These Scientists Want to Fix Your Terribly Disorganized Calendar

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Day planner
Photo: Don Carstens

Each weekday morning, energized with the optimism of a new day, I scrawl out a lengthy to-do list, detailing all the things I hope to accomplish by the end of the day. And then, inevitably, somewhere around 5 p.m., I look at the list again, this time with dismay at how many boxes are left unchecked. 

And you, too, probably have the best intentions for your days. You’ll go for a run! Finish a project ahead of deadline! Call your mom! It’s the actual doing of these things that’s the hard part — even, confusingly, when you very much intend and even want to do them. The problem of human productivity is a deceptively complicated one, and, as such, the targeted tech market is crowded — in the iPhone app store alone, there are 1,562 options for “time management,” and 2,195 for “calendar.” And yet a few brands have managed to build fiercely loyal followings. Evernote, for example, last year announced it has 100 million users. 

But Google is betting on a relative newcomer, with its purchase last week of Timeful, an iOS app. It’s designed by a trio of researchers who study people’s intentions and the irrationality that causes those best-laid plans to fall apart — Stanford computer scientist Yoav Shoham, data scientist Jacob Bank, and Duke behavioral economist Dan Ariely. Many of the guiding principles behind the app, which launched last summer, can be found in, of all things, a 2009 philosophy paper by Shoham. It’s filled with high-minded phrases like “consider various quantifications over the temporal dimension,” but comes down to a very simple concept: that assigning a time to your intentions will make it more likely that you actually accomplish them. 

The idea behind Timeful is that you not only plug into your calendar meetings and appointments; it also encourages you to indulge in a little wishful thinking, about the way you’d ideally be spending your time. You can say, like I did, that you want to start calling your best friend once a week, for example. When the app spots free time in your schedule, it will pop up with a suggestion, “Call Megan.” 

This doesn’t always work perfectly, however, as I found out after testing Timeful for several weeks last year, shortly after it launched. It kept spotting times that appeared to be free, with no meetings or appointments scheduled, and would suggest that I use that time to call my best friend. Unfortunately, this often ended up being some unrealistic time, like 2 p.m. on a weekday. Though, to be fair, I might’ve gotten a little carried away with this feature: I also told the app I wanted to talk to my grandma once a month, and run four times a week, and take a walk outside once a day, and study French whenever I had 20 minutes free. On the one hand, being overly ambitious with the suggestions left me feeling overwhelmed. But that’s also “a good thing, because you realize how many things you actually want to do that you don’t get to,” Ariely said.

Often, the problem of time management isn’t laziness or disorganization – it can trip up even those of us who are well-organized and have the best of intentions.”People need help,” Ariely said. “And as someone who studies decision making, I’m very interested in trying to provide algorithmic help to people.” In an interview with Science of Us, Ariely discussed both Timeful and the broader problem of time management, offering some solutions from a behavioral economist’s perspective. 

Most people fritter away their peak productive hours. Sleep scientists say that the two hours after you’ve fully woken up are the best hours your brain will give you all day. During this brief window — about 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. for most people — your mind is alert and focused, according to research in chronobiology. (The same concept applies for night owls, though the window will open and shut later in the day.) On top of that, psychologists argue that your self-control is highest in the morning, meaning that’s when you’re most capable of resisting distractions. These are the getting-stuff-done hours. 

And yet what do most people do with this time? Not a whole lot, according to Ariely’s research. “People tend to come to work, and then they have their most productive hours of the day, and they tend to use it by using Facebook and answering emails — not the tasks that need a lot of capacity,” he said. 

It certainly doesn’t feel like you’re wasting time. You’re churning through emails, chasing that Inbox Zero dream! True, this is stuff that does need to get done. But it’s essentially busy work, requiring very little of your cognitive power. Ariely calls this structured procrastination, “the idea that we like to feel progress, so we make to do lists and we erase them and we try to get our inbox to zero,” he said. “And we try to do all these things that are not promoting what we’re doing, but they are giving us a sense of progress.” 

This is likely because most people only think about what they want to get done, forgetting to consider the when. “In my case, I have a column in the newspaper, and I write it — it doesn’t really matter when I do it, but I have a deadline,” Ariely said. “So my deadline was Monday at four, so I schedule it to be from two to four. But that’s not the right time to have it — it’s just that I picked a time to have it. It would be much better for me to figure out when, exactly, is the right time.” This is the thinking behind Timeful’s suggestions, the things you need to get done, and sometimes by a certain time or day, but that can really be done at any free moment. (Compared to, say, a specific yoga class that happens from six to seven in the evening.)

But we know from psychology that your environment has a big impact on your behavior. And when it comes to time, you can, to some extent, control your environment — at least, you can control your calendar. “You can take people, and if the environment invites them to behave badly, people will behave badly,” Ariely said. “What would happen if I came to your office every day and layered your desk with doughnuts? What would happen at the end of the year — would you not weigh more?”

Healthy eating is a problem with many potential environments that need controlling — your kitchen, the restaurants you visit, the grocery stores where you shop. Money is a tough one, too — there’s your wallet, your bank account, your investments, and so on. But time is actually a little easier, Ariely argues, because you can pretty accurately represent it in your calendar if you choose to. 

Things will never go exactly as planned. But it’s still worth making a plan. A big problem with time management for me — and for others, too, I suspect — is that I make all these plans for my day, and then something comes along that takes greater priority (in my case, usually some very important news story I need to cover). My carefully laid plans are all shred to bits. But it’s still more likely that I’ll get things done if I’ve noted them somewhere, Ariely argues. “Nobody’s assuming that they can give you the ultimate plan for your time and that nothing changes,” Ariely said. “But we also assume that what’s not on your calendar is less likely to be done.” 

So even if I am choosing not to take the afternoon walk I’d intended to take, in order to stay inside at my computer to finish some post — well, at least I understand the trade-off I’m making. “No one would tell you, Always do what’s in your calendar,” Ariely said. “But if you understand the trade-offs, now you can decide [if this is] something that is worthwhile canceling this for or not.”