How to Make Visual Reminders Work Effectively

Reminder note with a thumbtack. How to make visual reminders work effectively.
Image by Katherine Gomez from Pixabay

Don’t put that away!” I often hear this from clients who don’t want me to put something inside a drawer, file, or cabinet. “I need to have it out where I can see it,” they tell me. I understand their thinking. Some people are what I call “everything out” people, meaning individuals who simply prefer to have their belongings out in plain sight. In other cases, they are people who believe that leaving an item “out” will help them remember to take care of a task. Given that as much as 65% of the population are visual learners, this seems to be a wise approach. Unfortunately, for a couple of reasons, simply keeping things out of storage containers does not necessarily trigger action. The good news is that by following a couple of simple guidelines, you can easily learn how to make visual reminders work effectively.

Strong visual cues feature a few characteristics:

Visual reminders need to be visual.

Okay, this sounds obvious, but you might be surprised to discover how often visual reminders are hidden beneath stacks, piles, and layers of other items. For instance, we have an item that we want to remember to take with us when we leave, so we hang it on the back of a chair near the door. However, at some point, another family comes in and hangs his/her coat over our item, making it disappear.

Another place where we lose visual impact is on bulletin boards. We hang up an important reminder or critical piece of information for quick reference, but then obscure it by tacking other items on top of it.

The bottom line is, if you can’t see a visual reminder, it is unlikely to help you remember anything. All items – including visual reminders – should be organized, evident, and accessible, wherever they are. [Note: if you struggle with losing track of visual reminders on your desk, you can find more specific information on desk organization here.]

Visual reminders need to be legible.

I am a big fan of writing things down to remember them. Capturing thoughts in a predictable and actionable manner lightens our cognitive load by getting them out of our minds and into a place where we can see them. I use a planner for this purpose and find it very effective.

Often, when I am working with clients, we come across notes, notepads, or pieces of paper where they have written down things that they want to remember. Sadly, as they look back at their notes, they are unable to read their own handwriting. No judgment here! I’ve had this happen to me as well. Frequently we have the right idea, but because we are rushing, we end up scribbling, and later can’t decipher what we’ve written.

As the old phrase goes, ‘If it is worth doing, it is worth doing well.” If you are going to write down a reminder, take the time you need to make sure you will be able to understand it in the future.

Visual reminders need to be specific.

Have you ever come across a reminder, read what you had written, and had no memory at all what it was about? We write down a word or two, with no surrounding context, and then in the future, we can’t recall what the note was about. For example, we put down a phone number but not the name of the person to whom it belongs. Alternatively, we write down a name, but not who this person is or why this person matters to us. This is the equivalent of tying a string around a finger, but then being unable to remember why we tied the string around our finger in the first place.

The reality is that as time passes, we become distanced from contextual clues, making it hard to remember what exactly we needed to do. Therefore, it is important to make our visual cues as specific as we can. For instance, rather writing a note that says, “Practice Tuesday,” it would be clearer to write a reminder that says “Soccer practice, Jane, Tuesday, 4/13, Baker Field. Remember cleats and snack.”

Specificity is similarly helpful for our of task/to-do lists. When making lists, make every effort to

list clear, discrete tasks as opposed to broad projects. For example, rather than “clean desk,” you might list “sort paper tray,” and/or “declutter and organize top right drawer.” Prioritizing your list will also help you tackle tasks in the most important order, rather than simply doing what feels easiest.

Visual reminders need to be in the right place, at the right time.

Have you seen this funny meme?

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I can relate because I have done this. A visual reminder won’t help us if we can’t refer to it at in our moment of need, such as when…

  • The Costco list is at home, but we are at the store.
  • The password is on a note taped to our computer monitor, but we are offsite.
  • The list of errands we need to run is on a scrap of paper on our desk, but we are across town.
  • The reminder note is taped to the back door, but we exit via the side door.

To maximize effectiveness, visual reminders are ideally located where we will see them when it matters most. Digital reminders on the phone are often ideal because most people have their phone with them at all times. Physical notes can also work well, as long as we place them strategically. For example, you may want to tape a list of everything you like to pack for a picnic on the inside of the kitchen cabinet where the picnic supplies are kept.

Visual reminders may need to be eye-catching.

In order to be effective, visual reminders need to be noticed. This is particularly true when we are trying to remind ourselves to do something that is out of our normal routine.

For example, I frequently donate items to the Vietnam Veterans of America. I love this charity because I can schedule them to come and pick up items at my home – a real convenience! The only potential pitfall is that I need to place my items need outside of my garage by 8am. When I come downstairs in the morning, after being asleep for hours, I am prone to forget to go and put my bags outside. Therefore, I place a note on the entryway table that says “Items out for Vets. To ensure that this note catches my eye as I walk by, I hang it over the edge of the entryway table, and if possible, I use a brightly colored piece of paper.

Another trick is to place your reminder physically on top of something that you will pick up by habit. For instance, place the list of items you are supposed to bring to a meeting or event on top of the bag you will be taking. Or place a visual reminder to “stop and get gas” on your way home folded over your steering wheel, so that you will see it and be reminded as soon as you get back into your car.

*     *     *

Visual reminders can be powerful tools for helping you initiate and successfully complete tasks.

Do you agree with these guidelines for making visual reminders work effectively? Do you have any to add?

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22 thoughts on “How to Make Visual Reminders Work Effectively”

  1. I definitely like to jot down notes to myself to remember things. There are also certain things I need to put out like our reusable grocery bags and my sunglasses or I almost always forget to take them out to the car with me – putting them next to the door usually works 😉
    Jessica recently posted…12 Tips for Traveling with PerfumeMy Profile

    1. I often forget the reusable grocery bags in the back of my car! I get halfway into the store and then remember. I need to write “bring grocery bags with you” at the top of my list LOL!

  2. Very helpful suggestions. I liked and agreed with everything, in particular (because I need to do this!), “When making lists, make every effort to list clear, discrete tasks as opposed to broad projects.” Thank you for the reminder.

  3. Seana, these are all great tips. I love the examples you give regarding the bulletin board and the chair. The same could be said for the front of the refrigerator!
    I used to leave my children’s lunch bags open on the kitchen island when they were taking their lunch to school or camp. I typically would put the non-perishable snacks in the lunch bag the evening before and have the sandwiches in their containers in the refrigerator. All I (or they) had to do is grab the sandwiches and cold packs, put them in the lunch bags, and go. It was a great way to save time in the morning.

    1. That’s a great tip, and an easy way to minimize the chaos of the mornings. I used to take a similar approach, including asking the girls to empty their lunchboxes when they got home and wipe them out so they would be ready for the next day.

  4. I’m visually oriented, as are many of my clients. But as you mentioned, if too many visual cues are out, they can quickly become visual clutter rather than clues. So, the key is finding a balance between what needs to stay out and what can be added to a ‘reminder’ list. That will vary for each person.

    I trust my task list to cue me to handle things on a particular day. However, there are times when I need to put a sticky note on the door to remind me to take ‘xyz’ before leaving. Or, I might place a few items that need to exit next to my purse so that I’ll remember to take them with me when I leave the house.

    I keep sticky note pads and pens all around the house, so if something pops in my head, I’ll capture the task. Sometimes, the task can be handled right away, added to my task list, or the sticky note gets moved to a particular ‘cuing’ location.

    1. I completely agree that too many notes means we stop looking at any of them!

      I can see we are on the same page with those “extra” reminders on sticky notes… maybe even hung a bit crooked? 😉

  5. I have so often forgotten the grocery list or coupons I have etc, I also have forgotten my phone a few times so I now have a phone note I put on top or my purse and I keep the coupons in the car. It is so easy to do these things. Thanks for the tips.

    1. I keep some coupons in the car too, Dianne. I used to always have my Bed, Bath, and Beyond coupons in a zipper pouch in the car door. Alas, that is no longer needed!

  6. OMG, you are right on the mark! This is something that comes up with almost every client and in almost every speech. Clutter blindness is real; the minute you put something somewhere to remind you that it exists, you’re dooming it to be forgotten if there’s any chance that ANYTHING will obscure it or cover it. This is especially true with papers, because it’s so easy for one flat piece of paper to hide the others; but it’s just as true that we stop noticing the things we put out, just as we get used to popped light bulbs or inconvenient obstacles. And oh, those bulletin boards and fridge doors, covered in old reminders! Those visual reminders disappear from our view!

    I must admit, legibility and specificity are very occasionally my downfall. I’m fine with to-do items, but I’ll sometimes write a scrap of an idea for a blog and speech with no particular deadline, come across the note days or weeks later, and have no clue what I meant. Sometimes it’s the handwriting, sometimes it’s the lack of clarity of the thought.

    I love the picnic supply list in the cabinet; it might be equally useful in the picnic basket (assuming you have a dedicated Yogi Bear-style one); a college friend’s mother sent him off to school with a LAMINATED set of instructions for doing laundry, with a list of supplies to walk from his room to the laundry room, and it was attached to the rivet of the laundry bag so it wouldn’t go missing!

    Finally, I’ve learned that something being visible still may not be enough; it may need to be tactile. Someone may walk right past a note on the door at eye level; their eyes work, but their brains don’t engage. The same note taped over the door lock, light switch, or car ignition may prove just the ticket because it combines the visual information and the tactile distraction from sleepy mornings or walking daydreams.

    These are all excellent points, Seana!
    Julie Bestry recently posted…Paper Doll Springs Ahead with Three Empowering ConceptsMy Profile

    1. What a great tip for kids going off to college and needing to do their own laundry. That is one smart mother!

      Love the idea of taping the note over the doorknob or lights switch to add that tactile element. That would definitely get my attention.

  7. Love this! I laughed at the part about leaving a note to yourself without enough information – I have written in my calendar a time to meet with a client without writing in the name! Then I have to go back though all my client notes until I find the right one.
    I had one client who at least once a week would leave for work and forget to bring her laptop. Her solution was to leave a big note on top of the cat food as she would never leave the house without first feeding her cat.
    As far as the shopping bags – as soon as I empty my bags, I hang them on the doorknob to the carport. Next time to the car I take out the bags.

  8. I am a BIG fan of super-sticky note as visual reminders. So colorful inexpensive and versatile. I had one client who absolutely didn’t want to label anything because it “made her feel old.” She finally came around and the positive results are amazing. 🙂
    I label EVERYTHING!

  9. I love that you are addressing the value of visual modality. I am also a visual person and find that lots of ways to incorporate visual reminders, right alongside these ideas. I also remember that aesthetics is a part of visual reminders and work to incorporate this concept.

  10. I’m a visual person, too. I’m not sure what I would do without post-its!

    When working with paper organizing clients, I often advise them to add a specific visual cue to the paper they’re looking at. That could be a post-it or writing directly on the paper itself. Using a brightly colored pen/highlighter is helpful as is using a verb or ‘action’ word to remind them of the next step to take with that particular piece of paper.

    Add my name to the list of “professional organizers who set up lunchboxes the night before.” I just finished adding the napkins and non-perishable snacks!

    1. I love that we all do the “night before” lunches!!

      Great idea about adding a visual cue to each piece of paperwork. Great way to immediately remember what needs to be done to resolve each piece. Love it, Stacey!

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