I remember every minute of my first real bike ride in detail. I had a yellow bike with a big basket and a banana seat. My dad had been running beside me as I attempted to find balance on this beautiful bike for weeks, and I had the skinned knees and elbows to prove it. But this time, as we once again headed down the long, straight, flat part of Lawndale Road, when he let go -I did not. I didn’t let go into gravity, into fear, or into uncertainty. I rode that bike…until I realized I didn’t have stopping down, and I swerved onto the Conners’ lawn and landed in a heap.

I also remember the last time I rode a bike. It was in the fall, before this never ending winter started. I was in Connecticut, riding by the ocean with the sun glistening off of the waves. I had my phone in my basket, playing music while I pumped the pedals, testing my balance by taking both hands off the handlebars. I’d see just how far my center of gravity could take me, and wondering if that same center would hold during the times of strife that are part of any life well lived. (It does).

It’s fair to say I’ve ridden my bike thousands of times in between those two rides. I have some memories of those rides. One time I fell while riding down the hill on Darby Road, and my sister and my best friend Edwina looked so scared that I had to pretend I wasn’t. Another time I overestimated my endurance and spent much of a bike trip around Martha’s Vineyard walking my bike up the hills. But my strongest biking memories are the first, and the last.

That is the power of primacy and recency (also known as the serial position effect), and we can use that power to our benefit at work, in our relationships, and for ourselves. Research supports the premise that we best remember the first things we learn (the primary effect) and the last things we learn (the recency effect), while the information we remember least is what we learn in the middle. This is why we lawyers focus so intently on openings (primacy) and closings (recency). It is also why we try to call our best witnesses first and last, and it is why the party with the burden of proof gets to go last. There is power in position, and that power can be used to your benefit. Here are some ways to take advantage of the power of position.

1-Personal growth: if you want to change your life, start with changing the things you do first thing in the day, and those you do at day’s end. If you open the day by writing down your intentions, you may be more likely to remember them all day. Follow that with a workout, and your will carry the memory of that win into your daily routine. Laugh with your family on the way out the door, and that laughter will stay on your mind. And then, when you get home, end the day with a gratitude journal, or a phone free dinner, or a game with your kids. Start strong, end strong, be strong.

2-Relationship growth: do you remember your first date with your partner? I’d bet you do. Do you remember the last date? If it’s been too long, or if dates are not part of your life any longer, you’re missing out on the opportunity for growth. You can’t redo the first, but you can continue to make it a strong memory by talking about it when you go out tonight. Relive the first, recreate the last every opportunity you get. This way you’re reminding yourself of why you got together, and giving yourself things to remember the next time you’re wondering why you stay together. Relationships can be like piggy banks–and banking some memories for a rainy day will do you more good than any umbrella.

3-Work success: businesses can use primacy and recency to their benefit as well. Advertisers do this all the time. Research shows TV viewers are more likely to remember the ads they see at the end of a commercial break; and that links at the top and bottom of a website get the most clicks. Even if you aren’t an advertiser, you can use primacy and recency at work. One of the key ways I’ve seen the benefit of focusing on primacy and recency is in my work with call centers. Many businesses forget that call centers are often the first impression a customer/client/patient gets of the business. If business owners don’t invest in making the people who work in call centers happy, engaged and independent- the business will suffer. Given that those same people are also sometimes the last voice a client hears, it’s fair to say that those who work in call centers control the primacy and recency effect for the company. That’s worth some investment and some recognition.

Even if you don’t have a call center, you can profit from primacy and recency at work. Be very aware of the first impression you make on your clients, whether that be via email, phone, in person or through your website. Pay attention to the beginning and the end of each phone call or meeting. And in personal interactions at work, be present enough to capitalize on your first impression and your last word.

Skinned knees, broken chains, sore butts–if I try, there’s lots I can remember about bike rides. But the first and last? Those I won’t forget.

4 thoughts on “The Power of First and Last

  1. Love the primacy and recency theory. I think of it most often when I’m writing, but it’s good to remember that it applies to all areas of life!

  2. I remember my first cigarette swiped from my Dad’s pack of Camel’s when I was just 11 years old, chocking and coughing while hiding behind the greenhouse. I remember my last cigarette 40 + years later when I woke up 7/1/2009 with hands on hips and said “today is the first day I will be a former smoker”.

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