The Importance of Reminders

We Need Reminders

It is relatively rare that I tell a patient something that he or she does not already know. Instead, mostly what I do is remind people of what they do know. This, to me, raises an interesting question— why is it that we need reminders in the first place?

You already know most of the things that enable a healthy, happy, meaningful life: good food, rest, friends (and time to enjoy them), family, exercise, fresh air and time outside, purpose, and security that your needs will be met. I could make a more extensive list, but realistically, that long list would probably not add much. Despite this, most people (myself included) regularly do things that do not contribute to a good life, and instead, do things that lead to an unhappy life. Bizarre. Interestingly, when we are reminded of what’s important, or reminded of our priorities, we will expend effort to temporarily change our behavior.

Taken together, these observations suggest we both know what is important and that we temporarily forget what is important. If this is true, what are things we can do in our life to keep us on track? How can we arrange our environment and lives so that the important things remain top of mind?

Frankly, I don’t have a great answer to that question– but I will offer six categories for keeping our attention fixed where it should be, rather than letting it get sidetracked and pulled in unhelpful directions.

Reminders: The first kind of reminder is really just that— an actual reminder. This is simple but effective. I’m talking about ways of making physical reminders to keep your attention where it needs to be. Think of a post-it note on your mirror reminding you to floss (or eat breakfast). Or keeping a list of things for which you are grateful in your wallet (or the background on your phone). You could set alarms on your phone to remind yourself to go to bed, leave for the gym, or call a friend. A talisman worn as a necklace, or carried in your pocket, can provide a physical reminder throughout the day of your purpose, or what matters to you.

New Perspectives: We are novelty-seeking creatures, and new views, perspectives, or ways of seeing things often serve as powerful reminders of what we already know. To some extent, this is the model this newsletter operates on. By gaining a new perspective on an old insight, we are reminded of the importance of that insight. When I am seeing people in the office, helping a patient reimagine a situation, this is what I am doing. Sometimes this occurs as well when we watch a movie, read a book, or talk to a friend. We do better when we continue to learn. When we hear the same thing over and over, we tend to tune it out (eat your vegetables!). When we learn something new, it tends to register more (eating leafy greens daily may slow the rate of cognitive decline. See: ​https://www.rush.edu/news/daily-leafy-greens-may-slow-cognitive-decline​)

Routines: Our ultimate reminder might be our routine. A morning routine of getting up, pulling on our shoes, and exercising works better than a morning routine of getting up, staring at the wall for while, and eating a pop tart. If our morning routine is to get up and eat a pastry, then waking up reminds us that it’s time to eat a pastry. This means we can set up our routines so that they promote health and happiness. Are your routines helping you stay healthy? If not, how could you adjust your routine so that it is constantly reminding you to do what is important?

Environment: Where we live and work has a huge effect on our health and happiness. When our home environment is filled with healthy food choices, this serves as a reminder to eat well. Living across the street from Mcdonald’s reminds us to eat a Big Mac. Having pictures of friends and family in our house reminds us that there are people that love and care about us, and prods us to call or visit. Keeping the blinds open reminds us to wake up and go outside. Does your environment promote health and happiness? If not, can you change or adjust it?

Community: Being a part of a community offers reminders, for better or for worse, about what is expected and what is important. Being a part of a faith community (and attending services) reminds us of our moral bearings. Being a part of a hiking club reminds us to get outside with friends and take care of our world. Being a part of a community can also be challenging— if your community centers around drugs or alcohol, it reminds us of these substances, and subtly encourages their use. What does your community remind you to do? Do these reminders serve you well? Does your community pull you in the direction you want to go?

Friends, acquaintances, and professionals: Going to the dentist hopefully leads to cleaner teeth and less plaque— it also serves as a reminder to brush and floss. Coming to see us in the office often plays a similar role— it’s a reminder to stay focused on health and wellness. Seeing friends can be a reminder of your friendship, and your desire to spend time with people. Running into an acquaintance can be a reminder that there are other jobs or opportunities out there. Seeing people who are a positive influence in our life reminds us of our better selves, and how we want to be in the world.

The only constant is change.

Reminders are, by definition, temporary. Given that life is always changing though, that might be ok. The point of reminders might not be to help with big life course corrections, but instead to be the daily nudges that keep us on track, the little adjustments and daily motivations we need to help us be our best selves. Reminders are the small signs, rather than the thundering voice from the heavens. So, how will you remind yourself of the things that are important?

-Dr. Justin