Science behind sticky note method of recognition

The Science Behind the Sticky Note

On a typical day at HMA, you will find the following items on my desk: my laptop, a collection of pens, my notebook, and multiple sticky notes with a few words or numbers written on them. I have what I would consider an efficient method of task management that I optimize through the use of cheap, disposable Post-it notes. If you walk past my desk you are likely to find personal reminders to email certain clients, pay a parking ticket or to simply remember to wash my coffee mug at the end of the day. Much to my surprise, the “sticky note method” is less common in our office than I would have thought. How could this be?

As a marketing professional, I understand the significance of effectively relaying your message to your target audience. Possessing a creative skill set has never been my strong suit, so brief, direct messaging has always been an effective and efficient method for me. The fact that a short phrase could remind me of a much broader topic piqued my interest. I have always enjoyed the simplicity that the sticky note provides. But why? Was it my desire for efficiency? Was it my confidence in my summarization skills and effective note taking? I decided to do some further research on the matter.

Recognition and recall

My research led me to uncover several theories on how the human memory works. An article on The Human Memory explained that there are two basic methods humans use to access memory. The first one, recognition, is a largely subconscious process that the brain uses to compare an event or physical object with a previously experienced encounter with a similar event or object. This process enables us to remember things such as a person’s face when we see them. This seems fairly basic but requires that the stimuli (the person’s face) be present at the initiation of memory access.

Recall, the second method, is a two-step process that involves uncovering information stored in the memory without the presence of the stimuli. Recall involves the retrieval of “candidate items” and the process of a familiarity decision to determine the correct information. Recall is how we remember a person’s name. Basically, when you see someone you’ve met before, you will recognize his or her face subconsciously. Your brain will then begin the process of retrieving candidate items, which will then be “filtered” to determine the correct name out of the possible options through memory recall.

Brand recognition

Recognition is seen as a somewhat superior method of memory access because it involves only a simple familiarity decision. I found this very interesting since I have always been intrigued by the concept of brand recognition. Informed consumers recognize brands and their logos and subconsciously associate them with certain attributes. Two of the more prominent methods of getting a brand to “stick” with consumers are the use of consistent logos and memorable taglines or slogans. Barbara Sullivan, CEO of the brand engagement firm Sullivan, is familiar with this topic. She has been quoted stating, “Good taglines create a lasting impression.” This is a powerful, yet sometimes misunderstood concept.

In a Forbes magazine article, Sharon Michaels said, “the ultimate marketing goal is to have your target market think of you, and your company when they are ready to buy.” Successful companies understand this notion. Every year Interbrand, the world’s largest brand consultancy firm, releases a list of the most recognizable brands. Atop 2013’s list were giants like Apple, Google, Coca-Cola and Nike. These companies have proven success through consistent performance, recognizable logos and memorable slogans. Nike’s “Just Do It” slogan has nothing to do with its products or services, and its logo has just as much to do with the products as does the slogan.

Yet, when consumers see that “swoosh,” thoughts of superior athletic wear and fitness gear come to mind. The idea of brand recognition is very complex, and I understand that a short blog post can’t possibly do it justice. However, I do think the general concept is sufficient for my purposes with this post.

Sticky note method of recognition

It appears my sticky note method has some scientific backing to help prove its effectiveness. By utilizing my brain’s recognition process, I have been able to create a method of brief, direct messages to trigger a natural response to access memory. A simple “send email” message lets me not only remember that I have to send an email, but also to whom and for what purpose. This method has supported my need to prioritize my tasks. Leaving myself these reminders allows me to focus on more important tasks while not forgetting the smaller, less important tasks.

From corporate branding to daily reminders, the message is clear: get your point across. Whether my marketing skills make me a better note taker or vice versa, I appreciate the ability to avoid using 100 words where 10 would suffice. I call it efficiency where others might call it laziness. Either way is fine with me. Bill Gates once said, “I choose a lazy person to do a hard job. Because a lazy person will find an easy way to do it.” So next time you see a desk covered in sticky notes, just know that there is a method to the madness.

What method of task management do you use? Do you use sticky notes? Do you have a calendar that you write your “to dos” on? I challenge you to audit your current method to evaluate its effectiveness as well as its efficiency. Who knows, maybe someday you’ll be an advocate for sticky notes as well!


  1. Good day Kalani,

    I utilize the ever so valuable dry erase board as my solution. To me it is like a giant version of a sticky note that just get’s used and adapted over and over again. I also need lots of different colors because that is simply a requirement of my “world”.

    I like to combine this tool with what I call multi-chaos journaling which is the reverse concept of simplification/streamling/organization in many ways.

    You start by having more than one journal and writing in them at different times in your life. You actually let them get a bid disorganized as it allows the flow of free thinking.

    Later you go back and try to take your semi-chaotic thoughts and organize/restructure them into new and different thoughts and ideas in another journal. Simply rinse and repeat and you have a very valuable brain storming resource.

    • Hi Andrew,

      Thanks for your feedback! I like the idea of multi-chaos journaling. Consolidating the various journals into one, not-so-chaotic, collection of thoughts seems like a very useful practice. I think it is very important for everyone to have their own organization method and it appears that you and I have found ours. Good luck with the chaos!

  2. I mentioned this to Keith on Facebook but wanted to make sure to share and share alike.

    I don’t know if my modified implementations of your solution will also work for you as I have a somewhat chaotic way of doing things sometimes.

    This is my combination/amalgamation of your sticky note science with what I call, dot box maintenance.

    Dot box maintenance is a system used when taking apart a complex item in my world.

    Required parts for a dot box system include a large “pigeon hole” box as my grandfather used to call it.

    You know, those boxes with all the sliding little drawers, I currently use a 5 x 6 which accommodates most things, 30 large slots or 60 smallish ones.

    Add in a large set of multi-colored dry erase markers.

    Now when you pull something out, put a colored dot.

    1)Place part into “pigeon hole” #1 (Top left Corner, bottom left, any corner will do.)

    -Just keep your reference frame.

    2)Place a colored dot on the front of that drawer. Continue dis-assembly in said fashion. Reverse and repeat for re-assembly.

    ***Additions to the dot box concept other than parts.

    -Put a note in a space in the box.
    -Draw a small picture, place in box.
    -Take an actual picture and cross reference with said note.

    So now I am doing what I call Sticky note “maze” which is like this just a larger scale.

    I personally need lots of physical solutions in my world and placing sticky notes all over as I walk around and then trying to “eliminate” them is super fun, so thanks.

    Going to try adding color because I like my world bright and shiny too.

    If you know anyone in the production world the next solution I see is to create sticky note science 2.0

    Sticky notes that are reusable…

  3. Hello again Kalani,

    No problem providing feedback. So something I was thinking about is that of course there is always the color note app. But in some ways I am just not that connected to my phone. Perhaps it is my dependance on a tangible/physical world.

    So in regards to a reusable physical sticky note. I’m pretty sure all that would be required is some melamine, thin stainless steel, and some neodymium magnets. Throw in a set of colorful pens, and well it sounds interesting in my head.

    Basically just little whiteboards the size of sticky notes. Heck, make them customizable to the individual.

    Thanks for your feed back on my feedback, and have a wonderful day.

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