How often do we hear someone talk about performing a routine task “when I think about it”? The corollary for that one is when the task goes undone, the excuse is likely to be “I didn’t think about it.” We hang up the phone after talking to Sam for 15 minutes and then remember the 3 things we really needed to ask. We think about the application we need to submit the day after the deadline. We wake up at 3:00 A.M. thinking about needing to buy ketchup. The next day we walk right past ketchup at the grocery store without a clue. If only we could think about things at the right time.

Let me pose this question: When is the last time you thought about chocolate ducks? My guess is that you have not thought about chocolate ducks in a while. Yet, what are you thinking about right now…? Yep, that right—chocolate ducks! A simple trigger caused you to shift your attention, even if for a brief moment.

In all seriousness, I believe that all of us do things when we think about them. The challenge is to develop some type of mechanism which causes us to think about them at the right time. Car manufacturers understand this concept and build in a little chime to indicate the fuel level is low. That mechanism causes the driver to think about getting gas at the exact point the tank is approaching empty.

Cooks understand this concept and set timers to cause them to think about taking the cake out of the oven at just the right time. Merchants buy air time so that their commercials can remind us right at the peak of the gift-giving season of the products they sell.

Some people seem to always be doing the right thing at the right time. Others are continually letting things slip through the cracks. What is the difference?

If it is true that I do things “when I think about it,” then the magic becomes developing a system which causes me to think about it at the right time. Yet there is one more crucial step. The real magic is making that system easy enough that I will sustain it not for a week or a month, but for a lifetime.

Countless times during the day, responsibilities come my way which cannot be handled at that moment. What I can do is trap that thought before it escapes. That reminder likely goes straight into the BlackBerry or Outlook worded clearly enough that its meaning will be understood weeks later. If the ideas are flying and the exact task is hazy, my journal traps the conversation and I flesh out the “to-dos” at a more quiet time later in the day. Or, when obligations or thoughts come “on the fly” as I am walking down the hall or sitting in traffic, the memo pad I carry in my shirt pocket traps the basic idea.

What I can do is look at everything I have trapped during the day, make decisions about when I want to see each task again, and word them clearly in my signature tool. Now, everything I wanted to think about today is going to appear on the list for today. All I have to do is look at it. If I need something more, adding an alarm to any appointment or task causes me to think about it at the precise time I need a reminder. One of the beauties of organizing with a digital tool is that when Sam calls unexpectedly, quickly keying “Sam” in the find command on my BlackBerry or in Outlook brings up a list of everything I wanted to talk to Sam about.

We live in a world that is potentially filled with stress. In February 2003, Fast Company magazine referenced data from The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stating that 80% of our medical expenditures are now stress related. The National Mental Health Association estimates that 75-90% of all visits to physicians are stress related. Tools as simple as a memo pad or as complex as a smartphone combined with a strategy for how to use them can relieve a good bit of unneeded stress.

Those little tools serve as our personal assistants and remind us at just the right time of our meetings, the gifts we have to buy, the reports we have to write, and even the chocolate ducks we might like to see on an Easter morning. All the while, we are able to focus and be fully present in the moment. Carrying that smartphone or memo pad, and developing the discipline to use it, is a small price to pay for the freedom from stress that it brings.

A very good friend who proof-read the original draft of this post asked, “Did you write this with me in mind?” I was a little surprised, seeing as how this person is someone I view as being one of the most having-it-all-together people I know. The question did let me know that this message is one that probably speaks to us all at some level. Somehow, it clicked for me my senior year in high school and has made all the difference ever since. Perhaps it will click for someone else today.

We do it when we think about. That’s our nature. We just need an easy system, one that runs constantly in the background, does our remembering for us, and nudges us at the right moment. As we begin a new year that holds so much potential for each of us, can there be a better time to adopt a simple tool and simple system which will allow us to unleash some of that potential?