Reader question: Help! My sticky note reminders are taking over

A few days ago, our reader Linda (aka “Exhausted Linda”) submitted the following question to the Buttoned Up team:

When I think of something, I put it on a sticky-note instead of taking action right away. The sticky notes really pile up. Is there anything to control sticky notes? I tried using my “Do This” list, but it becomes a real mess.

Sticky notes were truly one of the greatest inventions of all time.

And now that they come in so many glorious shapes, sizes, colors, and patterns – well, they are pretty impossible to resist.

I’ll take 2 of these…

…1 of those…
Mini-TV-Sticky Note Pad

…and a handful of these…
Adler Sticky Notes

The fact that they have the adhesive backing just makes them seem so much more useful than a plain, old, notepad or notebook. Right? And thanks to that sticky attribute, this is what happens:

“Oh, I need to remember to call so-and-so at 4pm today. I’ll just stick a bright little note on my monitor so I don’t forget.”


“Goodness! I keep forgetting my fax number and I sometimes need to give it to people when I’m on the phone. I’ll just stick a little reminder on the bottom of my computer monitor so I’ll always know where to look.”


“Whoa – that’s such a good idea! I really don’t want to forget that little bit ‘o brilliance — so I’d better capture it here on this little sticky note and put it on my monitor where I can see it.”


Before you know it – rather than bright, temporary reminders, you’re staring at a wallpapered computer monitor. Or notebook. Or wall. Or cork board. Or fridge.

Whatever your sticky surface of choice is.

Jotting everything you want to remember on sticky notes can quickly become a counterproductive habit (as you already know!).

Your simplicity-seeking brain will, rather than trying to make sense of each note as an individual data point, blend them all together into one “thing” – namely surface decor. Days and weeks will go by, nothing about the wallpaper will really change (except you add a few more perhaps)…and low and behold, your alerts/reminders/important “nudges” go completely unnoticed.

So what’s a sticky-addict to do?

Taming the Sticky Note Beast

Sticky notes have a simple, singular purpose: to serve as a temporary alert, note or label. And by temporary I mean within the next few days.

Step 1: Detox

1. Toss any note/reminder/alert that is no longer useful. Any note related to a project, task/list or deadline that has already passed should be worm food. Ditto for notes that have already been transferred to a more permanent holding pen (e.g. your contacts, a notebook).

2. Transfer all notes related to ideas or to-do’s to one master “capture” notebook & toss the stickies. Given your penchant for sticky notes, I’m guessing you might also have an affinity for stationery products – especially pretty journals. Go grab one, title it Capture Lists or or something along those lines, and then transfer all of your bright ideas & to-do’s that will take you longer than a few days to get to to the new notebook. If you don’t have a notebook handy, buy a basic Composition Notebook for $2 at your local office superstore. If you are not a physical notebook fan, then go create an Evernote account and set up a virtual notebook or two. Once you set up a notebook in Evernote, it syncs with all of your devices – from your computer to smart phone, and tablet, so you’re never without it. You can snap a picture of each sticky note if you want – or simply make a voice note of what is on each sticky. Whatever is easier for you. Just get the temporary notes off your desk/notebooks/monitors.

3. Transfer all contact information to your contacts & toss the contact sticky notes. Whenever you write contact information on a sticky note a unicorn dies. Stop doing it! Contact information is generally best stored electronically, where it’s searchable on a variety of dimensions – and accessible from a variety of devices. Once you’ve done that – toss the stickies and pinky swear the next time you need to make a note of someone’s number, you’ll grab your phone or tablet or computer instead.

Just doing these three things should reduce your sticky note collection to a more manageable amount.

Then, once you’ve detoxed…

Step 2: Stop Using Sticky Notes for These 5 Things!

1. Contact info – see my note above.

2. Permanent Labels. It’s tempting to use them in this capacity as they do stick. But not permanently. Eventually they curl up and fall off, just adding to your mess.

3. User IDs and passwords. It’s never in your best interest to leave this kind of confidential information lying about as you just never know. There are plenty of fabulous Password journals on the market as well as electronic password organizers. Use them instead.

4. Every idea you have. Rather than jotting down notes about ideas on temporary slips of paper – capture them in one, consistent spot. I personally keep physical and virtual notebooks going for this very purpose. I have a Composition notebook I keep with me at all times. It serves as my main repository of notes and short-term to-do lists. I keep virtual notebooks in Evernote and on Pinterest related to cool topic ideas, product ideas, etc.

5. Calendar/Task alerts. It is usually much more effective to set a task appointment for yourself in your online calendar so that you get an alert when it is time to do it. If you can’t get to it at the moment you had originally planned, just “reschedule” it so you’ll get a new alarm.

Step 3: Start Running these Sticky Note Clean Up Routines Regularly (minimum 1x/week)

You should designate one physical notebook as your main catcher of ideas, thoughts, and to-do’s – or a virtual one like Evernote. It doesn’t matter that it’s messy. Date each entry, draw dividing lines between types of content, box or underline important items so you can find them more easily when you flip through the pages.
1. Transfer to-do’s captured on sticky notes that you cannot get to (or complete) within the 1-2 days into a To-Do/Capture notebook.

2. Take 5 minutes to detox sticky notes every few days – see step 1 above for the steps.

And if after all that – you still think you might have a hard time kicking the sticky note habit, try creating a sticky note tickler file system for yourself. Basically a tickler file is a 43-folder system, where you have a folder for each day of the month plus another 12 for each month of the year. As soon as you finish writing them, you can put sticky notes in either the daily or monthly folder that corresponds with when you want to deal with it. For example, you may put a sticky note related to a task you need to get to in a week or two in the daily folder (1-30) that is 5 or so days from the current date. But you might put a sticky note related to a big new project or idea you want to act on in the future in a monthly folder (Jan-Dec) that is 6 or so months out.

Fellow readers, how do you use sticky notes? Any other addicts out there?

  • Scott R. Thomas

    I use post-its during the day, and the last thing I do at the end of every day is update those notes with any new information from the day, and turn then each into a prioritized (A, B, C, 1, 2, 3) task in MS Outlook. Then, I don’t have to remember the details anymore. I just need to pick which ones I am going to focus on each morning.

    I know…they have meds for this.

  • SarahButtonedUp

    Love it, Scott! Assuming you toss each note at the end of the day once you’ve transferred it, right?

  • Jane Evans

    I have stickypad on my computer desktop, so have virtual notes on my screen as well as actual paper ones! (Oh and a noebook I dump everything else in, but never check thru.) Must get organised!

  • Stacey Vulakh

    I tend to use mine for errands – an address of a shop, or quick grocery list. Then either I complete the errand or transfer the info if it’s something I will need again – either way the sticky note doesn’t stick around. I think if it’s something I note down that would take 1-2 minutes to either transfer or just do, I skip the sticky note step and put it right into contacts or my calendar.

  • Andi-Roo

    I use sticky notes to record appts. I need to keep which arrive via email or phone. Then I instantly attach the sticky note to the corresponding date on my large wall calendar. Once a week I update my calendar to reflect the stickies, and transfer them from my calendar to my working journal. Since I toss each page (month) of the large wall calendar, the small stickies serve as a reminder of events I want to remember later on. Might sound silly, but since we are a split family this behavior has saved my butt in court more than once when attempting to recall specific dates of occurrences. Context is everything, so a journal entry along with a sticky note indicating an appt. I had that day helps jog my memory as well as validate any claims. This would also be helpful in an office setting, I would imagine.

  • Zoe Alexander

    I couldn’t live without my sticky notes. I use them for really emergencies! The main list is in my diary! They help me so much with my time management! Great post!
    Zoe xxx

  • Exhausted Linda

    I’m still detoxing, but I’m getting so much better! I have only a few stickies left and started using the virtual stickies on my desktop. They began to cover BOTH of my monitors, so I set up Notepad and moved everything there. I’m getting much better and am now not-so-much “Exhausted Linda” anymore! Thank you so much for your help and that of your readers!

    I’ve also started a voicemail journal. Every voicemail I get that needs action or a reminder, I write it down in my Red Journal, meaning they need action quickly. That’s become a habit now. I date each page, put the time next to each item, and notes about the action I took. This has saved me a great deal of time–and no stickies!

    I recently had surgery and am on sick leave until 4/29, so I’m getting a good non-sticky system going. When my husband comes in with a reminder of something for me to do (or a request), I still have a tendency to jot down a quick sticky rather than stopping what I’m doing at the time, but by the end of the day the stickies are gone, as I’ve moved the notes to where they belong and tossed the sticky. This is going to save me some $$ in constantly replenishing my sticky-note supplies, too. :)