Reminders without times

Many times in life, a person wants to do a thing at a different time. For this to happen, the person has to remember about this, at the different time.  We have very good systems this, as long as the time can be specified in terms of time. That is, if you can say ‘I want to do this in three days’ or ‘remind me at 2pm tomorrow’, then you can look at a calendar every day, or make alarms and electronic alerts and so on. We also have reasonable systems if the other time doesn’t have to be very specific, beyond ‘later’. One can make a to-do list, or just leave the bill in the middle of the floor.

As far as I know, we have no such excellent ways to remember things at a specific point if the point is known by some other feature, such as ‘the next time at which I’m talking to my mother’, ‘next time I visit Chicago’, or ‘when I’m in a conversation and it seems awkward’.

In general, it is hard to do things when some fact obtains. This is partly because you are unlikely to be constantly checking whether that fact obtains, especially if you have many facts to check for. You can’t just go around asking yourself ‘am I having an awkward conversation? Am I driving? Am I standing up? Am I with Michael?…’. You are of course aware of all of these things anyway, in some sense. If someone asked you whether you were just driving, you would be able to respond without checking. However this does not seem to be sufficient awareness for you to reliably do a thing that you intended to do when driving. Somehow you have to both be aware of the driving, and aware of the ‘if driving, then practice singing’ implication, at the same time, and make the connection.

I’ve thought a bit about how to improve various aspects of my life, and realized after a bit  that most of them are hindered by this problem, which is why it got my attention. It seems like I could shower faster, remember new names better, and improve my posture more, if only I noticed when I was in the correct situations to behave in the ways that I would like.

One basic problem is that you can describe a situation in many ways, so even if you ask yourself often ‘what am I doing?’, your description may not involve ‘I’m standing up’, so you won’t remember that you should adopt a good posture.

Here are some suggested solutions to this problem, in case you are interested. I don’t know if any are good, but thought I should share them, since I bothered to find them:


Reward yourself. e.g. put some candy in your pocket, and every time you pay attention to whether your conversation partner is getting a word in, you get some. Alternatively, give yourself a ‘behavioral reward’ – smile or say ‘yay’ or something. Ideally, the reward should come quickly after the behavior. As well as reinforcement, a reward that you are aware of will occasionally remind you of the desired behavior probably. e.g. when I see the pack of strawberry buttons in my bag, I remember what I have to do to get them.

Introduce a reward that you will frequently want, which can be combined with the activity. e.g. take up nicotine gum, and only chew it when you have thought about whether you are going about your current activity in a sensible manner. Always get a coffee at lunch time, then don’t sip it unless you are wearing ear plugs.

Reward yourself for even noticing the context. e.g. if you are in a conversation, and someone says their name for the first time, if you manage to say to yourself ‘hey, a name!’ then you get a prize later. Once you can do this, move up to actually taking the intended action (e.g. remembering the name).

Offer a prize to others if they notice you in the context, without doing the correct thing. e.g. give a dollar to your partner every time they see you slouching.

If you know there will be a desirable thing present at the time you should remember, then make the desirable thing contingent on remembering – e.g. if you know that at the time when you will want yourself to close your email, you will also want to look at a webcomic, allow yourself to look at the webcomic if you close your email. Hopefully at the time when you are considering whether you should look at the webcomic, you will remember that you have a great excuse to, as long as you close your email.

Count times you do the thing, or don’t do it. For instance, if you don’t want to touch your face throughout the day, a tally of the number of times you do it can help.

Make sure you don’t feel bad when you do the thing correctly, for some exogenous reason. e.g. if every time you pay extra attention to what the other party in a conversation wants to talk about, you feel guilty for not doing this naturally, you may be dissuaded from paying attention.

Social effects

Tell others that you are in favor of this thing (though I’ve also heard that committing to things publicly is actively harmful). e.g. If you tell others that you endorse thinking carefully before taking on commitments, you might feel more like the kind of person who does that, and remember to pause and evaluate the next request before agreeing to it.

Associate with people who endorse the thing. e.g. if you want to remember to speak more loudly and clearly, perhaps spend a bit of time at Toastmasters or an acting group.

Other strengthening of mental connections

Choose a more salient contextual trigger, and remember (using any of these techniques) to look for the less salient one when you see the more salient one. e.g. when you are in a lift, remember to check whether you are thinking about something pointless or good.

Visualize the connection: vividly imagine the situation that you want to do the thing in, and imagine yourself doing the thing. Put in lots of details. e.g. if you want to remember to ask an economist a particular question, next time you are talking to an economist, then think about the economists you are likely to talk to, and what economists are like in general, and the kinds of things you might be talking about with one, and the places you might be, and the kind of little cocktail sausages you might be eating, and imagine your awkward segue into this question, and asking them it, and waiting for them to answer.

Offline practice. Actually do the thing you want yourself to do, a number of times. e.g. if you want to do pushups while you wait for the microwave, then go and put something in the microwave right now and do pushups until it finishes. Then do that again, several times. (Try not to get the thing too hot).

Say out loud what you are going to do. e.g. ‘whenever I’m eating, I’m going to watch machine learning lectures’.

External reminders

Modern phone capabilities. You might be able to set it to tell you the next time you are entering the supermarket, or driving a car, etc. If not now, perhaps next time you get a phone.

Large numbers of reminders at not particularly special times. e.g. an alert which comes up on your phone or computer twenty times a day, asking if you are currently hyperventilating. I know someone who just looks through a list of possible contexts that things to remember depend on, roughly every day. e.g. Am I going to New York today? Nope. Am I going to the dentist?…

Noticeable accoutrements. e.g. if you wear a shiny bracelet, or an annoying rubber band, or an itchy sweater, you might just notice it very often. Then every time you notice it, you can say to yourself ‘am I projecting my voice right now?’. This requires you to learn the connection between seeing the shiny bling and asking the question, but that might be easier.

Sticky notes in relevant places. e.g. in your car, ‘look at the road!’.

Make the thing be at a specifiable time. e.g. set an alarm for 6pm which tells you to both eat your meal and call your mother, instead of trying to remember to call your mother whenever you happen to be eating.

Situation design

Change the situation to be one where you will more likely do the thing. If you want to remember to take a tablet with your meal, put the tablets next to the plates. If you want to remember to work out while you watch TV, put the weights in front of the TV. This kind of thing is closely related to making things easier to do, such that you can do them most of the time when you remember them, instead of mostly putting them off.

Make your routine avoid things you don’t want to happen. e.g. if you want to remember to suppress your compulsion to wash your hands, put the soap in the cupboard.


I repeat: I don’t know which of these work. I haven’t put a huge amount of time into it.

4 responses to “Reminders without times

  1. Not sure whether it’s possible to reward yourself. I liked the other parts though :)

  2. Remember the Milk lets you associate tasks with locations, and create other tags as well. This doesn’t cover all of your use cases, but it helps with many of them. (E.g. I have a list for things to do when I’m in certain cities, or when I’m able to make phone calls, and thus all I need to do is have habits of checking the correct list when I’m in that context.)

  3. I think it’s useful to divide these situations into two categories:

    Habits: Recurring behaviors that one would like to do naturally, such as good posture.

    Triggers: Doing a thing the next time a particular condition holds, such as telling Joe that Sally said “hi” next time you see Joe, or taking an umbrella to work in the morning because it’s supposed to rain that evening.

    I am quite bad at the second “trigger” type, bad enough that it has required deliberate effort to just function normally. Perhaps that puts me in a good position to explain how this can be done — I find it’s easier to explain how I do things I do deliberately than things I do naturally.

    Generally, a deliberate trigger is needed any time the desired action is not the habitual one. More triggers are needed than habits that can be formed and unformed. Luckily, a large number of triggers can be accomplished by leveraging a much smaller number of habits.

    One habit I’ve found useful is to catalog the items I have with me every time I pass through a doorway, and compare it to the items I had last time I passed through a doorway. Do I have my wallet? My keys? Etc. I spend an extra few seconds on this if the doorway separates an indoor and outdoor space. In this way, I usually have the right items with me, and rarely lose things in restaurants.

    The general pattern is that you have a mental list of non-habitual actions that need to be taken in the next day or so. You keep this list small — at most 4 or so items. And then you have a habit of consulting this list when certain conditions hold (e.g. passing through a doorway). Every time the condition holds you remember each item currently in the list and ask yourself whether it applies to the present.

    Often, it suffices to manipulate your future environment so that it will look or feel surprising. This will cause system 2 to kick in. For example, if you’d like to not turn a light off when you leave a room, it suffices to tape something fuzzy to the switch. You might think you need a sticky note explaining not to flip the switch, but actually you usually don’t need a reminder of what to do; you just need a reminder to think rather than run on autopilot. And anyway a sticky note is more easily missed. The reminder needs to be narrowly focused on the right moment and be quite salient — non-autopilot is a very limited resource.

    It’s easier to do something all the time than some of the time. That’s why packs of birth control contain placebos for days when no medication is wanted. By removing unimportant special cases in your routine, you increase the odds that your autopilot will do the right thing in the cases that matter. For example, using your turn signal even when you’re the only car on the road is not a waste of effort. It actually conserves mental effort because the habit “use turn signal when turning” is simpler than the habit “use turn signal when another car can see you turning”.

    In summary: Triggers are hard. Use habits instead. Habit forming is a complexity-limited resource, so accomplish many actions with few habits, and make the habits as simple as possible.

  4. Thanks for the post Katja – this might be really useful to people trying to recover from addictions – often there are context dependent triggers. Smart phones I thought could be a good queue for location based reminders but haven’t seen something like this out there yet?


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