Andrew Chen, an investor in the San Francisco Bay Area, used to think that reaching zero in one’s inbox was folklore.
The tech entrepreneur now uses an app, Streak, to regularly clear his emails. He also gets all his scheduling done with the help of another digital time manager, Esper.
Time management apps have proliferated over the past few years as consumers increasingly try to squeeze more productivity out of their waking – and even sleeping – hours. Users hoping to curtail their time on Facebook and squeeze in more hours at the gym have flocked to apps like RescueTime and Toggl. You define the tasks and set the app to measure how long you spend on them.
“For me, time management tools are super important,” Chen said. “When you are in [a] tech job, the scarcest thing is your own attention and other peoples’ attention. Money isn’t usually the bottleneck. So you need tools to help manage this scarce resource, so you can maximize it.”
People have always sought to maximize their 24 hours. Now, where analog to-do-lists once sufficed, the toolbox for increasing efficiency has greatly expanded.
Data gathering is the first step. “In the United States, there is this big wave of self-quantification,” said Khiv Singh, an assistant vice president at Sapience, which recently launched a personal time management tool called Sapience Buddy. Although the majority of his company’s clients are in the Asia-Pacific region and Europe, he said Americans were the ones requesting a way to track personal data.
“There’s nothing especially new about the desire to be productive,” said Melissa Gregg, a principal engineer at Intel who is researching the future of work and is author of the forthcoming book Counterproductive, which focuses on time management at work. “It’s more we have the technology and capacity to do that in more interesting ways.” Gregg and her team recently reviewed 50 time management apps and found that they ranged from calendaring, note taking and file-sharing tools to mindfulness meditation apps that remind users to take breaks and stay focused.
Developers of some of the most popular personal time management apps, such as Timely, ATracker and Toggl, are now creating or expanding office versions for business customers by the end of the year.
Because apps that make people feel like they’re squeezing more into each day can lead to a die-hard customer base, many of these companies are counting on their existing users to passionately promote their apps to their employers when the subjects of productivity and prioritizing arise in the office.
Done right, Gregg said: “It actually does take the place of a spiritual or religious dimension for some people.” As an internal exercise, Gregg said her team recently held a pitching panel in which each employee could advocate for the adoption of his or her favorite app.
Time management tools designed for an office may be more complex than those for personal use, and they may also need to accommodate different types of data reporting. For example, a company has to choose between apps that live on an employee’s hard drive and those that store information in the cloud.
An effective business app also needs to separate personal from professional tasks and let an employee choose to report only work-related data to avoid potential violations of privacy or other legal grey areas. A product that works well for some employees and managers may also be less effective for others, depending on the variety of work styles and culture within an organization.
Developers of time management apps are considering all of these questions as they expand their product offerings and using feedback from early adopters to help work out bugs and accommodate a wide range of tasks.
“We want to end up at the large corporations,” said Mathias Mikkelsen, CEO and founder of Timely, which is mostly used by the self-employed, such as writers and marketers. “It’s way better to start with the individual view. Nail that experience, and then go at the whole company.”
Although app developers claim their software can increase productivity, few have the hard data to demonstrate increased efficiency.
“There’s really not that much good research around on these apps, especially because they’re so different from each other,” said Dan Ariely, a behavioral economist at Duke University and co-founder of Timeful, a time management system that was acquired by Google in May. Google said in a statement that it planned to incorporate Timeful’s features into its inbox and calendaring systems in addition to other products.
Most time management apps are based on what Gregg describes as “the advice and pseudoscience of the time management of the 70s.” That is, a compelling type of self-help philosophy that claims to be grounded in science without the research or evidence to back it up.
Here are some guidelines from time management experts for individuals and companies seeking to adopt better time management practices.
Look at the big picture
The ideal time management app should help an employee focus on what he or she wants to achieve, not just keep track of their minutes.
“If you think about what your real priorities are versus what you end up doing in the day, those are not often the same thing. So any software that uses the priority approach is a very good thing,” Ariely said.
Setting priorities requires a fair amount of offline thinking and decision-making about what’s important in a day, a week or a year. Managers should not expect apps to replace their discussions with employees about planning work and setting deadlines.
“Time management apps are very good at managing time if you already decide you want to spend X amount of time on something,” Gregg said. “But it’s still up to the human to prioritize the task – to make sure the thing you choose to do is really the most important thing to do right now.”
Give employees control
There tends to be a reflexive “ick” response from workers when they think their bosses could be peeking into their time management tools to learn about their work habits or how they spend their personal time. “I would be very worried as an employee once I start turning on something that monitors my online activity,” said Gloria Mark, an informatics professor at the University of California at Irvine.
One way to prevent any real or perceived privacy intrusion is to let an employee know how and when he’s being tracked, and to let him be the one who directs that information back to his employer.
Some employers prefer apps that allow different levels of oversight. For example, ATracker, which is used by some hospitals, lets healthcare providers decide what information they want to track, such as the time spent on an operation or with a patient, but the hospitals can let the doctors decide when and whether to generate reports from that data and send them to administrators, founder Jian Yan said.
An employee should also be able to sit with the data before sending and be able to decide when to hit the send button. If the employee does not feel he has time to review the data, then he may lose hours of his workday trying to make himself look productive instead of being productive.
“When we make that data transparent to others, that’s where we get into a situation where we start manipulating our activities to create good data,” said Ethan Bernstein, an assistant professor at Harvard Business School who has studied workplace transparency. “If you’re running experiments on how you’re managing your time, you tend to want the results to be yours before someone comes and questions you about them.”
Companies like Twitter, Uber and Foursquare use lower tech apps like iDoneThis, which generates an evening email reminder that employees respond to with a summary of what they accomplished that day. The idea is to motivate employees to get more done because they know the email is coming.
“It’s more of a lightweight way to see what everyone is working on. It doesn’t have a lot of those negative connotations,” said Walter Chen, iDoneThis co-founder.
Listen to employee feedback
Because many individuals already use time management apps, it may be hard for businesses to convince their employees to switch to a different system at work from the ones they already use on their own. The best time management system works because it becomes part of an employee’s daily ritual, so swapping a new ritual for a less appealing alternative might negatively impact productivity.
The guiding principal behind time management is to restore a person’s sense of control to her day. “You lose the benefit if you make it compulsory,” Gregg said.
You also lose the benefit if the app becomes the day’s focal point. Time management tools should be a means to increased productivity, not just another task to accomplish before heading home from work. If an app becomes a distraction, it’s probably better to go back to pen and paper and write an old-fashioned to-do list.
This article was written by Leah Messinger, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 18th August 2015 15.44 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010