13. “Out Of Sight, Out Of Mind”

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Previously, I introduced “The Three S’s Of Organizing” and discussed the third ‘S’, store, which is to find a home for this stuff so its well-positioned for future use. There’s a fear that people sometimes have about storing. The fear is, “if I store this somewhere, I’m afraid I’ll forget about it.” “If I put this away, it will be off the radar.” “Out of sight, out of mind.” Someone who would make these statements is depending on visual cues, or visual reminders, to keep track of the things they need to do. They are afraid if they can’t see it, they will forget about it.

We all have a lot of things we need to keep track of. In fact, when you think about it, the number of things you have to do and keep track of on an ongoing basis is really quite extensive: pay bills, buy groceries, change the oil in the car, pick up the kids from school, vacuum, take out the trash, change the burnt out light bulb in the garage, get the mail, arrange to have food on the table, plan for a vacation, plan for retirement, exercise, pay the rent or mortgage, keeping contact with friends. The list goes on and on, and this list doesn’t include all the things we need to do for work. Most of us have more things to do and more projects to keep track of than we could remember in our minds.

Some of these things have a built-in reminder system. For example, if a light bulb goes out, the darkness that I see after I flip the switch is an instant reminder that the light bulb needs to be changed. When I was in college, when I put on my last pair of underwear, I knew I had to do laundry, and soon! We generally notice when the car is running low on gas before we end up being stranded on the roadside.

We have all developed systems of reminders to supplement our own memory in remembering things, and keeping track of which of them are most important. One example of such a memory aid is using visual cues, where there is a physical object you can see to remind you of each thing you want to keep track of. I call this using visual reminders.

If you are someone who does this, I’d first like to ask, “How is it working for you?” Does it help you keep track of and effectively address the things that are most important in your life? As far as I’m concerned, there’s no right or wrong answer, there’s just what works.

And there are instances where using visual cues does work, but in most cases it doesn’t, it doesn’t because a system of using visual reminders has four limitations. First, it is short-lived, and becomes less effective over time. Second, it doesn’t scale well. Third, it results in misplaced priorities, and fourth, it creates stress. Let’s take a closer look at each of these limitations.

I have noticed, from my own experience, and from years of working with other people, that the more we see something, the less we notice it. The more we see a visual cue, the less effective it is as a reminder, so its value as a reminder decreases over time. I used to work with a guy who, when he encountered something he wanted to take home, he would put it right next to the door. His reasoning was that when he was leaving, he would see the item on the way out the door, and remember to take it home. However, throughout the day, he would go out the door several times, and see that item many times, so by the time the reminder was actually needed, the item was completely off the radar. Inevitably, at the end of the day, he would walk out the door leaving that item behind. This illustrates the first limitation of visual reminders, they are short-lived and decrease in effectiveness quickly over time.

Visual cues can work if you have a small number of them, a small number meaning less than ten, for example, but there’s a limit to the number of items that can be visible at any one time. Once you get more than that, the reminders get stacked up, thereby obscuring one another, so they’re not all visible. If they are not visible, they can’t function as a reminder. So the second limitation of visual cues is that they don’t scale well. They work well in small scale, but not in large-scale. A small number of visual reminders can work OK, but once you have a large number of them, the whole system breaks down.

Now, whenever you have a large number of visual cues, how do you choose what is most important? How do you choose what to do first? Typically, people choose based on what happens to be at the top of the pile, or what happens to be the most visible. This is not necessarily the thing which is most important, so you end up doing unimportant things before you get to the important things. So the third drawback of using visual cues is that it tends to lead to incorrect priorities.

The fourth, final, and most important drawback of using visual cues is that they create stress.

A reminder works well when it reminds you about something at a time when you’re able to act on it. With a system of visual cues, however, you are getting these reminders at times when you’re not able to, or don’t want to, act on them. You are getting these reminders all the time. For example, suppose it’s the end of the month, and you have to pay bills. You have a very busy schedule but you’ve set aside enough time to pay your bills, and you absolutely have to complete this task. It’s your most important priority at this time.

However, as you sit down at your desk, you see reminders of other things you have to do. You even have to move reminders to make room to pay your bills. At this point, these other reminders serve no benefit. They are not helping you get things done, instead they are interfering with what you need to get done. The visual reminders have become visual distractions.

The only way for you to succeed in paying the bills is to ignore these reminders — to block them out — and this makes them ineffective as reminders in the future.

Now suppose, on another occasion, you’ve had a long, busy day at work, and you really want to come home and just relax. Relaxation is an important part of a balanced life, and sometimes relaxation is, and should be, the most important priority. In this situation, “Out of sight, out of mind” is a blessing. If your environment is filled with visual reminders, these reminders will interfere with your ability to relax. As you want to escape from all responsibilities and forget everything, you will be reminded that:
• You have library books to return.
• Your father’s birthday is coming up.
• The electric bill is due.
• You haven’t even started on your taxes.
• You need to get more ink for the printer.
• You are behind schedule on the project for work.

All these reminders of things you have to do, at a time when you just want to relax, serve no beneficial purpose. They just create stress. The visual reminders have become visual stressors.

The problem gets compounded if you start beating yourself up for not having done them sooner, or criticizing yourself for being in this situation. This can have a negative impact on your self image and quality of life.

Again, the only way for you to succeed in your goal (which, in this case, is relaxation) is to block all these reminders out, and this makes them ineffective as reminders in the future.

Overall, the only way for a system of visual reminders to work is if, first, you learn to block them out at times you don’t want to be reminded, and second, you still notice them when you do want to be reminded. You must also develop the habit of, when you are ready to act on these reminders, scanning them all, even the ones that are buried, and choosing, out of all of them, the most important ones to act on it that time. This is what must happen for a system of visual reminders to be successful.

If you use visual cues, and it works well for you, then continue to do so. If it doesn’t, you might want to consider developing a different habit. I recommend freeing yourself from a dependence on visual cues. There are other ways to accomplish the same thing. There are other ways that are more effective and take less effort, the simplest of which is a “to do” list.

If you find yourself feeling resistant to establishing a new habit, remember that we all have habits, it’s just a question of how well these habits are working for us. It requires a change to establish a new habit, and any change can be uncomfortable, but if you’re willing to take the risk to face that temporary discomfort, your quality of life will be improved in the long run. You will find yourself more empowered to live the life you have imagined.

One Response to “13. “Out Of Sight, Out Of Mind””

  1. slinky says:

    great podcast Andrew!

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