Time management Monday: How to remember your appointments

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Those of us who use paper planners instead of electronics often get asked: how do you remember your appointments without a reminder dinging beforehand?

First of all, those reminders aren’t the greatest. In a recent conversation, many of my friends complained that their reminders dinged when they were in the middle of something else. By the time they were done (driving, grocery shopping, in a meeting, etc) they had already forgotten the thing they had been reminded about.

Part of the reason why they can’t remember their appointments is due to outsourcing their memory. Several examples in this excellent article on Unclutterer show that dumping everything out of your memory into apps makes your memory weaker and less efficient. And the author of that Unclutterer article discovered he had a breakdown in his planning system when he had some things on lists (which he didn’t check), some things in a calendar (which he also didn’t check), and some things in his memory (which he didn’t mentally walk through). The result, predictably, was a mess.

If you dump it and forget it, you have to rely on your system to keep that information. But, you still have to refer to your system (consult your lists frequently) or those items will remain forgotten. Without a solid system that you can rely on and check often, things will inevitably be forgotten. The alternative is to hold those items in your memory, where they could be eclipsed by more immediate action items.

I think there is a memory tipping point, which is different for everyone. You can keep a certain number of things in your memory at once, but beyond that things get lost and forgotten.

One of the fundamental principles of David Allen’s Getting Things Done method of personal productivity is that our brains can only hold so much, so it’s better to get tasks and appointments out of our heads and into a reliable system, to free our minds to think about projects and bigger-picture plans.

So we’ve determined that dinging reminders don’t always work, writing it down or putting it into an app doesn’t always work if we don’t keep reviewing them, and keeping it all in your head doesn’t work.

So the question is, how do you remember your appointments?

The answer: physically write them down in your planner, and review them often.

We’ve talked here before about how writing things down on paper helps you remember them more than typing them into an electronic device. According to a Scientific American article referred to in the article “What happened when I ditched my smartphone for a paper planner,” this is because it triggers the physical and spatial memory in your brain in a way that information on a screen can’t. This is how you can remember you have an appointment in the 5 o’clock slot on Tuesday. You might not remember what that appointment is (which is why you wrote down the details), but you can easily remember it is there.

In addition, the physical act of writing causes your brain to engage with the information by making decisions (priority, where to write the information, what exactly to write) that causes the information to be retained in your memory.

As the author who ditched his smartphone discovered when he switched from digital to paper planning, the act of writing appointments on paper and flipping through the pages increased memory of the written appointments, and he didn’t need the dinging reminders anymore.

So what do we know? Anything that causes your brain to engage with the information will help you remember it. And writing things out by hand is a great way to get your brain to engage with information. In addition, visualizing the structure of your day will help you remember when something is coming up.

Write your appointments in your planner (which helps you remember spatially), and review your planner often (which keeps you from forgetting). You’ll find you don’t have to rely on dinging reminders and beeping alarms to keep you on schedule.

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