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Home » motivation » To diarise or not to diarise, that is the question

To diarise or not to diarise, that is the question

Wired has published a gently critical article about Timeful, Google’s recent acquisition, and the very premise of a calendar that not only logs formal appointments, but draws together your personal and professional meetings, tasks and goals into a time-efficient daily schedule based on your instructions.

To me, it sounds like an excellent idea, but Kyle VanHemert’s (@KVanHemert) article warns that “We quickly get into some weird territory” with the prospect of apps gaining control over not only our actions but also our behaviours. I thought it would be worth exploring the rhetorical questions he raises at the end of the piece:

What does it mean if I give my calendar domain over the rest of my time? Can you schedule leisure or spontaneity? Do you want to have to set a reminder to spend time with your kid? Are you really living life to the fullest if you only do so when your artificially intelligent calendar blocks off an hour labeled ‘live life to the fullest’?

VanHemert wrote about Timeful back in September 2014, when he asked “How much scheduling is too much?”, although the feedback from Timeful’s user testing was apparently in favour of ‘more app’ rather than less.

On the one hand, I share the implicit concerns about the social and leisure aspects of life all becoming structured around or mediated by technology. On the other hand, VanHemert’s latest article has a dismissive undercurrent that seems to belittle those who aren’t superhuman, who can’t keep on top of everything through sheer willpower while spontaneously producing perfect ‘quality time’ moments with friends and family.

I don’t use Timeful (although I’ve now downloaded it, so I can test it out myself). However, for about two years I have been using a set of calendars and various to-do list apps to achieve the same goal as the app from Jacob Bank, Yoav Shoham (@YShoham) and Dan Ariely (@DanAriely, whose Predictably Irrational I enjoyed, but sadly didn’t get around to reviewing). I have a group that (right now) looks something like this:

Of these apps, I use three daily: Balanced, Wunderlist and Calendar.

  • I use Balanced as a gentle reminder for regular health/wellness activities that I have a lot of time flexibility about doing (e.g. running and yoga). It’s freemium, so I only have five items on my list, but it suits me well for this small niche, and I like the gentle nature of its reminders.
  • I use Wunderlist to-do lists (in the app and browser version) for work and PhD tasks, but also for personal activities, like a monthly reminder to do online banking, and, yes, although this might fill VanHemert with horror, my list includes reminders to call relatives or speak to people.
  • I have (as a second calendar in my work exchange account, no less), a ‘health and wellbeing’ calendar that marks out when I aim to be in bed, mealtimes, the days when I plan to do long runs, etc.

These apps and diarised items are cues for me to be mindful of my goals, aide memoires that draw me back from the next work/academic task. Timeful’s punning name puts mindfulness up high on its list of values, and I appreciate that. It is an invitation to use the tools available to help me, but not to abdicate responsibility. If decision-making, even about trivial matters, is fatiguing, then why shouldn’t we use these technological prompts?

So let’s return to VanHemert’s questions.

What does it mean if I give my calendar domain over the rest of my time? 

It means I am according social activities — and personal goals — the same respect and attention as more professional and academic ones. By doing so, I prevent my professional and academic diarising from slowly flooding out from the 9am to 6pm, Monday to Friday ‘work window’ by granting other times of the week parity of esteem and using them in the calendar accordingly. They are not simply ‘free space’ into which my work can spill.

Can you schedule leisure or spontaneity? 

This question is leading. It clearly privileges spontaneity as a valuable trait in and of itself, setting it in opposition to the verb ‘schedule’. But unscheduled does not necessarily equal better, more enjoyable, or more valuable to the individual.

So let’s focus instead on leisure. This, one can certainly schedule. Think about the lunch-hour. I have had colleagues who, despite being very senior and very busy within an organisation, always eat lunch between 1-2pm. They use the time to decompress, meet more junior colleagues, socialise. They are protecting that time for themselves. Sometimes the conversation might be boring, and perhaps they would have better spent that leisure hour at their desk instead. But they don’t, because the principle of having an hour for colleagues and oneself is more important.

Do you want to have to set a reminder to spend time with your kid?

This is another leading — and loaded — question. Making time for quality family time is not inherently bad. It’s not about setting a reminder. It’s about carving out and protecting time. I set reminders to call my family because otherwise I might not remember until my brother is putting his baby to bed, and then either I would interrupt him (and her), or he and I wouldn’t speak to one another.

I include such things in my to-do because I value them and they are time-sensitive. I am not embarrassed about diarising them. The damage done by missing moments of connection is far worse than being seen to rely on to-do lists.

Are you really living life to the fullest if you only do so when your artificially intelligent calendar blocks off an hour labeled ‘live life to the fullest’?

I work full-time (until recently commuting between two countries to do so), am doing my PhD part-time, have great relationships with my friends and family, and my partner and I just got married (co-organising a fairly large wedding in a city where neither of us live). I think my life is pretty delightfully jam-packed. If Timeful can make it even better than my combination of tactics and apps, then all the better, and Slate’s reporting of the possible future for Timeful within Google is very promising!

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