Digital reminders take the place of nagging

  • Article by: KATIE HUMPHREY , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 4, 2013 - 5:59 AM
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Photo: Richard Sennott, Star Tribune

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It used to be that Mom harped “Sit up straight!” when you slouched. Now there’s a smartphone app with a belt that gives you a buzz if your posture slips.

Other apps send reminders — by e-mail, text message or pop-up, on-screen alerts — to take medications, go for a run, get an oil change or clean out the refrigerator.

As technology aims to help us solve all sorts of mundane problems, smartphones have morphed into digital nags. Repeated “suggestions” from a spouse can grate on the nerves, but users say it’s easier — and less abrasive — to let a device issue the orders.

“I’ve set up an alert for my husband for garbage day,” said Sara Swenson, of Cannon Falls, who uses the app Cozi to help keep her family on track. “It’s about trying to get away from the nagging and make it be more of an electronic reminder that it’s garbage day every Tuesday.”

Such digital reminders are catching on. Evernote, an organization app that claims more than 50 million users worldwide, added pop-up reminders in May, saying they were one of the most requested features.

Yet it’s unclear whether digital nagging is any more effective than the face-to-face kind. While devices may help us remember the little things, and be less likely to prompt eye rolls, the electronic alerts themselves can become overwhelming.

Stay on task

Greg Osterdyk gets five to 10 alerts on his smartphone each day, some from his calendar app, others from a task management app called Remember the Milk.

As mayor of Carver and a business owner, he’s got a lot to remember.

“It’s what enables me to handle more projects,” he said. “I can’t keep track of them in my head on my own.”

He enters to-dos into the apps, and when the tasks are due, he gets an alert. “I had one today that was telling me there was an advertisement due to the newspaper,” he said recently. “A couple others were calls I need to make, people I need to contact.”

For such real-time reminders, a little digital nagging is probably helpful, said Dr. Sheila Jowsey, a psychiatrist at the Mayo Clinic. She’s a particular fan of alerts sent by some airline apps that note updated flight information and gate changes.

But it is unclear whether nudges from a smartphone alone can alter more important behaviors, such as establishing a fitness routine or quitting smoking, she said.

“If you are significantly ambivalent and not quite ready to make that change, after a few reminders you’ll deactivate it,” Jowsey said. “It has to be something where you’ve come to the point in your own mind where you say, ‘Ok, I’m ready for this.’ ”

Then there’s the annoyance factor.

Being constantly interrupted, even by reminders that you programmed, can derail productivity, said Audrey Thomas, owner of Organized Audrey.

“If I’m focusing on something else and my phone is going off, then I lose focus on what I was working on,” she said.

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