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Dan Ariely wants to help manage your time

(Dan Ariely | courtesy of Timeful)

Dan Ariely, a behavioral economist at Duke University who wrote the popular book Predictably Irrational, has a portfolio of apps he helped create for the iPhone. One, called Oranges2Apples, helped illustrate the economic concept of opportunity cost by showing people what else they could buy if they didn't spend money on a selected item. Another, called At A Boy, doled out compliments to the user (presumably to help with his research).

His newest — an app called Timeful that launched July 31 — appears to be a good bit handier. Founded with Jacob Bank, a Stanford PhD candidate, and Yoav Shoham, a Stanford computer science professor, their startup is attempting to combine a calendar, a to-do list and a good conscience all into one program.

Dubbed "intelligent time assistance," Timeful prompts users with suggestions for the best times to do things they say they want to accomplish. That could be making time for a complex assignment at work, carving out an hour for dinner with the family, or remembering to drink more water during the day. When users respond with feedback, the app "learns" when they do and don't like to tackle particular tasks — hopefully assisting people to better manage their time and get more done.

We spoke with Ariely recently about the startup, why our calendars are so full of meetings, and his own time management mistakes. The following excerpts from our conversation have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Q. You’re a behavioral economist with broad research interests. But what first interested you in time management, and making an app that would help people with it?

A. A lot of things start with my own irrationalities and my own problems in life. Many years ago I started doing research on time issues, mostly about procrastination. I became interested in the problems I was seeing with myself and the problems I was seeing with my students.

Because of the ways calendars are created, people actually take more meetings than they should. Why? Because meetings are incredibly easy to represent on the calendar. Two weeks from now, you see that Wednesday is open. But it’s not really open. It’s just that the things you need to do aren’t represented, and you don’t remember them. We have this satisfaction of having our calendar seem busy. We have the satisfaction of not saying 'no' to things. But at the same time, we’re chasing away things that are important to us for things that are unimportant.

There are lots of wonderful tools out there for to-do lists, but what they’ve done is make it incredibly easy to put things in. Take Evernote, for example. I love it for multiple reasons. But I have 792 things in Evernote. If I actually want to go in right now and decide what to do next, it would probably take me three to four hours. We put all these things in the future. We say we'll deal with it later, but dealing with it later has a cost.

Q. So how does your app, Timeful, try to solve the problem?

A. A meeting has to be at a particular time and you agree on it with somebody else. But something like laundry can happen anytime between Wednesday and Friday. It will take an hour, and it doesn’t really matter when as long as you do it at home. So every time you type something into the app, we try to understand what you’re saying: how long it will take you, what kind of cognitive capacity you'll need, where you need to be for it — at home, in the office, on the road. Then the second thing we do is we look at all the things you’re trying to accomplish, and try to figure out what’s the next best thing for you to do now. This is an incredibly tough and complex computational problem.

Q. And does it actually schedule on your calendar that next best thing, whether it’s laundry or two hours to think about a tough project?

A. It does pop up on your calendar, but it’s a different color and it’s clear that it’s a suggestion. Then you can say, “I like this suggestion” or “I don’t like this suggestion and I want to move it here.” Every time you do that, we learn. The algorithm starts from some general understanding of the population, but it is not tailored for you yet. The moment you use it, and you start saying this is a good time for me or not, the algorithm learns.

Q. So say the calendar starts suggesting that I exercise in the evening, but I actually like exercising in the morning. Will it learn that?

A. That’s right. And I’ll give you another example. I have a column that’s due on Wednesdays before 4 p.m. There’s lots of flexibility for when to do it, so how do I schedule it? I used to schedule it between 3 and 4 p.m. on Wednesday. That’s the deadline, right? But now, the app suggests doing it a few days earlier. Sometimes I say, "No, not today. Suggest it again to me tomorrow." And sometimes I say, "Yes, it’s a good time to do that."

The idea is for people to put in all they things they want to do as what we call "intentions," but not set them on the calendar. The calendar should be reserved only for things that have fixed time elements — going to the dentist, meetings and so on. Then, allow the algorithm to suggest when to do the rest. If you say what your intentions are, like “I want to exercise” and “I have a project that will take 30 hours to complete,” the algorithm will schedule it for you. And I think it can do a much better job.

Q. Why is that? Why are we not good at scheduling our intentions?

A. Part of it is that we have too many things to do. We’re each basically running a small business called our lives. We have bank accounts and bills and kids and activities, and we have too many things to read and too many things to look at. The complexity of life is just very, very high.

On top of that, I don’t think we use our time correctly. We have evidence showing that almost 80 percent of people take their most productive hours of the day, between, say, 8 and 10 a.m., and basically squander them on things like Facebook and e-mail. I have nothing against them, but they're not something you need high capacity to do. You have very few hours in the day when you’re at peak performance, so every minute of these hours that isn't spent doing something important is just waste.

Q. What about breaks? There’s this idea that taking strategic breaks makes us more productive. Does the app take that into account?

A. Right now we don’t exactly understand the world of breaks, and in particular we don’t understand what constitutes a "break." It seems that taking a break and meditating is very good, yet taking a break and checking e-mail is not very helpful. So Timeful has not yet added that as a deliberate parameter, but this is version one and it’s clearly on our roadmap.

Q. What’s the biggest mistake you yourself make when it comes to time management?

A. My biggest problem is saying 'yes' too often to things I shouldn’t say 'yes' to, especially if it’s long in the future.

Q. Can you make an app to help you with this? To help you say 'no'?

A. We are working on this. It’s actually a big problem, because it's about not seeing the opportunity cost. I look out a year from now, and it looks empty. I don’t see what I am giving up.

The other thing is the question of work-life balance or, as somebody wrote in a paper recently, work-life harmony. The calendar in its current form rarely represents our social desires and our family role. Unless you start putting stuff like playing with your kids or going for walks on your calendar, they’re less likely to be carried out. If you think about it, a lot of family stuff is not specifically timed.

Q. New tools like this always seem interesting, but then I try them and always find myself defaulting back to pen and paper for a list. Do you still use a notebook at all?

A. I stopped using paper and pencil. But if you think about it, up until now, my electronic to-do list hadn’t been that different from my regular one. It’s larger, and it might be easier to write, but because of that it’s also more daunting.

If we do our job correctly, this app could not be substituted by paper and pencil. Your notepad could never say something like, "It seems like you're waiting for a bus or a train, why don’t you call your mother? You haven’t talked to her in a week." We analyze where you are and what you have the capacity of doing at that moment, then suggest things.

Look, I can’t say we’ve solved the problem. There’s a lot to do. But I think this is what we need technology for: to use algorithms to help you do the things you can’t do well yourself.

Read also:

Tech review of Timeful

What the most productive workers have in common

The best (and worst) times to do things at work

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