If you’ve spent any time in the psychology and self improvement sections of any bookstore, you know that Dan Ariely quite literally wrote the book on human irrationality. With bestsellers like Predictably Irrational and The Honest Truth About Dishonesty, Ariely is a go-to source for knowledge about why we do what we do, even when doing it just doesn’t make much sense.
Now Ariely, professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University, has turned his attention to another topic that vexes the best of us: time management. He’s part of a team that created a smartphone app called Timeful, which I’d describe as an intuitive self-management tool that goes a few steps beyond typical schedulers and time planning apps. I recently spent some time chatting with Ariely about time management and related topics.
DiSalvo: Time management -- we’re obsessed with it, yet we generally seem really bad at mastering it. Where do you think people often fail in getting it right?
Ariely: I think we are obsessed with time management precisely because we are so bad at it, but the reality is it’s no wonder we are bad at it because it’s a really, really hard thing to do. Not only is it hard to manage multiple things, but you also have dynamic changes throughout the day in which you have some hours where you are more alert and have high cognitive capacity and some hours where you are more tired. And then things change dynamically like deadlines or additional requests come in, so the prioritization problem is incredibly hard. In fact, I think it’s not humanly possible. So what do we do? We do our best. We say “Ok, what’s the next best thing to do?”
And is technology helping or hurting us in this regard?
Technology is actually making things worse. Take a To Do list for example. I personally have over 729 things on my list in Evernote, and one of those To Dos is to go in and organize all of other things and figure out what I should do and what I should abandon. The problem is that it’s such a big task, it’s probably not going to happen. The world is rich, there are lots of things we can do, and we have an easier and easier time of putting things on our plate, and searching through all of those things and figuring out what is the next best thing to do is incredibly tough. We do a terrible job at it and the consequences are that we are stressed, unhappy and not as productive as we could be.
Which explains why when I talk to people about how they manage their time, the overriding vibe I get is stress. Figuring out how to make best use of time is stressful, and dwelling on that, it seems to me, can become its own time-consuming monster.
If you were a farmer and worked from sunrise to sunset, and farming includes very basic things to do with no real questions, life would be very simple. But we live in an incredibly wonderful age with lots of things vying for our time, more than we can handle, and on top of that we aren’t limited to sunrise to sunset. All of this richness, while wonderful, also creates very strong constraints.
This is why we started Timeful. Imagine that your life is like a factory with a productivity function – we need to figure out, from all of the jobs that can be done, which are the ones that are most productive to do right now. This depends on deadlines, and reporting requirements, and whether you need maintenance or need to be reinvigorated, etc., and once we understand all of those factors we can do a much better job of managing them. The stress is inevitable because of the richness of our lives, and our challenge is to harness technology to help us figure it out.
I’ve heard you say, in so many words, that our sense of the world “not being on our side”—not acting in our best interests—is sort of correct. Our attention is flooded with distractions on all sides. How do we defend our attention, and our time, against these unrelenting forces?
It’s true that every organization wants our attention. Not only do they control our shopping environment, but they control our phones, (just think about every app that’s trying to get your attention), and they compete. Sometimes this competition yields improved results, but sometimes it creates negative outcomes. It’s really all about trying to understand the “attention economy.” And, of course, right now Android and Apple control the rules for the attention economy to a large degree. Sure we can turn things off ourselves, but we still have a lot of apps trying to get us to do different things all the time.
We don’t always understand how limited our attention is, or how when we switch attention things become even harder. For example, when you check your email, after you finish reading it and go back to your work it takes an extra 15 minutes before you can actually focus again. Shifting of attention to a different mindset is not quick. This is something we need to understand.
Your app, Timeful, is easy to use, straightforward, and integrates well with other programs. My question (to myself and now to you) is, what’s going to make me want to use it more than I did the other apps that I started and then eventually stopped using?
The question is whether the app would give you sufficient benefits, which are basically to take scheduled things away from people’s lives. There are lots of things that don’t fit the characterization of the calendar. For example, if you have to do laundry, you might need to do it any day this week, sometime in the evening when you have time, but it doesn’t have to be on any particular day from 7-9. So it’s useful to be on your list of things to do and the app can suggest when you should be doing it. As we learn more, we’ll be able to be more helpful in suggesting and making peoples’ lives less stressful.
One of the features that we find most useful is called Good Habits. As an example, you can enter that you want to run three times a week and call your mother once a week and maybe do a five-minute meditation. After setting it once, we can recommend when you should do it depending on your schedule.
Since we’re not far into the New Year, give me your thoughts on New Year’s resolutions. Worth it?
I think New Year’s resolutions are great. You know, we tend to think of ourselves in binary terms. Either good or bad, and once we start being bad we figure what the hell, we might as well enjoy it. If you think about dieting, for example, someone will be on a diet and then eat a muffin and say “Oh well, I’m not really a dieter, I might as well enjoy it.” New Year’s gives you a chance to start with a clean slate.
The real issue is how can we create rules that we won’t break too quickly? How can we make the rules specific enough that we’ll follow them? A rule like “going on a diet” isn’t helpful because it’s too general. We need something specific like “no dessert during the week” or something along those lines. And then, how do we make the rules not too restrictive so that when we do break one occasionally it doesn't collapse us into bad behavior? These are all things we need to keep in mind to make the most of our resolutions.
You can find David DiSalvo on Twitter @neuronarrative, Forbes, TIME and Psychology Today. His latest book is Brain Changer: How Harnessing Your Brain’s Power To Adapt Can Change Your Life.