Reminders on iOS

(or 'Writing stuff doing and doing stuff', year 2)

I have had a draft saved here for a year with just the title "The God reminders app". It's a grammatically questionable title, but my vision for the article was always clear: to describe what would make my perfect reminder[s] app for my smartphone. 

This is not that article, but I'm starting there because reminders (and calendars) is where my software habits have changed the most since I wrote [what I'm now being referred to as] Year 1 of "Writing stuff down and doing stuff"

In Year 1, I wrote about using Sunrise for my calendar, and Due for reminders and alarms. Since then, Microsoft has globbed an inferior shadow of Sunrise into Outlook for iOS (an email app I actually like). And Due, while still great, simply didn't survive for me. Here's why.

Okay, don't leave! Hear me out! A year ago I wrote:

Tasks, projects, calendars, reminders... there is a huge industry of software and thought technologies built around keeping you "organized" and connected to all of your responsibilities. Unless you're a GTD nerd (no hate!), extremely powerful tools like Omnifocus or Todoist probably aren't going to help you because you're too busy actually working to invest the time into them.

I favor tools with nearly zero investment or overhead, instead of complex (but powerful!) "system" apps like Omnifocus and Todoist. The lower amount of friction to first use is critical.

So, lets get this out of the way: Reminders is a dumpster fire when it's on your screen. This is mine; it makes no sense. 

"Trader joes"? I don't even remember what I was trying to do there. How is this my killer reminders app?

Here's the point: Reminders is the best iPhone app I have ever used at getting me to set reminders, actually reminding me in an effective way... and I never open the app.

On my iPhone, I use Siri 100% of the time to set reminders.


If your reaction to that sentence was anything like "Fuck that" then trust me, and keep reading for one more minute. I know where you're coming from, and I'm going to tell you how to make using Siri bearable.

I say "bearable" because I know no one likes talking to their phone. At best, it feels abnormal, and at worst you feel impotent and humiliated when it doesn't work. Let me tell you how to make Siri work exactly the way it should every time.

First: pick up your iPhone, hold down the Home button (keep holding it down while you speak), say "take me to your settings", and let go of the Home button. Siri will open her Settings page. Next, tap "Voice Feedback" and set it to "Hands-Free Only". Now, Siri won't talk any more when you use it in public. It will only speak back to you when it's connected to Bluetooth (like a headset or your car), or you've got headphones in. 

Second: like I outlined in the last paragraph, pressing and holding down the Home button until you're done talking will keep Siri listening to you--no matter what--until you let go of the Home button. This is a habit that makes using Siri far less frustrating. This empowers you to dictate your thoughts, with pauses, so you can think, without being interrupted--to give commands, without being interrupted.

Third: trust that Siri understood you. This takes time, but you'll soon learn to trust just how good Siri understands you even with a low, clandestine voice. I can murmur to Siri in a small room, with rambunctious discussion and music playing, and she will understand my every word. Once you learn to trust Siri, you can give commands without looking at your phone, let go of the Home button, hit the Sleep button to shut off your phone, and put your phone away... all with confidence. No app can come close to that lack of friction.

Sticky reminders

I pull my iPhone out of my pocket, I press (and hold) the Home button, and I say "remind me at one oh nine to take out the trash". I let go of the home button and I put my iPhone back in my pocket. 

At 1:09PM I hear my reminder go off. I ignore it because I'm busy. Before and after that time, I've gotten some email. Email is a constant. So are other notifications.

At some point, I'm going to swipe on one of these emails, or a text message, or something. It doesn't mean I've taken out the trash, and it doesn't mean I should lose my reminder. With any other app, it would. But has a special power.

Reminders stick on the lock screen until they are specifically dismissed. Swiping to the left will give you a quick "Mark as Completed" or "Snooze" which snoozes the reminder for 15 minutes (after which it will go off again). 

This fixes exactly what is so broken about the iOS model of lock screen notifications for other reminders apps. By definition, a reminder is something you want to keep on top of the heap. You're saying, "Yes, other things will ask for my attention, but I need to remember this.

Reminders stays on top of the heap. 

My girlfriend puts post-it notes on the back of her phone to remind herself what she needs to do when she leaves work; what she has to pick up from the store; to call someone over lunch. And it works. 

There are a thousand apps that "do" this. It speaks volumes about just how bad our phones are at being effective assistants that a sticky note works more reliably than any of them. 

Reminders sticking on the lock screen is the first time my iPhone has managed to be truly better at helping me get things done since I got my first iPhone seven years ago.