I Used Reminder Apps All Wrong

Apr. 29th, 2019

One of the first things I did to mitigate the negative impact of my ADHD was to use a reminder app. To this day thinking about organizational tools of this type fills me with joy and excitement. There are just so many possibilities!

However, I know not everyone shares this giddy reaction. The reason for this is that whatever other details change, the purpose of a reminder app is to pull our attention away from whatever it was on and onto the information in the app. And when put like that, who would really want to volunteer to have even more distractions in their life?

In the beginning, I wrote everything down into one app. I didn’t want to forget and everything seemed to be equally important and urgent. Plus I hadn’t yet learned that you can store information in multiple locations, according to categories. More on that later.

So the result of this was a storm of notifications, all of them demanding my attention, decision making energy, and effort. I never reached the event horizon that I’ve heard so many others did, where it becomes meaningless noise and totally ignored, but I was close. I struggled through 50+ reminders a day (the majority of which I didn’t do) for a long time.

When we live in a state of being constantly pulled away from what we are doing, or trying to do, toward our mobile devices, we are having our ability to be productive and even to enjoy life dramatically reduced. We with ADHD already know how hard it is to live with a brain that grabs onto anything distracting. Reminder apps, and any kind of notification, can make that worse and worse.

So what’s the solution? To just forget everything? No.

The secret is to find the sweet spot that balances the fewest notifications possible with the number of things we need to remember. The smaller the number of reminders we get, the more likely we are to pay attention to them. When a client tells they ignore all their reminder, I tell them to turn them all off (save the information if that’s helpful) and start building them back up one at a time.

One of the first ways I cut down on the number of reminders I had was making routines. Twenty items become one list, like magic. I still need a mechanism to remember to start on that routine, but that’s still a net decrease.

Another fantastic tool for cutting this down is the Getting Things Done (GTD) system’s Inbox and/or a bullet journal. Having a central place to capture that which we do not want to forget. I wish I’d known about this concept many years ago. Few things have brought me more peace of mind in life than having a place where everything can go, in order to be processed later. The items might be turned into reminders when they are processed, but for now they just live in this one place, not forgotten, but also not pestering me to do something about them.

Very few things actually need our attention at a specific time. It doesn’t matter if I water my plants in the morning or the afternoon as long as they get watered. However, if a client has asked me to check in with them in two hours regarding a project they are working on, that does have a very specific time. Removing the items without a specific time from the list of things that ping at us helps our focus and wastes less energy.

At the beginning of my relationship with reminders, I thought that they alone would provide me with the motivation to take action. I learned how very wrong I was. Just creating a reminder for something does not mean we will magically want to do it. While it is true that a poorly implemented organizational system can interfere with our ability to get things accomplished, I’d be very surprised to learn that anyone’s basic reminder app provides them the motivation to do the tasks by itself.

There are fun exceptions to this, such as Habitica and CARROT. These are complex apps that utilize gamification to motivate us to do things. There is also personalized reward systems, but these are extra external things. Reminders do not equal motivation, and motivation is essential to getting things done.

It’s tempting to fall into a habit of beating ourselves up when we lack the motivation to do things. “Why can’t I just do this? It’s so simple! I’m so lazy.” This strategy damages our self-esteem, our relationship with ourselves, and doesn’t always result in the thing getting done! For more on this, how to overcome it, and the “wall of awful”, see this video.

So if all the time-specific tasks have been vetted and approved, and are a reasonable number, what to do with the rest? There are infinite ways to manage them. I like lists and so does the GTD system. I’ve got anything without a deadline chilling in a task list. Things that I absolutely need to happen, I apply an external deadline too (I ask for accountability) and they go in a feed on my Trello dedicated to my deadline tasks.

Another magical aspect of GTD is the Someday/Maybe list. I also call this the Arrow in my Path. The ability to store away all those ideas that aren’t anywhere nearby in the space-time continuum yet is fantastic. It’s basically like telling my brain “Ok, you can relax, that is taken care of.” I tend to be a bit of a dragon, accumulating a horde of information and written words, but it’s better than being a hamster with all of my ideas stuffed in my cheeks and constantly falling out because I have too many to juggle.

What is your current relationship with your reminder app?