When it comes to reminders, push notifications and notifiers of other sorts, I always recommend adhering to the rule of thumb that if the reminder makes us want to stop what we are doing and change activity, we should keep it. If not, it is not helping us and we should remove it. Notifications that help us are those that really catch our attention and make us drop whatever we are doing to do something else. All other ones can be regarded as distractions.
For you who prefer listening to reading, this post is also available as an episode of the “Done!” podcast:
Change activity, but only sometimes
But when I gave a lecture in Oslo the other day, one of the participants shared a tricky dilemma that requires some pondering. She asked:
”My colleague is responsible for doing a particular task at a certain time every day. When she is not at work, I am responsible for doing it instead. She has created a reminder that we both share, and that pops up every day when the task is due. The problem is that the approximately 50 days when she is not at the office in a year occur sporadically and without me being able to predict when. This means that for 200 days every year, the reminder is nothing but a pointless distraction, but for 50 days every year, it is invaluable. How do I solve this dilemma?”
The situation is very interesting. If she keeps the reminder, she will get used to it not meaning anything most days, and hence risk ignoring it on one of those days when she is responsible for completing the task and the reminder actually is tremendously important. But if she were to remove the reminder, she would risk missing the task completely on the days when she is responsible for getting it done since nothing notified and reminded her of it.
What is the trigger?
Since the value of the reminder depends on something being a certain way (in this case, that the colleague is not at the office), we need to make it clear to ourselves what the trigger is, meaning what condition has to be met for the notification to mean something and for us to take action. If you are familiar with any programming code, you will see that this is a kind of ”if … then”-sentence.
The more we can automate the control of whether the condition checks out or not, the better and easier it is. Even if ”automate” might sound a bit high-tech, it needn’t be. As I see it, it is a matter of either allowing something else to check in with and control the condition (however, this is preferably done by some technical means, such as by software) or checking ourselves as we are doing something else anyway, so that it gets done without any extra effort, almost automatically.
There may be more solutions than this
At the lecture, we all concluded that the best solution to the participant’s dilemma was to remove the notification and add another step to her morning routine instead, which was ”If the colleague is not at the office, set a reminder to do [the task] at 2 pm.”.
She will do her morning routine anyway, and adding this additional step will not make any real difference or take any extra effort. The reminder will hereafter only be active when it is meaningful, which means she will take it seriously when it alerts her.
(If I could have it my way, I would want the calendar to automatically check if the colleague is at the office or not, and judging by the outcome, activate the reminder when it is relevant. Perhaps it could even be possible to find or create a script that looks for if the colleague is logged in to the company server, or the like. Hmm, this would require some thought.)
If you have a similar situation in your everyday life where you only have to do something if certain conditions apply, then make it clear to yourself what this condition is.
Could you write a formula, create a macro, change some setting that responds to conditions, or create a recipe in an external service (such as IFTTT or Zapier) that only triggers you to act when the time is right?
If not, can you incorporate checking whether the condition is met or not into some other routine, task or activity so that you do not have to remember to do yet another thing — in addition to all other things you have to do?
More time, more focus
If you identify what conditions need to apply in order for you to do things, and more or less automate checking these conditions, you will have one or a few fewer distractions and have fewer things competing for your attention. All in all, you will have more focus to invest in the tasks that really matter — to you and to the business you work in.
What would you have done?
Using the morning routine was the solution we commonly agreed was the best one for the woman in Oslo, but perhaps you have another clever way of solving these kinds of dilemmas? Tell me!
(But, what reminders do you need?)