Time Falling Through The Cracks:
Perhaps I’m at the airport and my flight is delayed. Or I’m in a taxi line that’s moving with glacial speed. Or I hit the line at Starbucks at just the wrong moment. All of a sudden I find myself with a few minutes of time on my hands — just enough to wonder what to do with this unexpected “gift”.
In the days before smartphones (yes, I can remember that far back) I may have resorted to thumbing through a newspaper or a magazine. Without any reading matter to hand I might have attempted a conversation with a similarly stricken individual next to me. Or, heaven forbid, I may have been reduced to truly “killing time” — literally waiting in standby mode, with frequent glances at my dumb-watch.
Nowadays things have improved considerably. Email, messaging and the Internet are always within reach thanks to smartphones. Moments of real inactivity are rare, provided there’s a connection. But that doesn’t mean that I use the time effectively. Faced with ten minutes of down time I’ll usually resort to simply browsing or chatting online. Which is fine as far as it goes — but I feel that there’s more I could be doing. After all, these gifts of time do add up. Between coffee, lunch, travel and errands I’m easily looking at an hour each day in my own personal holding pattern.
Today’s Limited Tool Set:
Today’s solutions either take a piecemeal approach or are pitched at a level that just isn’t helpful. If I just want to consume a particular piece of content then that’s fine — music, video, books, games are always at my fingertips. If I want to communicate with someone I’ve got plenty of options.
But if I want to actually be productive then it gets a little harder. Traditional services such as Outlook and Google Calendar work well for larger, well planned blocks of time. But they fall flat for those micro-moments. And they rely on me setting up the scheduling ahead of time. Dedicated to-do-list management apps such as Clear and Any.DO are an improvement, but they still rely upon me actively selecting what to do.
Towards a Really Personal Assistant:
What I need is an app or a service that connects the things that I could be doing with the small amounts of time I have available. For it to be really useful it needs to do four key things:
- It should be aware of the tasks in my typical “to do” lists — including their likely duration, urgency and divisibility (i.e. how well can they be “chunked-up”). It will need easy hooks into both general scheduling services like Outlook and Google Calendar as well as more specialized to-do list services like Clear.
- It will acknowledge my preferences for when and where I prefer to work on certain activities or to consume certain types of content. Location awareness and mining of previous activities will be helpful.
- It should provide a mix of both serious (tasks) and fun (content and / or games) — since I don’t want to feel like I’ve turned into a productivity machine. And it should allow me to control the overall mix, for example through an easy dial between “fun” and “getting things done”.
- It should suggest a number of choices rather than being prescriptive about the one thing to do next. Perhaps a carousel would allow me to accept or reject ideas, or to vote them up or down. This would allow the app to learn about me, and fine-tune its suggestions in the future.
Above all the app should provide intelligent recommendations for things to do that are tailored to me. Think of it as Pandora meets Clear.
It may be too much to ask, but this is the kind of really “personal assistant” that I need in my life. I suspect I’m not alone.