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Your Post-it Notes Are Broken

Your Post-it Notes Are Broken


Keep forgetting to remember? Turn things around with these two simple strategies.

If you’re like most business owners, you probably juggle dozens of priorities, chores, honey-dos and other tasks in a typical day.

It’s more than any person could reasonably be expected to keep in their head. So you write a to-do list, or you use an app like Wunderlist to keep things organized. Maybe you stick a Post-it note at the corner of your screen.

But why—despite your best intentions and all that planning—do you still forget things?

A recent study in the journal Psychological Science took a look at the problem. Bottom line, your reminders aren’t memorable. To get better results, you should try “reminders through association.”

“Our results suggest that people are more likely to follow through on their good intentions if they are reminded to follow through by noticeable cues that appear at the exact place and time in which follow-through can occur,” said one of the study’s authors, psychological scientist Todd Rogers of the Harvard Kennedy School.

An Elephant Remembers, and So Can You

There’s an experiment that illustrates how this principle works.

Participants were asked to perform an hour-long task on a computer. And they were made an offer: The experiment’s organizers would donate $1 to a food bank—if the participant remembered to pick up a paper clip when they checked out and got paid.

Some of the participants were given a cue. They were told an elephant statue would be sitting on the checkout desk. That was their reminder to pick up the paper clip.

The results were stark. About 74 percent of the people who got the elephant cue picked up a paper clip. Of those who weren’t given that reminder, only 42 percent did.

Why did this work? The cue—the elephant statue—presented itself exactly where and when the participant needed to act.

Finance writer Ramit Sethi used this principle to exercise more. He started laying out his workout clothes before he went to bed. As soon as he woke up in the morning, it was a cue for him to head to the gym.

Death to the Post-it Note

Just as importantly, the elephant statue from the experiment was distinctive. It stood out compared to its surroundings.

Another experiment—this one online—made a similar offer to participants. If they answered a certain question in a certain way on a specific page in a survey, the experiment’s organizers would make a donation to a charity. The participants were even given cues, too.

But certain types of cues worked better. A picture of the aliens from “Toy Story” created a better response than simple text did.

That’s why your Post-it notes might not work as well as they used to. They’ve become part of the “background noise” of your life. Planting something unusual on your desk—a can of beans or a stuffed animal—could do a better job sticking out in your memory.

James Hart

Written by

James Hart is a freelance writer based in Kansas City.


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