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There are many things in life where being able to do something is not necessarily an indicator that it is a good idea. As with Lycra and an overweight cyclist, it seems to me that the ability offered by most digital systems to set reminders on anything that moves is one of those things that one should think carefully about before proceeding incautiously. 

I mention it because at some point when showing our clients how they can use their existing technology in a more productive way, this question will pretty much always be asked: ‘Can I set a reminder for that?’

 This is a valid question, technologically speaking, but it reveals a much larger problem than the speaker is often aware of. The question is really this: ‘Can I set up my system to smack me in the head and force me to remember things if I’m about to forget?’

Unfortunately for the reminder aficionados, the answer to this is, ‘No. Not if you don’t engage with your system often enough’.

No consistent engagement with their system is what is causing them to miss things, which in turn is why they ask the question about reminders. Most people are simply not looking at what they have put in their systems often enough to trust that they’ll see things again before they blow up. It won’t matter how many reminders you set and where/what time they pop up on your various devices if you are not looking at all of your commitments in a systematic way.

What tends to happen is this: the reminders to do a given thing – at a particular time or on a particular date in the future – get entered into the system in current circumstances, with a certain set of expectations about how life is likely to show up somewhere further down the road. This is all well and good, but – as I’m sure you’ll have noticed – life has a tendency to show up somewhat differently than what is in the plan. Almost inevitably, the reminders are popping up in circumstances that are not propitious for the doing of the planned thing, and the reminder needs snoozing or re-setting to make it relevant again.

Most people I see are simply snoozing them, and often when I appear to coach them they are getting dozens of reminders that they don’t actually look at, but refuse to dismiss. It doesn’t take a genius level IQ to work out that once you have a hundred reminders set in your system then you actually have no reminders at all.

A slightly better behaviour is to actually manage the reminders when they appear, but I had one client confess recently that he was spending 5-10 minutes per day just re-setting his reminders.

In theory, I have no bone to pick with the reminder-setters – our suggested standard for building a system you trust is to think things through as much as it takes to get them off your mind, and put the triggers for action in places that allow you to keep them off your mind. Reminders might play a part in that.

But I see people putting reminders on everything, both on their lists and in their calendars. At a certain point there are so many of them that it would take a hand-grenade taped to the reminder to really get their attention on the to-do in question (and – as hope springs eternal in the human heart and the market for effective reminders is huge – I’m guessing there is an app developer working on that at this very moment).

You can’t navigate using reminders. Well, you can try, but they’ll chase you around and make it seem like you have more to do than you really do, and you’ll end up over administering your due dates and wasting time you could have used to actually do things. The reason that people are using reminders at all is because they are not in contact with their system enough to trust that they’ll see the reminders that they are putting in the system. Our suggestion: engage with the system you build regularly, and – at least once per week – have a look at everything you have committed yourself to. Once your system is in shape, then – just like with Lycra – a judicious use of reminders in specific circumstances will not be a crime.

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