Subtle Reminders Can Trick You Into Being More Productive

How do you know what to do when you start your workday? Do you use a to-do list? Do you leave a sticky note on your computer monitor from the previous day? Do you let whatever emails are left in your inbox guide you to what to tackle first? Workers use all kinds of methods to remind themselves of what tasks they need to get done. But with a few smart productivity tricks, you can build more subtle reminders into your day that coax you to be more focused and productive.

The Weakness of the To-Do List

It makes sense to use a to-do list, calendar, and other dedicated tools for writing down and organizing our tasks and appointments. Those tools let us think through what we need to do, prioritize our tasks, and set reminders so that we don’t miss appointments. But there are other cues we can build into our visual space to further support all that prioritization and organization.

The weakness of the to-do list, calendar, notifications, and reminders is that we have to opt into using them each and every time. So, can we build other kinds of reminders and signposts that steer us toward productivity that we don’t specifically have to opt into?

Let’s use architecture as an analogy.

Think about a well-designed airport. When you walk into the departures area, the first thing you see is a board of information about flight times and where to check in and drop your bags. Behind the board are wide aisles of check-in agents. When you finish the check-in process, you proceed farther into the building, and in a well designed airport, the shape and colors of the space funnel you toward the security line. A well-designed airport leads you through this process without anyone telling you where you’re supposed to go.

Similarly, a well-designed computer space can steer you toward the things you should be getting done in your daily work.

Examples of Sneaky Reminders

I’ve written before about how I use year-month folders to organize my work as a writer, and how you can use it to clean up email.

Create a folder for every year: 2018, 2017, 2016, and so forth. Inside each year folder, I have 12 month folders. And within each month folder are the articles I’m writing that month.

I learned this setup when I worked in print magazines. We had a folder for each issue, and it was always labeled with the year and month so that they would always fall into chronological order. More importantly, there was never a question about where to find a file. Did it run in the January 2006 issue of the magazine? Then it was in the 0601 folder (06 for the year and 01 for the month).

When anyone on the magazine staff needed to find a file, we never wasted any time looking for it. As long as we knew which issue it was in, we knew almost instinctively where to find it.

Even though I rarely work in print publishing anymore, I still use a very similar folder system to this day.

The folder aren’t just for holding files, you see. They also become signposts that guide to which tasks I need to complete every day.

When I start my work day, I open the current year-month folder because that’s where I’ll find current work and little else. I’m not distracted by a long list of files that I’ve already completed, and I’m not distracted by early drafts and notes for articles I’m planning to write next month. So when I open the folder, I literally see the work I should be doing.

Not everyone’s work fits so neatly into year-month folders, however. Some people work on the same project for years before it’s done. In that case, colors can play a similar role. For example, files that are currently in progress could be marked green. Files that are finished but still needed for reference might be gray. Anything pending on someone else’s input can be red.

The point is that you can build visual cues into your workflow that steer you toward the work you should be doing, which can help you pick up the task faster rather than procrastinate getting started.

For example, it’s currently March 2016. When I start my workday, I open the folder labeled 1603 MAR. The “16” is for 2016, and “03” is for the third month. Writing the dates in this way makes sure the folders sit in chronological order. The subfolders contain the projects—in my case, articles—that are in progress. Each folder is coded with a color. If the folder is green, that means it’s basically done. If it’s gray, I haven’t started work on it yet. And a yellow folder means the work is in progress.

So every time I open my 1603 MAR folder, my eyes immediately go to the yellow folders. And there you have it. I know which articles are in the works but not yet completed, and I know I should work on tasks associated with those articles first before starting any new projects.

Habits and Spaces

Researchers Wood and Neal (2007) note that habits can be tightly tied to the places where we do them. If you spend most of your workday looking at a computer screen, add some cues to that space that help you make it a habit to get into your core work quickly.


Wood, W., & Neal, D.T (2007). A new look at habits and the habit-goal interface. Psychological Review, Vol 114(4), 843-863.

Image by Josh Hallett, CC.


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