Huffington. His work uses neuroscience to predict how your brain behaves at work – and to train it to be more efficient and less annoying to you. (I am paraphrasing for personal reasons, but you get what I mean.)

One of his most useful tools is “deliberate forgetting”. Now I have found out about this, I aim to become world-class at it. “We often fear that we cannot remember things,” he writes, “yet there are also things that we cannot forget either. For example, a brief reprimand can stay on your mind all day long.” All day long? You’ve got to be kidding. I still shudder when I remember how I was told off for printing out a document in 12-point instead of 10-point ahead of an important meeting in 1997. (I am not joking.) If anyone needs to deliberately forget bad things, it is me. I am hopeless at shrugging off criticism and mistakes. I remember them not for a day or for 20 years but for ever. I frequently hold pity parties for myself in my own imagination at which I commiserate in solitude over all the stupid things I have done.

Some suggestions for things you might want to forget? A pointless critique from a work colleague

But what if I could just switch off all those memories? The trouble is, Pillay says, that as we get older, we become less good at “deliberate forgetting”: “Troublesome memories linger longer, in part because we have a general worry about our memories fading so we automatically strain to remember.” Great. So now I am getting too old to deliberately forget all the bad stuff anyway and my brain is going to try and remember it all even more. Brain, why do you do this to me?

There is a solution to this, though. You activate the “deliberate or directed forgetting” by substituting memories as quickly as you can. “As soon as the troublesome memory starts to form, turn on your favourite music or look up your favourite image,” advises Pillay. This seems to me like a good excuse to check Instagram. Or turn on Another Day Of Sun from the La La Land soundtrack (which I have almost worn out). Who would have thought this was good working practice? 

Some suggestions for things you might want to forget? A pointless critique from a work colleague. A throwaway negative remark from your boss when she was in a bad mood. One of your children saying, “Your sandals are horrible.” (Just me, that one. To be fair, they were a bit horrible.) Basically anything that is going to unsettle you or make you feel small. Or anything that does not help you progress. Deliberate forgetting is not about ignoring constructive criticism or burying your head in the sand if someone is trying to help you improve your work. It’s about staying positive in the face of mindless negativity. We could all do with help in forgetting about that. Thanks, rock-star doctor! I feel so much better now.


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