Download the Schwab app from iTunes®Close

Choiceology: Season 7 Episode 4


Listen on Apple Podcasts, Google PodcastsSpotify or copy to your RSS reader.

Forgetting can be a significant barrier to achievement with real consequences. How can reminders help improve our memory?

You probably have a list of reminders somewhere. Maybe you have a calendar with important dates marked. And likely a mental to-do list. And shopping lists. And gift ideas. And you’ve got to remember to get your taxes filed. And don’t forget to get those prescriptions filled before the drug store closes. And you’ve got to renew your insurance, and …

There’s a lot of information to juggle in modern life. In this episode of Choiceology with Katy Milkman, we look at ways to improve reminders and reduce forgetting around things like voting, vaccinations, and international espionage.

Sarah-Louise Miller is a doctoral candidate in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London. Sarah-Louise tells the story of Elizabeth Reynolds (a.k.a. Elizabeth “Minnie” Devereux-Rochester), a young courier operating behind enemy lines in France during the Second World War. Elizabeth’s ability to absorb and memorize information contributed greatly to the Allied war effort and may very well have saved her life.

You’ll also hear from former Australian Secret Intelligence Service agent Warren Reed. He details the intensive memory training he encountered at MI6 and explains how memorization is key to an agent’s success and survival.

Warren Reed is the author of several books on espionage. His latest is An Elephant On Your Nose.

Next, Todd Rogers joins Katy to talk about research that addresses memory, forgetting, and reminders. Forgetting and “flaking out” on virtuous goals such as eating healthy, going to the gym, or voting is a major problem with negative consequences for individuals and communities. But with some subtle shifts in choice architecture, forgetting can be significantly reduced.

Todd Rogers is a behavioral scientist and professor of public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. His research paper with Kay Milkman is titled Reminders Through Association.

Finally, Angela Duckworth explains how planning prompts or implementation intentions can be used by everyone, including school-aged children, to improve follow-through on goals.

Angela Duckworth is professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance.

Choiceology is an original podcast from Charles Schwab.

If you enjoy the show, please leave a rating or review on Apple Podcasts.

Click to show the transcript

SPEAKER 1: And finally, in local news, a Bay Area woman is making an attempt at a new world record. She’ll try to recite pi to more than 68,000 decimal places, if you can believe it. The current record of 67,890 is held by Lu Chao of China. He’s held the record since 2005. We go live now to the attempt.

SPEAKER 2: 3.14159265358979323846 …

KATY MILKMAN: It’s amazing what some people are able to remember. There are memory champions who can tell you on what day of the week your birthday will occur 75 years from now or can instantly recall obscure sports statistics. There are people who can call up vivid details of experiences they had years ago as if they were happening now. These memory superheroes can make the rest of us look bad when we forget to pick up milk on the way home from work. But beyond the spectacle and novelty of extreme memorization lie some interesting concepts around the significance of remembering and forgetting in our day-to-day lives.

In this episode, you’ll hear about a topic I find so fascinating that I devoted a chapter of my new book, How to Change, to its ins and outs. That’s because forgetting is a surprisingly common problem that can have bigger consequences than most of us appreciate. Today, you’ll hear about some incredibly brave souls who hone their memory skills in order to avoid detection and capture in the world of espionage. And you’ll learn how you can leverage certain mental quirks to remember better from guests Todd Rogers and Angela Duckworth.

I’m Dr. Katy Milkman, and this is Choiceology, an original podcast from Charles Schwab. It’s a show about the psychology and economics behind our decisions. We bring you true stories involving high-stakes moments. And then, we explore the latest research in behavioral science to help you make better judgements and avoid costly mistakes.

When you think about forgetting, you probably conjure up a situation of relatively minor consequence. Maybe you think of the dry cleaning you forgot to pick up, which was surely still at the shop the next week. Or that dentist appointment you missed, which you were probably able to rebook easily. But for undercover agents in World War II, forgetting seemingly minor details could be a matter of life and death.

SARAH-LOUISE MILLER: Hi, I’m Sarah-Louise Miller. I am a doctoral candidate at the Department of War Studies in King’s College London.

KATY MILKMAN: Sarah-Louise studies the brave women who risked their lives to gather and transmit intelligence during the Second World War. We’ve asked her to tell us about one of them, Elizabeth Reynolds.

SARAH-LOUISE MILLER: So Elizabeth Reynolds is an extremely colorful character. She was born in New York. Her mother was English, so she was educated in Europe and was sent to an English public school. She was in France when World War II broke out. And she actually joined the American Hospital Ambulance Corps as a driver. And she was peripherally engaged in vaguely anti-German activities at that point.

KATY MILKMAN: Germany occupied France in 1942.

SPEAKER 5: Organized resistance in France was no longer possible. The government faced two alternatives retire to North Africa …

KATY MILKMAN: Elizabeth’s family was sent to an internment camp. But Elizabeth narrowly escaped by burying her American passport and fleeing to unoccupied France.

SARAH-LOUISE MILLER: In November 1942, she crossed France, zig-zagging across France, to reach the Swiss border. The Swiss actually saw her and thought, this is someone we can use. She’s very gutsy, very intelligent.

KATY MILKMAN: The British Consulate also recognized her success in evasion tactics. And in the summer of 1943, she enlisted as a courier with the British Special Operations Executive, or SOE. The SOE was a secret organization that helped resistance movements in German occupied countries, France being one of the most important.

SARAH-LOUISE MILLER: SOE’s F Section specifically existed to aid the liberation of France by assisting the French resistance via guerrilla warfare. And Churchill actually called it his Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare.

KATY MILKMAN: Elizabeth was one of the 39 female recruits in the SOE, all of whom spoke flawless French. It was extremely perilous work.

SARAH-LOUISE MILLER: The Germans would offer huge rewards to French people to hand over the names and the locations of SOE personnel. So you were taking your life in your hands every day.

KATY MILKMAN: It was not for the faint of heart. Before being deployed, SOE agents were told they had less than a 50% chance of avoiding detection and capture.

SARAH-LOUISE MILLER: They were under no illusions. And they knew that if they were caught, it was impossible to get them home. It was impossible to do anything about it. So it would mean certain imprisonment, most likely torture and execution. And for some of them, that was the case.

KATY MILKMAN: As a courier, Elizabeth delivered messages to key Allied personnel in her circuit in France often on foot or by bicycle.

SARAH-LOUISE MILLER: Elizabeth was at great risk both to herself and her circuit. And in turn, the British work in sabotage if she were to be caught with any information on her that indicated she was working for the SOE.

KATY MILKMAN: Some couriers wrote messages down on slips of paper and hid them in their shoes, but not Elizabeth.

SARAH-LOUISE MILLER: Elizabeth quite famously refused to commit anything to paper, as she was a very clever woman. She did not do the slips-of-paper-in-the-shoes thing, with information on, because she just thought it was too dangerous. So she actually managed to remember and recite verbatim messages that she needed to hand over, so details including names, locations, all sorts. She just made sure she memorized them. She played a crucial role in the escape lines. It was obviously useful to get as many refugees and downed pilots and stuff out of France as possible because they could all be debriefed for information. It was so hard to get intelligence from inside occupied territories, so the information that people who had been in France for a while could give the British authorities was actually quite valuable.

KATY MILKMAN: Elizabeth managed to work undetected for some time.

SARAH-LOUISE MILLER: She probably should have packed up a bit before she did. Her network leader was actually quite concerned that she was beginning to stick out. She was apparently very tall and quite English-looking. And he thought that she stuck out a bit, and that made her a risk to herself. So he actually arranged for her to go back to England. On the way to her pickup site, she passed through Paris, and she decided to visit a friend at a safe house in Paris.

And unfortunately, someone had tipped off the Germans that she was going to do that. And she and the safe-house owner were promptly arrested as soon as she arrived. After being betrayed, she and her friend were both taken to prison and left overnight in a cell together, which is quite unusual. Instead they were normally split up. During the night that they were left alone together in a cell, they made up a story that they were going to both stick to. And you see this in cop dramas all the time—you split up the two suspects and see if their stories are different because even the minutest detail is different gives away that they’ve made it up. So they went over and over it all night.

The story was that she was a U.S. citizen, but she’d missed Paris so much that she decided to come back and live there under the radar. So they made up this story, committed the details to memory, and pretty much awaited interrogation that they knew was coming. They were put into solitary confinement for a bit before they were interrogated. So you can imagine them sat there, just going over and over these details, trying to remember as much as possible to match.

KATY MILKMAN: It’s excruciating to imagine the fate that awaited them. But if they could anticipate what they would be asked and each remember precisely all of the details they had concocted, they might have a chance.

SARAH-LOUISE MILLER: When she was finally interrogated, both Elizabeth and her friend gave their cover story that they’d come up with. And the Germans believed them completely and never linked her or her friend at the SOE.

KATY MILKMAN: Elizabeth was spared possible torture and execution—and actually released from prison. A very unusual fate for captured SOE agents. She wasn’t out of the woods yet, but she was still alive. She was sent to the Vittel internment camp where she stayed until France was liberated in 1944. She stayed in France and returned to civilian life, working in advertising. She was awarded the Legion of Honor and the Croix de Guerre by France. And eventually recalled her remarkable career in her book, Full Moon to France.

Elizabeth Reynolds and other SOE agents like her were incredibly brave, quick-witted, patriotic, and resourceful. But another thing that made them great agents was their ability to remember key information. So, how did agents memorize messages and deliver them, sometimes verbatim? How did they manage to do that and memorize all the other things crucial to their missions? Morse code, security-check numbers, cover stories, code names, and countless other details. The SOE training records are limited, but we spoke with Warren Reed, a former Australian Secret Intelligence Service officer, who shed some light on some memorization techniques important to spy craft.

WARREN REED: My name is Warren Reed. I live in Sydney in Australia. I was recruited into the Australian Secret Intelligence Service and was trained for six months by MI6 in London and then served in Asia in the Middle East.

KATY MILKMAN: Warren explains how, during his early training in the U.K., he learned memory techniques based on association.

WARREN REED: I was in London sitting with a dozen odd others, and the services psychologist came in who did memory training. He was quite a fearsome character. And he came in, and we had no idea what was on that day. So he comes in, and we’re all sitting in a semicircle. And he just points to one chap and said, “16 green lemons.” We thought, “God, what’s this about?” And then, he pointed to someone else and said, “36 Marylebone Street, SW1.” And then, maybe a bank card number. We thought, “Oh God, this must be memory training.” So he ran through 10 things, and none of us could get all 10. And then he slapped his forehead and he said, “Oh my God. Where the hell does MI6 get this human material from these days to dish up dullards like this to me?”

KATY MILKMAN: It was a harsh introduction. But Warren’s trainer would go on to teach them a memorization technique that was essential to success in the field.

WARREN REED: A better system to use is either the house or apartment you’re living in now, or if you’ve moved around a lot, use the childhood home you grew up in that you know really well. And when I said, “16 green lemons,” you could come up the front path to the front door. And in a string bag or something someone has hung a bag with 16 green lemons in it. You know they’re lemons—they’re not limes or anything like that. And they put their hand in a big tin of bright green paint. And they’ve daubed the numerals 1-6—16—on the door. And I remember him saying, the more graphic you are in placing the thing you need to remember there, the more it will stick in your mind.

So he said, “I’ll give you all now two or three minutes to work out a circuit through your childhood home. And then, I’ll give you 25 things and I expect no one will make a mistake.” And we all did that. And then, we did the 25, no one made a mistake. Then we all went up to 50. And then, over the next few days and weeks, some of us could actually remember the things we done a week or two before. We tried to do that and we could. And some of us went up over a 100 just to see what we could do. So, once you start using it, your whole life becomes imbued with this.

KATY MILKMAN: This technique of picturing things you want to remember in your home or a familiar place is commonly called using a memory palace, or the method of loci. It’s a strategy of memory enhancement which leans on the power of visualization to enhance the recall of information. Evidence shows that using this tactic to memorize a 12-item shopping list doubles the number of people who can remember at least 11 of 12 items. And from Warren’s experience in the field in the 1970s and ’80s, the technique was indispensable. Much like the SOE spies in World War II, memorization was crucial in maintaining cover.

WARREN REED: If you’re working undercover, you need a very solid memory backup, so that when you’re playing a cover role, you play only that role and don’t accidentally slip back into your spy mode. And if you’re using a false identity, where you have totally different papers, and documents, and license, a passport, whatnot, with a totally different name, a different background and everything, possibly a different nationality, different native language, all of those, the details of that false persona have to be remembered to such a degree that they become instinctive.

If you take notes and the local security service is watching you, then they have all the evidence they need to put you in prison, declare you persona non grata, or kick you out, or torture and get a lot of information and then kill you. So you can’t take notes. So it’s the need to block remember vast amounts of information. I mean, a favorite trick of the security service if you’re using a false identity would be to call out your real name if they knew it. And so if someone calls it out, you don’t instinctively look around because you’re not in that persona. So memory just runs through everything you do.

KATY MILKMAN: Warren Reed is a former agent of the Australian Secret Intelligence Service, and the author of several spy novels including his latest, An Elephant on Your Nose. Sarah-Louise Miller is a doctoral candidate at the Department of War Studies at King’s College London. I have links to more information about Warren and Sarah-Louise in the show notes and at

Forgetting crucial details in the world of espionage can be deadly. But forgetting can also have a big impact on many aspects of civilian life. A single missed dentist appointment, as I mentioned earlier, may not be terribly consequential, but flaking out on a cancer screening or forgetting to enroll in your company’s 401(k) program could be a huge problem. According to a recent study, the average adult forgets three things each day. That’s in part because it’s difficult to retain information if we’ve only thought about it once or twice. You can see why teachers and spy trainers rely on repetition and drills to make information stick—although we tend to underestimate its consequences. Forgetting is a key reason that many of us fail to follow through on anywhere from 40 to 70% of the things we intend to do, ranging from making it to the ballot box to getting a vaccine.

Of course, the amount of forgetting increases relative to the number of tasks and stimuli you have to juggle in your day-to-day life. The modern world makes it increasingly difficult to remember everything you need to do, but there are strategies to help you forget less often. I invited my friend and collaborator Todd Rogers to join me to talk about some important research that addresses memory, forgetting, and reminders. I feature Todd and his research prominently in my new book, How to Change, because he first taught me about just how important flake out and forgetting can be when it comes to acting on our best intentions. Todd Rogers is a behavioral scientist and professor of public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. Hi, Todd, thank you so much for joining me today.

TODD ROGERS: Really happy to be here, Katy.

KATY MILKMAN: First, I was hoping you could talk a little bit about the evidence proving that remembering can be a real and important barrier to achievement. Because I think sometimes people can dismiss forgetting as sort of a trivial issue that just doesn’t have important consequences.

TODD ROGERS: Sure. I first started wrestling with this when we realized that almost everybody in a poll says that they intend to vote, when you ask them if they intend to vote. And then you look at the voter file afterwards, and only about half of them do actually vote. Now, that drop-off, that flake out, may be because they never intended to and they were just saying nice things that they thought we wanted to hear. But I think a lot of people just genuinely forgot. What’s interesting is that people are more likely to flake out, which is not follow through on their intentions, for virtuous things as opposed to everything else. So going to the gym, eating healthy, voting, putting in extra time at work, or whatever we think we should do, we’re more likely to flake on that than we are on other intentions like “I’m going to eat dessert tonight.”

KATY MILKMAN: I want to talk a bit about some of the behavioral science research suggesting ways that we can get better at remembering as well as some of their limits, of course. Could you talk a little bit about planning prompts?

TODD ROGERS: So a planning prompt is a prompt that makes people think through how they will concretely implement whatever they intend to do. So it is a prompt that makes them fill out a plan and think through a plan. For example, when we do planning prompts for voting, we say, “Remember to make a plan.” People say they intend to vote. Then we say, “OK, what time will you go on election day?” And they’re like, “Oh, after 8:30 a.m., after I drop my kids off.” And like, “Where will you be beforehand?” “Oh, I'll be at my kid’s preschool.” “What will the biggest obstacle be?” And then I’ll say, “Well, maybe I’ll be late for work.” And then it’s, “Well, what can you do to overcome that obstacle?” Then the person will say something like, “Oh, I could probably start my workday a little bit later than normal.” The prompt just to have them think through what time they’ll do it, where they’ll be coming from, what obstacles they’ll foresee, and how they can overcome the obstacle.

KATY MILKMAN: And how does that help with forgetting?

TODD ROGERS: Just holding the intention, in that example, to vote. I say that I formed the intention a week beforehand. Then Election Day, Tuesday, rolls around, I don’t recall it. And then, the day unwinds, and I see people with their stickers, and I’m like, “Oh shoot, I was supposed to do that this morning.” And so the sort of … the time unfolds, and I don’t remember when at a time when I could have enacted my intention. So the planning prompt, it helps link people with that moment when they can perform the action, which is vote, so that it comes to mind in that moment.

KATY MILKMAN: Could you talk a little bit about some of the research you’ve done proving that this is an effective strategy for helping people follow through on their intentions?

TODD ROGERS: Sure. Some of the original research we did was in the 2008 presidential election. Like I said, everybody says they’re going to vote, but only about half do. We ran an experiment, a get-out-the-vote experiment, where one group of people was asked to form an intention, which is basically, “Do you intend to vote?” They all say yes. Then the other group, we say, “What time will you vote? How will you get there? Where will you be coming from?” And they are randomly assigned to these different conditions. There’s 300,000 people in this experiment in Pennsylvania in the 2008 presidential. And then, we look at the voter file afterwards, and we see who voted and who didn’t. And we find that adding the planning prompt more than doubled the impact of just asking them if they intended to vote. So we run a big randomized experiment in a big election with hundreds of thousands of people, and we find that adding that little short battery of questions that forces people to make a concrete plan makes them more likely to actually follow through on their voting intention.

KATY MILKMAN: I love that study. OK. So we’ve talked about planning prompts, which are one solution to forgetting. But how about just good old-fashioned reminders? Could you talk a little bit about some of the evidence suggesting that they can work too and what their limitations are?

TODD ROGERS: Yes. Reminders can be powerful but when they are timely. And there’s a great study that involves valets returning cars to patrons. And in the control group, they get out of the car, the patron gets in, and then they drive down the road. And grad students are hiding 50 feet down the road, behind a bush, looking at whether they’re wearing a seatbelt. So they’re interested in whether they’re wearing seatbelts. And then in the first reminder group, when the patron hands the valet the keys, the valet says, “Remember to wear your seatbelt.” Then the valet runs off, four and a half minutes later comes back in the car, and is getting out, the patron gets in, car drives down the road. The hidden grad student sees whether they’re wearing the seatbelts. Trivial to no effect, basically being reminded four and a half minutes ago to wear your seatbelt had no effect.

But then, in the really important condition, the patron hands the keys to the valet, the valet takes off, gets the car, drives up. And as the valet is getting out of the car, turns to the patron, and says, “Please remember to wear your seatbelt” and then runs off. And then 50 feet down the road, the grad student hidden behind the bush looks at whether they’re wearing the seatbelt. And it has a giant effect on increasing their seatbelt wearing. And the takeaway of that is that reminders can be really powerful if they are delivered just before the behavior can be enacted. But when they’re delivered in some far-off time, they’re of trivial value. So think about reminding someone six hours beforehand that they need to do the laundry or do some task versus reminding exactly in that moment, or think about your phone reminding you the day beforehand to do something. These have small effects. Reminders can be really potent if you can get in front of the person in the moment when the behavior can be performed.

KATY MILKMAN: OK. And I want to turn from that to one of my favorite studies that we have ever done together, Todd, which was your brilliant idea to sort of create a way that timely reminders could be created without technology, I will say. I think that’s an accurate description. You had this idea that we could create reminders through association. Will you describe our alien study?

TODD ROGERS: The idea with the alien study was, again, people have intentions to do things in the future, but they often forget to follow through with them. And so how do we bring those intentions to mind exactly in the moment when they can perform it? And what we did with a coffeeshop in Harvard Square was on a Tuesday we passed out hundreds of coupons that can only be used on Thursday. And we passed them out to patrons leaving the coffeeshop. So people who intended to go back on Thursday. And for half of them, we just said, “Remember to use this on Thursday.” And for the other half, we said, “There’s going to be a toy alien sitting in front of the cash register on Thursday. When you see that alien, remember to use this coupon.”

And so the alien was always there on Thursday for everybody. But for half of them, it was just a weird thing that was in front of them, and it was a quirky coffeeshop anyway. But for the other half, they noticed the alien because it’s weird, and they end up associating it with the coupon. And so they end up becoming much more likely to use their coupon that day. And so we found was that associating on Tuesday the use of the coupon with the alien, which would be present on Thursday, made people more likely to remember to use the coupon on Thursday.

KATY MILKMAN: OK. And a cynical comment sometimes people ask us is like, “Why didn’t you just put a sign in front of the cash register on Thursday that said, ‘use your coupon?’”

TODD ROGERS: Yeah. It’s not cynical—it’s sensible. Yes, why not just put a reminder? In this coffeeshop, as in a lot of coffeeshops, there’s tons of signs in front of cash registers. And so, Katy, you and I ran another study where we had a weird distinctive cue in front of a cash register where there were tons of other signs. And another condition where there was a sign saying, “Remember to use your coupon.” And people don’t notice the 15th sign in front of a cash register, but they do notice a weird toy alien that’s never been there before. And so it’s really a challenge of how do you capture people’s attention in the environment that you’re trying to enact the behavior?

KATY MILKMAN: Awesome. OK. One more thing I want to talk about related to this topic is people’s sophistication about their forgetting problems. Do you feel people are pretty sophisticated and basically mostly solve the problem for themselves when they anticipate they might forget, or you think that there’s room for people to do better?

TODD ROGERS: One thing that I think is really interesting about reminders is that everybody thinks it’s obvious that reminders can be useful, but they also don’t realize how much they need reminders. And so, as a follow-up, as part of our set of studies on this project, we did a study where we offered people the chance to pay us for a reminder in the future to do something that will earn them a lot more money. And so, this was really a test of—do they think they’re going to remember? And how much are they willing to pay to remember to overcome their forgetting? And what you and I found, and I really liked this, it was a way of really showing that people massively underestimate their forgetting. And because of that, they’re not willing to pay to remind themselves, which is just a sort of a metaphor for they’re not willing to take steps like planning prompts and scheduling to make sure that they end up in that future moment following through on the thing they intended to do.

KATY MILKMAN: Right. And we found that basically people lost a lot of money. They left a lot of money on the table. If they had just paid us a small fee for a reminder, they would’ve made a lot more in total.

TODD ROGERS: Right. They’re not sophisticated about their own forgetting. We say “they” only because it is a discrete set of participants. But it should always be …

KATY MILKMAN: But it’s us too.



TODD ROGERS: It should always be, we don’t realize how much we forget.

KATY MILKMAN: OK. How can people help themselves achieve more if they’re familiar with all this research you’ve just described?

TODD ROGERS: There’s two different perspectives on this. The first is how do I become more likely to follow through on my intentions? And one is concretely think through planning, schedule things, and then also set up my environment so that I’m more likely to remember. I need to mail a envelope that my daughter wrote a letter to my grandmother. So I put it in my shoe because I can’t leave the house without putting my shoe on. I’ll be like, “What’s this envelope doing here? Oh, I’m supposed to mail it.” Basically, structuring the environment so that I remember even if I think I'm going to. And then, the other side is how do I create the conditions for other people to be more likely to follow through on their virtuous intentions? And so the first is how do I, and the other is how do I create environment for other people?

And that can be prompting people to make a concrete plan. And sometimes that can feel patronizing. And so you have to be artful and delicate about it. But sometimes guiding people through making a plan. You often see in airports reminders that are weird and associated with your parking spot, so that you can help people remember. And so you can, as a third party or a choice architect, create environment to help people become more likely to remember. And then, as just an individual like me who has a terrible memory, you can just take steps proactively to protect yourself from yourself.

KATY MILKMAN: Or like me. I need to do that too. That’s why we both studied this topic.


KATY MILKMAN: Todd, this was so fun. Thank you very much for joining me. I appreciate it.

TODD ROGERS: My pleasure—thanks for having me.

KATY MILKMAN: Todd Rogers is a professor of public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. And the work he described here is featured prominently in a chapter of my new book, How to Change: The Science of Getting from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be, which is coming out on May 4th. I have a link to the book and to the paper on reminders through association that Todd and I collaborated on in the show notes and at

My book’s key message is that there are lots of different barriers to change. And to get where you want to be, it’s critical to understand what’s holding you back and deploy solutions that are tailor-made for solving those obstacles. Forgetting is certainly not the most pernicious barrier to change—though it can be a bigger barrier than many of us appreciate. The book talks about the challenge of getting started and how to overcome it by capitalizing on fresh starts, the topic of another Choiceology episode from a few seasons ago. It also talks about impulsivity and procrastination and how each can be mastered. And it covers many of the other common obstacles to change too, from low confidence to inertia. A takeaway that’s central to the book and to this show that I hope you’ll remember is that the right solution depends on the problem you’re facing.

Whatever your financial goals, starting with a financial plan is one of the best ways to help you get there. That includes breaking down your specific goals into the concrete tasks you’ll need to take in order to achieve them—and creating specific reminders to complete each task. Check out the episode of the Financial Decoder podcast called “Are Financial Plans Just for the Wealthy?” to learn more. You can find it at or wherever you get your podcasts.

As Todd Rogers mentioned, flaking out on virtuous intentions is a real problem. And while flake out has many causes besides forgetting, including laziness and distraction, forgetting may be the easiest of these obstacles to overcome. Timely reminders are a great solution when all you need to do is take a simple action at a known point in time. But life isn’t always that simple. When it’s not, cue-based plans can be a valuable way to combat flake out. And you can use this tool to help yourself, or you can prompt other people to make cue-based plans so they’ll be more likely to follow through on their best intentions. Cue-based plans—like a plan of action with a memorable cue. Cues can be anything that captures your attention and triggers recall from a specific time or location to an object you expect to encounter, like a toy alien in our coffeeshop experiment.

A cue-based plan takes the form “When X happens, I’ll do Y.” And of course, you fill in your own X and Y. An example of a cue-based plan is “Whenever I get a raise, I’ll increase my monthly retirement savings contribution.” Planning has a host of benefits besides the ones I’ve already mentioned. It helps you break your goals into bite-size chunks, relieves you of the need to think about what you’ll do in the moment, and acts like a pledge to yourself, which increases your commitment to your goal. One of my close friends and collaborators at Wharton, the psychologist and bestselling author Angela Duckworth has done some work with NYU Professors Peter Gollwitzer and Gabriele Oettingen, showing just how useful cue-based planning can be, even for kids. And I asked her to give a quick description of that work for the show. Here’s Angela.

ANGELA DUCKWORTH: I first learned about planning prompts/implementation intentions when I was in graduate school. And I mean, my mind was blown. I had just left the classroom as a math teacher and become a PhD student in psychology. And I was just like, “Oh my gosh, we should be teaching this to all students everywhere.” So we’ve taught students how to make these plans on their own. And also, how to do the thing that is also important for students to do, just like set goals that are important for them. So not only to plan how to follow through on their goals, but to set the goals in the first place.

And what we find in our work is that students who are even as young as 10 years old, for example, can basically follow the same exact strategies as full-grown adults. And in fact, one of our studies had students who were in fifth grade, so they were about 10, but they were actually reading at a third-grade level. So I think the insight is that not only are planning prompts good for adults, younger people, maybe as early as eight or 10, can also benefit.

KATY MILKMAN: I really love that study. And I love how handy planning prompts are. But before you get too excited about the power of forming cue-based plans, there’s an important caveat. If you form too many at once, you may be discouraged, and your commitment may dwindle. So be choosy about which goals you’ll plan for at any given time. And finally, as you might remember from our episode on the topic of simplification, when plans get complex and involve more than one or two steps, checklists can be an invaluable way to keep track of things that matter.

You’ve been listening to Choiceology, an original podcast from Charles Schwab. If you’ve enjoyed the show, we’d be really grateful if you’d leave us a review on Apple Podcasts. You can also follow us for free in your favorite podcasting app. And if you want more of the kinds of insights we bring you on Choiceology about how to improve your decisions, you can order my new book, How to Change: The Science of Getting from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be, or sign up for my monthly newsletter, Milkman Delivers, at

Next time, you’ll hear a fascinating story about a chemistry student whose failed experiment led him to transform an industry. And I’ll speak with bestselling author and decision strategist Annie Duke about the hidden value of quitting. I’m Dr. Katy Milkman. Talk to you soon.

SPEAKER 9: For important disclosures, see the show notes, or visit

Important Disclosures

All expressions of opinion are subject to change without notice in reaction to shifting market conditions.

The comments, views, and opinions expressed in the presentation are those of the speakers and do not necessarily represent the views of Charles Schwab.

Data contained herein from third-party providers is obtained from what are considered reliable sources. However, its accuracy, completeness or reliability cannot be guaranteed.

The policy analysis provided by the Charles Schwab & Co., Inc., does not constitute and should not be interpreted as an endorsement of any political party.

Investing involves risk, including loss of principal.

The book, How to Change: The Science of Getting from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be, is not affiliated with, sponsored by, or endorsed by Charles Schwab & Co., Inc. (CS&Co.). Charles Schwab & Co., Inc. (CS&Co.) has not reviewed the book and makes no representations about its content.

Apple Podcasts and the Apple logo are trademarks of Apple Inc., registered in the U.S. and other countries.

Google Podcasts and the Google Podcasts logo are trademarks of Google LLC.

Spotify and the Spotify logo are registered trademarks of Spotify AB.


Thumbs up / down votes are submitted voluntarily by readers and are not meant to suggest the future performance or suitability of any account type, product or service for any particular reader and may not be representative of the experience of other readers. When displayed, thumbs up / down vote counts represent whether people found the content helpful or not helpful and are not intended as a testimonial. Any written feedback or comments collected on this page will not be published. Charles Schwab & Co., Inc. may in its sole discretion re-set the vote count to zero, remove votes appearing to be generated by robots or scripts, or remove the modules used to collect feedback and votes.