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This Is the Secret to Getting Anything Done

Studies show that how you remind yourself of things you need to do is crucial.

Jasminko Ibrakovic/Shutterstock
Source: Jasminko Ibrakovic/Shutterstock

We've all had the experience of intending to do something and then forgetting when the time comes. You may leave work planning to pick up milk and realize as you pull into your driveway at home that you forgot. Or you aim to make a small repair at your home over the weekend and only remember the following week that you never got around to it.

One reason you forget to complete an action you intend to do is that you are not reminded to do it. As a result, when the opportunity arises for you to complete a goal, you just don't think of the action.

How can you learn to do better?

A great evidence-based suggestion comes from a paper by Todd Rogers and Katherine Milkman in the July 2016 issue of Psychological Science. The researchers propose that the inclusion of distinctive reminders to perform an action will increase people’s tendency to follow through on their intentions. As one test of this possibility, study participants were told that as they left the study they would see a basket of paperclips. If they picked up a paperclip and took it with them, one dollar would be donated to a food bank. Half of the participants were also shown a picture of a distinctive elephant statue and were told that the statue would be near the basket of paper clips. The other half of the participants were not told about the statue, although it was still near the basket when they left.

Overall, 74 percent of the participants who were told about the elephant statue took a paper clip—but only 42 percent of those who were not told about the statue took one. Being told about a distinctive reminder helped people achieve a goal.

This finding was replicated and extended in several other studies. One study observed a similar effect in a real-world study involving the use of a coupon at a coffee shop several days after the coupon was given out. Another study told participants completing an online survey that if they gave a particular answer to a question on the twelfth page of a survey, money would be donated to charity. Participants were told that this page of the survey would have a particular cartoon elephant on it. In that study, every page had a cartoon animal, but for some participants, only the twelfth page had a cartoon elephant. For this group, 74 percent of participants made the response that enabled the charitable donation. For another group, every page of the survey had a cartoon elephant, but only the twelfth page had the particular cartoon elephant that signaled the response for charity. Only 53 percent of participants in this group made the necessary response. The study suggests that when the cue is distinctive, it does a better job of reminding people of the action they need to take.

Another study examined whether people are aware of the benefit of these distinctive cues. In this study, participants received a 60-cent bonus if they chose a particular response to a question on page 11 of the survey. Some participants were told that there would be a picture of an elephant on the page; others were not given any reminder. As in the previous studies, participants were much more likely to make the bonus response if they had a distinctive cue.

A different group was given the option of having a picture of an elephant on the page. Almost all participants elected to have this picture placed on the page, and almost all of these participants received the bonus. A final group was asked whether they would pay three cents to place the elephant on the page—three cents being worth much less than the bonus. But only about half of the participants elected to pay the money to place the reminder—and in the end, fewer participants in this group obtained the bonus payment.

This study suggests that while reminders are very effective, many people are unaware of how effective they are. As a result, they are not willing to pay for a reminder that will help them later.

This set of studies suggests that when you have something you need to accomplish at a later time, you should place a distinctive reminder for yourself. The best reminder is something that is easy to notice so that it will be obvious at the time you need to carry out the action. It is even worth expending extra effort or money to make sure that you have the reminder in place.

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