Human beings waste an awful lot of time. Consider my process for writing this article: Begin writing, check email, make coffee, write some more, drink coffee, peruse Facebook, take a meaningless personality quiz (only to confirm what I already knew), tell myself I shouldn’t procrastinate, write more, check email again, respond to a non-pressing message, and finally, get up to make more coffee. Believe it or not, at some point I actually finished writing the thing.
I have plenty of guilt about my shameful time management skills, but I’m afraid that I may have also contributed to what Dan Ariely, the Duke University professor and renowned behavioral economist, describes as his “marginal depression” about humans’ wasted potential.
“You think about the amount of human creativity and human ability to do good and the amount of progress we can make and you see what people end up doing,” Ariely told me in an interview last week. “They’re just kind of squandering their time in all sorts of terrible ways and not fulfilling their own happiness, not doing anything useful. The human stupidity really weighs on me. It’s like a depression—a marginal depression.”
Ariely, whose first book Predictably Irrational highlighted how painfully incompetent we are at making optimal financial decisions (and poked holes in the theory of supply and demand), has been researching human fallibility for years. (No wonder the guy is a little despondent.) But there is reason for a small, newfound source of hope. Along with Stanford University computer science professor Yoav Shoham and Jacob Bank, a Stanford doctoral candidate, Ariely has co-founded a company that aims to help people make better use of their most precious resource—time.
The trio’s first product is an application called Timeful, a name that their Mountain View, Calif-based company shares. At first glance, the iOS app seems like a slightly souped-up calendar tool: it automatically synchronizes with existing calendars and has a familiar interface. But the app also instructs users to pick from a list of health- and happiness-minded tasks—running, flossing, calling Mom or Dad—in addition to the usual personal or work-related to-do list. It then incorporates all of that data, which can include sleep patterns and designated productive times of the day, to suggest time slots for everything. “Figuring out what to do with your time is a really complex computational problem,” Ariely says.
Much to my relief, Ariely posits that we are pretty much all unable to take all factors into account when deciding what to do, and when. Faced with myriad big tasks and smaller to-do list items, plus the difficulty of estimating how long it will take us to complete something and which time of day we’re best able to focus, we often turn to the easiest task at hand: re-reading unanswered emails or updating one’s Facebook status.
Translation: We procrastinate. A lot.
Making matters worse is the fact that most of today’s digital calendars aren’t well-equipped to remind us of the kinds of things we typically do outside of work but could possibly do during work—like calling Mom and Dad, running, or even flossing. In other words, today’s calendar apps seem to lack the smarts or focus in providing a more holistic view of our day, incorporating both what we need to do (like writing an article) and what we should aspire to do (like go for a lunchtime run).
“The calendar is great to represent meetings,” Ariely says. “But we want to achieve many more things in life than meetings.” And yet, when we see an open slot in our calendar, he says, we think we can fill it with yet another meeting.
Teaching someone how to make better use of their time doesn’t seem to work—so if an app automatically finds time for you to do the things you need to, want to, and should do, you are more likely to actually get them done. Therein lies the behavioral science at work in Timeful, with a few technological twists to help facilitate it.
“The system needs to capture all of the things that are vying for your time,” says Bank, who serves as the company’s chief executive. “And it needs to help you make time for them.” According to the company, Timeful’s scheduling suggestions are based on a so-called Intention Rank, an algorithm that uses machine learning to rank activities within time slots. Underneath it is a data model—Timeful calls it its “Intention Genome”—that breaks down intentions to basic components and classifies them.
“With many [other] productivity tools, you work for the system rather than the system working for you,” says Shoham, who has co-founded (and sold) two previous startups. He adds that the Timeful calendar is just the first app for the company, which raised nearly $7 million in Series A funding earlier this year. Down the road, Timeful could integrate data from wearables and other information in order to make more informed suggestions to users.
Like any new productivity tool, there is a bit of a time-consuming learning curve with Timeful. The app doesn’t take long to set up, but it does take a while for the user to get used to having an interface that incorporates both a traditional calendar and a suggested list of tasks, some of which don’t have a clear beginning and end (such as laundry). The more information and preferences you feed the app—which, incidentally, takes more time—the better it will theoretically make suggestions tailored to you.
Ariely is unlikely to recover from his marginal depression anytime soon. “The task of time management just takes too much time,” he says, with a hint of defeat in his voice. (Ariely may succeed in helping to solve time mismanagement with his app, but there are plenty of other human incompetencies that keep him up at night. He likes to point out that about 44% of human deaths are aided or caused by bad decision making.)
Here’s another downer: Timeful arrives in a category bursting with calendar and productivity apps. And really, who has time to evaluate them based on algorithmic superiority? We’re all too busy tackling much more important tasks—like which pizza topping most closely matches our personality.
Inexplicably, I got mushrooms—about the only food that I hate with a passion. I’m sure there’s good reason for it, but I’ve got another pot of coffee brewing, and I’m pretty sure I just saw another email come in.