Never fail twice–develop trusted systems to solve problems forever.

Reject the notion that forgetting or failing is just a part of the frenetic digital chaos in which we live. Learn how to create simple and trusted systems to solve any challenge.

Before I jump right into explaining how anyone of any skill level can easily create simple, trusted systems, to solve almost any problem, let’s take a moment to establish some common terminology.

What is a trusted system?

A trusted system is simply a planned way of doing things that can be relied upon. And doing things in a planned way just means that we paused to think about our solution rather than defaulting to the easiest method—in the moment—which is often our first choice, but is rarely the most effective in the long run.

Can be relied upon simply means that the pieces of the system can be counted on to work together to produce an expected outcome. Said another way, a foolproof solution.

The two building blocks to any trusted system (or foolproof solution) that involves humans are:

  1. Tools
  2. Habits (not just behaviors or routines)

Although every system is different, the tools and habits in our trusted systems rely upon each other to keep the system functioning normally. As I build a trusted system using the example below, this important interdependence should become very clear.

Finally, since humans are by their nature imperfect, the third and final component that must be baked into any system to ensure that it is foolproof is redundancy or a backstop. These are the pieces that keep the trusted system working when all else fails.

So have you ever forgotten an important birthday?

Assuming you have, I am going to use this shared experience as an example of a problem that we can solve by developing a trusted system. And although the problem I have chosen to tackle might seem like a relatively simple one—remembering someone’s birthday, reliably—the tools and principles used to solve this challenge with a trusted system can be applied to any problem, no matter how simple or complex.

Other problems that this particular trusted system could help us solve:

  • forgetting anniversaries
  • forgetting important tasks
  • forgetting unimportant tasks
  • forgetting anything that we would prefer to remember, without fail

Now, back to the problem at hand—the missed birthday.

Although I cannot help anyone with their guilt over missed birthdays from the past, I can help to implement a trusted system, such that, we never fail to remember an important birthday a second time. 

As we discussed, trusted systems are merely planned and reliable ways of solving problems. So as we attack this problem, our goal is simple—develop a trusted system that:

  1. Provides birthday reminders
  2. Is 100% reliable (aka foolproof)

Based on our objective above, if our system reminds us of the birthday, the system works. If the system reminds us of the birthday without fail, it’s reliable, and therefore it is now a trusted system.

Said a little bit differently, our root problem is remembering birthdays, reliably. Most, or all of us, can remember birthdays on our own quite well—sometimes. The without fail part where humans inevitably come up short, hence the need for the trusted or foolproof system.

So, with foolproof simplicity as our goal, let’s piece together our trusted system for remembering birthdays.

Earlier I explained that trusted systems require two key components: 

  1. Tools
  2. Habits (not just behaviors or routines)

In this step, the calendar will be our tool. Before we download just any random calendar app, let’s spend a hot minute considering the type of app to download.

If you already have an online work or personal calendar that you use, the app you download should be able to access that calendar’s information. If you have both a work and a personal calendar that cannot be merged (a problem that I solve in a separate post), use the calendar that is most applicable. For example, for a life-long friend’s birthday, your personal calendar would be the most appropriate calendar to use, not the work calendar.

If you do not already have a calendar in use, consider one that is bundled with a system (or email address) that you already use. For example, Google provides a great suite of free productivity tools that are integrated with Gmail—which of course, includes a calendar.

Assuming your tool (the calendar app) is all set up, let’s move on to the second key piece of this system—those habits that are necessary for this system to work in a trusted manner.

The first habit we need to cultivate is entering important birthdays into our tool, the calendar app. It is not currently in our nature to enter birthdates into our new tool, so becoming aware of this shortfall and determining a method to overcome it is important. If we’re successful cultivating this habit it should become second nature to us when someone mentions their birthday that we either write it down with the intent to capture it later, or to pause and immediately put it into our tool.

Without learning this habit the value of our new tool is never realized and our system never truly becomes a trusted one. This is an example of the interdependence of tools and habits within trusted systems. There a multitude of ways to go about creating and cultivating this habit, but that isn’t something I’m going to tackle here. However, please feel free to email me with questions.

In addition to remembering to add birthdays to our calendar, as they surface—in the moment—there are also two technical steps we need to consider for this particular example, and for this particular tool to work. Both of these steps must be completed when creating the calendar event in our calendar app.

The first technical step we must complete is to make this birthday an annually recurring event on our calendar. We do this by checking the “recurring event” dialogue box on our calendar (typical functionality for most calendars). This will automagically populate the event on our calendar from now until the end of time. This instant replication of recurring events is one of many reasons why digital calendars beat old school paper calendars, hands down, every time.

Now let’s discuss the second technical step.

The key piece of this technical step is creating automated context prompts—as BJ Fogg refers to them in his book, Tiny Habits. These automated alerts will prompt us in the future, such that, when the birthday that we added to our calendar comes due, we’ll be reminded with an alert. Most importantly, this removes our unreliable human memory from the equation.

Depending on what calendar app you decide to use, most will give you the option to set alerts (if yours doesn’t, pick another one). These alerts will remind you using a notification on your phone or by sending you an email, or both. Most calendar settings will also allow you to set default reminders. These are reminders that are automatically added, or baked into any future event, by default. By baking in alerts automagically, we are completely removing any reliance on human memory and thereby foolproofing the alert function of this tool.

Leveraging the automation capabilities of our tool is key—as these alerts (reminders and notifications) add additional foolproofing elements to our trusted system.

The second habit required for this system to work is for us to now begin doing one of two things (or both!). The first of these two options is to actually begin using our calendar. This is both the most effective and most positively life-changing habit that I can recommend—coming in neck-and-neck with the use of a task manager.

Although we have intelligently leveraged the automated alerts of our tool (the calendar), the habit of actually reviewing our calendar (regularly) will be our most reliable prompt to remind us about upcoming birthdays. The simple truth here is that if we review our calendar regularly, when important events show up, we’ll already be prepared for them and therefore, unsurprised. 

In this particular example, when we choose the habit of regularly reviewing our calendar, the alerts become our redundancy or backstop. That is, if we were to stop reviewing our calendar, the alerts would be the remaining foolproofing element of this system.

Finally, while I’m addressing the value of regular calendar use, a strategic truth worth mentioning here is that in order for our calendar to become a part of our trusted time management system we must use it regularly.

Simply put: 

  • Use your calendar and it will be accurate (and trusted).
  • Review your calendar and it will remain accurate (and trusted). 

Our alerts and reminders will work to remind us, but we will never realize the benefits of a bona fide (aka trusted) time management system without regular use and review of our calendar. 

The second and less preferable option is to rely upon our reminders. If you have ever accidentally swiped away an annoyingly timed reminder, you understand the danger of relying upon reminders. They work, but they should not be our go-to. This is also why I recommend setting more than one default reminder—because in this scenario (where we rely upon the alerts instead of reviewing our calendar) the only redundancy we have is the additional alerts beyond the first alert.

This is also why I have highlighted the importance of not becoming dismissive of reminders (aka alerts and notifications).

How do we become dismissive of notifications?

We begin to ignore notifications when they become meaningless. Notifications become meaningless when there are no negative consequences for ignoring them. This is particularly true with notifications associated with social media or similar, trivial apps that so many of us leave turned on, on our phones. When the notifications crescendo and become constant, they become meaningless.

Ultimately, when our phone is so riddled with notifications that we routinely and haphazardly dismiss them, we eventually become numb to them all. So if we choose to rely on our phone notifications we must be judicious about all the notifications that we allow to operate on our phone.

Similarly, if we aren’t able to stay on top of our inbox, email reminders become just as ineffective.

In summary, if regularly reviewing your calendar is not a viable option, carefully setting and relying on your reminders is a less-than-perfect, second option.

That’s it! The trusted system we just put in place will now ensure that we are always reminded of important birthdays and that we never forget an important birthday ever again, reliably.

To create your own trusted systems to permanently solve your own simple or complex problems, use the same formula I detailed here.

As a review, in this simple trusted system we deployed the two key building blocks inherent in any trusted system:

  1. A tool (in this case, the calendar)
  2. A habit (reviewing the calendar and/or not dismissing reminders)

We also highlighted how adding default reminders in our calendar app helped us to foolproof our tool by eliminating the possibility of human error.

Finally, we further foolproofed our system by implementing redundancy in two different ways:

  1. We created reminders to serve as a backstop, should we forget to review our calendar.
  2. We created multiple reminders to serve as a backstop, should we miss the first reminder.

Tools, habits, and redundancy.

These are all you need to put simple, trusted systems in place to help you to remember anything that is important to you, and to get things done, reliably.

I publish these cartoon tutorials once a week on Instagram under the @productivitywonk handle, on twitter as @evilsizor (#EvilTips) and on LinkedIn as myself. I then endeavor to explain some of these in greater detail here.

If there are any tutorials that you would like to see expanded upon here, please drop me an email: josh [at] and let me know!

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