How to Remember Things You Have to Do
Do you sometimes forget the things you have decided to do?
This post is about remembering the things you have to do and build habits so, that they will become automatic.
Every now and then, when I want to do something regularly, but not every day, I tend to forget to do those things.
On the other hand, it seems that the hardest habits to form are the ones where you respond to an external event. The event usually happens at random intervals. For example, pause and reflect every time you go outside.
I can give you one better, pause and count to ten when you get angry.
Let’s first take a look at what kind of intervals are there for various activities and how to remember to do things.
Remembering daily tasks
These are the things that you do once a day every day. Flossing your teeth, meditating, exercising, reading.
I have found that the daily routine is the easiest to keep.
For that reason, I have a 20-minute walk on the days when I’m not running. So, my brain learns that every day is an exercise day.
Things you have to do a few times a week
Exercise is the most common activity people do a few times a week. The main problem is that people tend to rationalize that if I skip one day, I can make up for it in the next off-day, and then they never will.
Once a week or less frequently
Weekly tasks are where I keep forgetting the most.
Oh, we had this meeting on Monday? I totally forgot about it, let’s do it next Monday. As this cycle repeats itself the regular Monday meeting will be history. Same thing with calling your mother, meeting with friends, and other semi-regular activities.
And then there’s one more frequency that people tend to forget.
All the time or constantly
- Sit up straight,
- breath through the nose,
- smile more often,
- talk more softly.
These are the habits that need to be present at all times, not something we just do once a week or day. We keep forgetting to act as we have decided until we’ve internalized the behavior patterns.
But when we forget then the pattern doesn’t form.
In response to something random
All of the previous can be remembered and conditioned with memory aids and repetition. However, I have found that if I have to behave in a certain way in response to something that happens randomly throughout the day, then I am completely unprepared and fail almost all the time.
Random events are where I forget to do the new behavior, and this is where I need help the most.
For example, the other day I read about a mindfulness habit from David Cain. I wanted to try it out. Here’s what you need to do:
When you open a door, drop your train of thought outright (you can pick it up again shortly) and watch your hand grasp the doorknob. Pull the door open with purpose and patience. Feel its weight. Watch as a new scene is revealed. Feel the new air of the room you are entering. Listen to the sound of the first room give way to the sound of the new room. Feel this transition with undivided attention.
The problem is that I can’t remember to do it!
Every time I open the door, I don’t remember to do it. I will do it less frequently until I don’t do it at all.
Some of the other examples of reacting to what happens around you. Meeting people or dealing with an unexpected event (try not cursing when you hit your knee on the corner of the furniture).
We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, therefore, is not an act but a habit. ~ Aristotle
Techniques how to remember things better
I’ve compiled a list of methods that might help you remember things like new habits, daily or weekly to-do list items. This is not about what you memorize as facts, but remembering certain behaviors that you want to become your routine.
Hopefully, you’ll find something here that works for you, too.
Handwritten notes on post-it notes. You can put them almost anywhere
- On your desk,
- bathroom mirror,
- toilet seat, wall.
- Put the note on your clothes or in your slipper.
On gadgets and tech:
- the screens of your computer,
In your car:
- on the steering wheel,
- inside of the windshield or
- driver’s seat.
You can put the post-it note on the
- debit/credit card,
- on the cover of the notebook/planner when it’s closed.
My mother’s had a deteriorating memory problem. She wrote notes for herself on everything. When to take medicine. How old the food was? When were to birthdays of people important to her. What she wanted to talk about when she met you. If the post-it notes work in the case of clinical deteriorating memory problems, it will work for you.
There are many ways to keep a to-do list.
For daily tasks, I use a simple list of items that I expect to complete on any given day (in a Word document). The Word document also contains a larger list of items I want to do in the future but that do not fit in one day. You should keep the master to-do list further down the document and transfer daily or weekly tasks to the first page each morning or the evening before.
Why the Word document?
There are a ton of online tools for keeping a to-do list. I have found that the more convenient they are, the less effective they become for me. It helps me to remember things when I have to manually sort and transfer them.
You can keep your to-do list electronically using your phone. Mobile devices let you use the alarm or reminder features as you have them with you all the time.
What I have found however is that setting repeating events makes you less sensitive to that alarm and you might start to ignore them. To avoid desensitizing yourself to alarms, set even the repeating alarms manually.
Appointments and time-bound to-do items go into Google Calendar, iCal or another digital calendar. The important thing to note is to set reminders that alert you even if you are away from your computer.
I don’t think that scheduling is uncreative. I think that structure is required for creativity. ~ Twyla Tharp
Then there’s this paper calendar on the wall. I have found that it works best for daily challenges such as a 30-day challenge. The absence of the red cross on the date reminds you to take action.
Physical memory aids
If you need to bring something with you, then put it in your way so that you can’t leave without stumbling upon it. Lean your trash bag against the door, put the dental floss in front of the bathroom door. Put items in a location where you’ll trip over them.
This is probably the hardest.
Remember a new habit that you want to do automatically before you have internalized it is really tough.
As I mentioned, in the beginning, trying to do something every time you open a door doesn’t come naturally. So what are the possible reminders in these situations?
I have had the most success with wristbands. When you first start to use it, then you really notice it and remember why it’s there. The drawback is that you tend to grow accustomed to it in about two weeks.
To avoid getting used to its effect I have alternated the hand I’m wearing it on or switch hands when I notice that I have forgotten the thing I need to do.
You can also experiment with different materials, colors, and sizes.
Write a note or a mark on your hand
This is a version of the wristband tool. Making a mark on your hand with a marker or writing a reminder will help you in the same way wristband would. However, you would need to remember to redraw it every time you wash your hands or take a shower.
I have experimented with the wristband and the door-mindfulness habit for a week now, and I don’t have any results with that. Now I am going to try to memorize the habit by repeating it to myself every morning and see if it sticks.
In a Nutshell: How to Remember Things Better
Remembering in more than one way. I have found that if you use a different way to remember and remind yourself the habit will stick better. Three of the most common ways are
- thinking it (with emphasis),
- saying it out loud,
- and writing it down.
If you combine all these, you have a much better chance of remembering to do something.
Write out items to be remembered over and over and over. In school when I had to memorize a poem, I just repeated it line by line and wrote it down for 3 to 5 times, and that did the trick. I still use this method to memorize really important things.
Although memorizing is not the same as building habits, it helps. You can memorize and repeat the goals and habits you want to internalize.
If it’s something you regularly do, always do it at the same time. Create a routine that you follow every day. It is much easier to do something if there’s a fixed time for it. This way you have fewer excuses to postpone or omit your activities. I meditate and review my to-do list first thing every morning. It makes it really easy to stick to the habit.
How do you internalize new habits? Share your tips and tricks in the comments below!