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Three Self-Help Tricks for Busy People

Some quick and easy ways to trick your brain and manage yourself better.

Key points

  • Self-organization is not all or nothing. If getting organized seems daunting, start with some simple tricks.
  • You can buy yourself some breathing room and take some pressure off, and you can do it right away.
  • The tricks are simple brain hacks that interrupt or reprogram your routines.

If you are a busy person, it is not always easy to keep track of everything around you. You miss deadlines, forget important information, and feel yourself struggling with work and daily life. But what can you do? Self-management methods sound great, but you fear that they turn into yet another task.

First the bad news. There is no easy fix for the overall problem, and you probably will need some major changes at some point, including an organizing method and a filing system.

But there is also good news. You can get some breathing room by using simple daily tricks. Those will not solve the problem but will take some pressure off. And maybe then you will have the time for some major changes.

This post is just about a few tricks you can use right now. Maybe not all of them will work for you. But they are all simple, easy, and ready to use right away. They are based on a simple psychological fact: your conscious self is only a small part of who you are. Many of your brain functions are there simply to implement routines without bothering the conscious part of yourself. In a previous post, we discussed how that can be a problem, and how you can turn it around to improve your self-management. But today we are doing something simpler. Those automatic brain functions can work like small computer routines. So we want to hack a few of them.

First hack: Get in your own way

Whenever you need to make sure that you will do something in the near future, do not just make a mental note or add it to the already long list of things to do. Rather, ask yourself when you need to do it, and what you will be doing at that time if you follow your normal routines. Then make a small change, right now, that you cannot possibly ignore then. If you need to start tomorrow’s work by making a call or sending a message, write a reminder on a Post-it note and place it in the middle of your computer screen (but limit yourself to one note for this trick!). If you need to make sure that you grab something special from home tomorrow morning, place a large object blocking the door. If you need to make an extra stop on the way back from work, hang an object from your car’s steering wheel. And so on.

This trick works best for small tasks that need to happen at specific times. Whatever you use to remind yourself, it is important that it is in your way. Putting something by the door, or a note on the desk, does not really work. Your brain can easily filter that out while you are going about your routines. So the reminders need to break your routines.

Second hack: Notes are messages

We all know the problem. You are busy working on some task, and you suddenly remember something else, or you run across a piece of information that is important for a different task. So you think to yourself “I’ll do that later,” make a mental note, and promptly forget about it until it’s too late.

Here is the trick: always assume you will forget the small stuff. Whenever you remember something you need to do or take into account later, but cannot act on it right away, assume you will forget it. That means that you need to invest five seconds right now to make a note.

The problem is that adding a note to your tidy, prioritized to-do list, or finding a spot on your calendar, takes more than five seconds and interrupts your current work. So just scribble another Post-it note and add it to the dozen that already cover your desk? You will probably not see it again until it’s too late.

Start carrying a small notepad with you. A cheap, sturdy one. Always have it nearby. Whenever something pops into your mind at the wrong time, write it there. Treat those notes as messages to your future, forgetful self. Now stop trying to remember a gazillion things and just set reminders to check your notepad between tasks. Whenever you finish a task, or you come back from a break, check the notepad.

It is important that you treat your notepad as a disposable tool and not get invested into organizing it in any way. If you do that, note-taking will become another chore. Just draw a horizontal line across the page for each new note and scribble what you need your future self to know. As you get used to it, try to be less and less detailed (not more!). These are just messages to yourself, not polished memos. Cross out the reminders you have acted on. Rip away pages that are entirely crossed out. Throw away the notepad when you are done with it and get a new one. And, whatever you do, do not get a nice notepad! It should not make you want to write nice notes or keep it tidily organized.

Third hack: Reprogram yourself

One of the most basic programming structures you can use is conditional statements. If this, then that. Without if-then statements, computer programs would be pretty useless.

You can reprogram yourself with simple if-then structures. Those are called implementation intentions and there is a lot of research showing that they work (see references at the end of the post). And you have already used them while thinking about the first two tricks.

They work like this. You need to identify an “action trigger,” something that you know will happen in your daily routine and that you want to use as a starting point for a new activity.

If I need to remember to take something special from home tomorrow, then I will block the house door with a large object.

If I am back from a break, then I will check my notepad.

Do not overthink it. These if-then programs are not for the conscious part of yourself. They are little programs that you send to the part of yourself that implements automatic behavior. But these programs will not work if you just think about them once, as a mental note. You need to do a bit more to actually talk to the automatic part of yourself. Astonishingly, research has shown that doing that can be as simple as writing down the if-then statement three times, then underlying the action trigger and the action part. So take out your notepad (that you now have!), write that if-then statement, and underlie the two parts separately. Repeat it three times. Then cross the entire thing out! If at any point in the future you notice that you are not doing what you wanted, just repeat the writing-and-underlying exercise. All set!

This trick works best for breaking routines and even habits (If I crave a snack, I will drink a glass of water!). But do not overwhelm yourself with a dozen if-then programs all at once. This is merely a trick! Next time you catch yourself thinking “I should be doing that whenever this other thing happens,” you can simply reformulate it as an if-then message for yourself. Every time it works, you will lighten your load!


Gollwitzer, P.M. (1999), Implementation Intentions: Strong Effects of Simple Plans, American Psychologist 54, 493-503.

Achtziger, A., & Gollwitzer, P. M. (2008), Motivation and Volition in the Course of Action, in: Motivation and Action (J. & H. Heckhausen, editors), Cambridge University Press, 272-295.

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