Americans, on average, juggle about 12 prescription medicines. While this number is certainly skewed by older folks who have racked up a lot of pills, many of us have been prescribed a prescription medicine we need to take every single day. But on the whole, we’re not very good at doing that—one study showed an incredible 50 percent of Americans fail to adhere to their medication schedules, meaning they regularly skip doses or simply forget about a medication altogether.
Ironically, one reason for our forgetting may lie in the ways we try to help ourselves remember: Many of us turn to gadgets, apps, and other tools to assist our pathetic memories, but these methods don’t work very well. The most effective way to remember to take your pills involves exactly zero technology.
Reminder apps don’t work
There are a lot of tech tools out there designed to help you remember to take your medications. There are apps for your smartphone that will send you alerts, elaborate pill box systems that will speak to you, even smart pill dispensers that not only remind you to take your pills but also manage dispensing your dose. It’s terrific living in the future, isn’t it?
Except these tools don’t work. Studies have shown that use of medication reminder devices has exactly zero effect on adherence—that’s right, zero. One reason might be that these reminders actually just remind us that we’re sick, or not as young as we once were, and that negative connotation actually decreases the likelihood that we’ll take our meds as instructed. Or it’s possible that reminders become ineffective once we get used to them, the same way you can manage to sleep through your alarm several times a week.
Habit stacking is the key
So if technology can’t get us to take out life-saving medications, what can? The answer is pretty simple, actually: Habit stacking.
You have almost certainly already established a host of healthy, positive behaviors. You brush your teeth twice a day, take a shower, prepare meals, and maybe set aside a scheduled time for exercise. These habits are already ingrained in your routine to the point that when you travel somewhere, you’re unsettled until you figure out how to get your workout in. You don’t have to be reminded to do these things because they’re a part of your daily routine.
The trick is to “piggyback” a new prescription onto an existing. Taking your pill before you brush your teeth links the two actions, and soon you won’t need to think consciously about that pill—you’ll just pop it every morning when you step up to your bathroom sink. You can piggyback a pill onto any daily habit. If you’re supposed to take your meds with lunch, putting your pill bottle in the kitchen or in your lunch bag might be all you need to do.
It can take a while for the new habit to become permanent (there’s actually no set amount of time for a habit to bake in—you’ve just got to stick with it until it does), but attaching it to one you’ve already successfully established will make it a lot easier. The key to success is to choose existing habits that line up with the timing and other necessities of your prescriptions—the right times of day, whether the meds need to be taken with food, or other considerations.
One thing is for sure: You’ll have more and more pills to take the longer you live. Figuring out how to remind yourself to take them now will save you a lot of chaos later, when your breakfast has become more pills than food.