How Apple Watch Alarms and Timers Save My Butt

My “prospective memory” is terrible. Technology is the only answer

Clive Thompson
6 min readOct 1, 2022


Another meta photo for a blog post

I own an Apple watch, but the truth is, I don’t use it for much. True, I monitor my health stats while cycling, and sometimes dictate quick text-message replies. But that’s probably only one-quarter of the times I use it.

The other 75% of uses?

It’s in setting alarms to remind myself to do things.

I am constantly lifting my wrist up to my mouth, Dick-Tracy-style, then summoning Siri and telling it to “set an alarm for 2:30 pm with the label [DO THIS PARTICULAR THING]”. Or I’ll set a timer to go off with a label, in, say, ten minutes. Just today, for example, I used alarms to remind myself to get ready ten minutes before a Zoom call was to start; to ding 15 minutes after I put a piece of salmon to cook in the oven; to remind myself to call my insurance company just after lunch; about a dozen more.

Why, precisely, am I so addicted to this usage? It’s because of a simple fact about human cognition — which is that we all tend to have really terrible “prospective memory”.

Prospective memory: The one that gives us all the trouble

Prospective memory is the act of remembering to do something.

It’s subtly different from other forms of memory. When you try to remember a conversation you had with your parents years ago, that’s “autobiographical” memory. If you try to remember the capital of France, that’s “semantic” memory, our recall of facts or events. But when you resolve — while sitting at the breakfast table — that later in the afternoon, on the way back from work, you should buy some dishwasher detergent? That’s prospective memory.

And here’s the thing: Of all our memory failures, prospective memory is the most common one. Research finds that 50% to 80% of the time when our memory fails, it’s our prospective memory breaking down. Sure, the other forms of memory fail too. We space out on names of relatives; we forget facts; we struggle to recall things that have happened to us. But the bulk of our forgetting isn’t facts or names. It’s our intentions. It’s about…



Clive Thompson

I write 2X a week on tech, science, culture — and how those collide. Writer at NYT mag/Wired; author, “Coders”.