The mental cost of reminders: Is offloading your memory worth all-day interruptions?

Ever since we’ve had things to remember, we’ve set reminders. Whether it’s the ding of an app or a string tied around your finger, memory devices help offload our need to remember everything all the time.

But there’s a downside to all those reminders. When you outsource your memory to other devices, you’re not only helping relieve the stress of remembering. But also adding to it.

Let’s say you’re settling into the flow of a project when Ding! A calendar notification pops up reminding you of a meeting in 30 minutes. If you’re like most people, you can’t just go back to your task at this point. All of a sudden, your brain is in “meeting mode.”

With every workplace tool suddenly sending you reminders, this once-humble feature has shifted from a source of calm to just another interruption. So how can you see the benefits of setting reminders without getting overwhelmed?

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The good: Reminders give us mental space for more important work

Let’s start with a few of the good sides of setting reminders.

Generally, setting up reminders makes sense. We can’t remember everything. And offloading some of our obligations to a device can free up mental space for other tasks. Even better, there are lots of studies that have shown how reminders can help us save more money, keep up with medical treatments, and be more charitable.

Reminders keep our most important priorities top of mind, even if we forget them. So what’s so wrong about them?

Like most workplace tools and devices, reminders have a dark side. And we can’t ignore their negative impact on our focus, motivation, and well-being just because of their positive utility.

Cal Newport calls this the Utility Fallacy: the tendency, when evaluating the impact of technology, to confine your attention to comparing the technical features of the new technology to what it replaced.”

Everyone can agree that the digital reminders in our calendars, productivity apps, and to-do lists are better than trying to remember them ourselves. But at what cost?

The bad: We’re bombarded by reminders every day

Reminders - constant

Let’s start with the obvious argument. We’re all overwhelmed with reminders and notifications each day. Whether it’s a Slack reminder, Google calendar reminder, or a daily reminder from your productivity app of choice.

Even if the product has your best intentions in mind, the stacking of notifications is bound to screw with your focus. As Christina Gravert writes in Behavioral Scientist, in a typical day, 20-30 digital reminders vie for her attention:

“This morning my alarm sounded at 7:30. Shortly after, my Headspace app sent a notification reminding me to meditate for 10 minutes.

“When I sit down at work, my calendar pops up to remind me of a grant meeting. Before lunch, I shoot my colleague an email to remind her that we planned to meet.

“In the afternoon, I am greeted at my desk by several more email reminders about the seminar this afternoon, the planned IT works this weekend, and the meeting I need to set with my teaching assistants for next week.”

The bad: Reminders (even positive ones) cause context switching

I’m sure you’ve experienced a reminder that set you way off course. Maybe you wake up to notifications that instantly put you in a certain frame of mind.

Maybe it’s an early morning meeting you forgot to prep for? Or a meditation session you’ve missed for the past few weeks? Or even a reminder to call a parent or loved one?

Even with the best intentions, reminders force us into a different state of mind. Unfortunately, that’s usually one of guilt, stress, or overwhelm. As Gravert writes:

“[Even] well-meaning messages from my gym telling me that they ‘miss’ me during a stressful period at work make me feel bad about myself without getting me to act.”

Not only do we feel guilty about missing out on important tasks, meetings, and events. But that feeling of guilt pulls us away from what we’re currently focusing on.

In a study by UC Irvine’s Gloria Mark, she found that in general, workers average only 3 minutes on any given task before switching and about 2 minutes using any digital tool before switching.

When we interviewed hundreds of RescueTime users about how often they get interrupted at work, 98% said their focus is disrupted at least a few times a day by reminders, notifications, and coworkers.

Dr. David Meyer sums up the consequences of our constantly distracted state best:

“Even brief mental blocks created by shifting between tasks can cost as much as 40 percent of someone’s productive time.”

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The bad: Good reminders lose their influence quickly

Reminders - IOS-min

We’re not just overwhelmed and distracted by reminders. But the sheer number of them means we’re more likely to miss the ones we do want to pay attention to.

When you receive a reminder too often or at the ‘wrong’ time, you’re more likely to ignore or unsubscribe. Even if it’s something you might otherwise genuinely want to know about.

In one study looking at the impact of email reminders on charity donations, researchers found that the positive impact of the reminders (more donations) was outweighed by the negative (more people who have historically donated unsubscribing). As the researchers wrote:

“We estimated that when factoring in future donations, over the course of a donor’s lifetime, the reminder reduced the total gains made by the solicitation by one-third.”

Think about this in your own life. Let’s say you have a reminder to do a task you’re not particularly fond of. Maybe it’s putting together a certain report, clean out your inbox, or get up and stretch during the workday. The first few times you get this reminder it might help. But over time you become numb to it.

Reminders that show up in the same place, at the same time, in the same way, become cognitive blindspots and we swipe them away without even looking.

The bad: Reminders are big business for app manufacturers

Lastly, app developers don’t design their default reminder settings with your best interests in mind.

The goal of most tech companies is to increase their daily active users. In other words, they want you to use their product, app, or tool more often and more regularly. And one of the most time-tested ways to do this is through reminders and notifications.

In his book, Hooked: How to build habit-forming products, behavioral designer Nir Eyal explains the four-step process for how modern tech companies use reminders to turn product use into habits.

  • Trigger: You receive a ping, ding, or reminder to check something (whether it’s an app, your calendar, or an email).
  • Action: You do the action you were reminded to do.
  • Reward: You get what you came for (using the app, getting reminded to go to a meeting, etc…)
  • Investment: You put something back into the app that adds value (another reminder)

Eventually, those apps don’t have to rely on reminders any more to get you using them. They switch the trigger from an external one to an internal one:

“After that first successive cycle through the hook, we begin to use these products without an external trigger at all. Instead, it’s an internal one that pulls us back. An internal trigger tends to be a negative emotion—so fear, loneliness, boredom, uncertainty, any of these things we look for the satiation of that discomfort with the products we use.

“Once a product can attach itself to that emotion—you’re lonely, so you check Facebook; you’re uncertain, so you check Google; you’re bored, so you check Reddit—then, the habit is truly formed.”

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How to change the reminders settings on your favorite apps and tools to benefit your focus

Slack crazy busy

All of this isn’t to say you should go back to writing your to-do list on the back of your hand like in high school. But instead that we need to understand what reminders do to us and not ignore the downsides.

If we continue to use the default settings on our apps and tools, eventually the good reminders lose their influence. Instead, we need to take back control over what reminders we let into our mental space, and when. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Google Calendar reminders: Turn off event reminders and instead send a daily rundown of your agenda to your email under Settings > Event notifications > Daily agenda.
  • iOS reminders: In your device settings, select Reminders and then deselect Show in Notification Center, Badge App Icon, and Show on Lock Screen to remove all visual reminders from apps.
  • Slack reminders: Change notification settings for different channels and turn off mobile notifications (Find out more in our Guide to Setting up Slack for Focus).
  • All digital reminders: Use your device’s Do-Not-Disturb mode when you want to block out external notifications for a set period of time. All your reminders and notifications will be waiting for you when you toggle it off.

What’s more valuable to you: Focus or Availability?

The reminders from our favorite apps and tools are a double-edged sword. While we benefit from offloading our memory and not forgetting important tasks, we do it at a cost.

As Christina Gravert writes in Behavioral Scientist:

“When deciding whether we want to schedule or receive reminders, we have to weigh the benefits of reducing our cognitive load and remembering with certainty against the costs of feeling distracted, annoyed, and guilty.”

In order to keep your reminders under control, you need to be conscious of their negative impacts, protective of your focus, and purposeful in when you let them into your day.


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Jory MacKay

Jory MacKay is a writer, content marketer, and editor of the RescueTime blog.