The power of tangible reminders

13 June 2017 - mindful practices

Ever heard of the historical practice of tying a knot around a finger to remember something important? We all have various reminder methods—post-it notes, phone alarms, tattoos—but which type of reminder works best when it comes to the most important things, such as your goals, habits and values?

In a 1989 study in the Journal of Substance Abuse, participants were tracked across a 2-year period to find out how they were following up on their New Year’s resolutions. The study found that keeping physical reminders around was the only strategy that led to successful results at all stages. In a 2002 study in the Journal of Clinical Psychology, people who were successful in keeping to their resolutions were more likely to use something called ‘stimulus control’, that is, adding external reminders to their environments to remind them of their goals.

Why are tangible things effective in influencing our thoughts and behaviours?

Research by Millward-Brown found that tangible materials produced deeper engagement. Printed (rather than digital) materials evoked:
• more brain activity associated with the integration of sight and touch;
• a stronger emotional response that suggests stronger memory formation; and
• a deeper connection with personal thoughts and emotions.

What does this mean for us?

With their ability to evoke deep emotional responses, tangible reminders can be powerful tools in encouraging positive behavioural and thought patterns. Ever put on your ‘power suit’ and felt more confident? The environmental and physical cues that we pick up daily affect us more than we realise, triggering habits and thoughts that feel natural to us. Our daily behavioural and thought patterns in turn contribute to our larger identity and goals.

In The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg writes about habit formation, which is powered by a habit loop. The loop consists of 3 essential parts: the routine, the cue and the reward. Habits form when the cue is introduced and we then crave the reward. Your cravings drive your routines. (Read more about how to form good habits.) What are some tangible cues in your life that effectively reinforce positive habits?

Once we’re aware of how physical cues affect our behaviours and thoughts, we can choose to introduce or eliminate certain things into and from our lives. While we can’t control every aspect of our environment, we can be aware of how we’re being affected by something and make intentional choices.

Everyday tangible reminders

Cheryl Strayed, author of the bestselling Wild, speaks of having a talisman as an inspiration and guide. To her it is simply “an object that means something to you”. Hers is a jar of rocks that her mother had kept. What would you like to be reminded of? Do you have an object imbued with personal meaning?

Here are some things that we like:
• A book that inspires you
• A reminder bracelet with an inspirational word
• An encouraging letter from a friend
• A physical picture of a loved one (reminds you to be grateful) or an inspiring person
• A key charm
• Your favourite quote handwritten on a card or poster for your desk
Plants, which are a reminder of growth and patience as you care for it

What physical reminders work best for you? Share your tips and tricks with us at

- The Mindful Company Team