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  • 06.03.13

When Do Apps Become Rituals?

Inside the quest of productivity app makers to leap from engagement to habit to ritual.

After Omer Perchick launched Any.DO, he found himself asking a question that, for the CEO of a task management startup, was borderline existential: “Why can’t people stick with a to-do list?”

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While he and his team were aware of the research–that the quickest way to high-end productivity is diligently compiling and executing your tasks–it was obvious that people weren’t great with maintaining that discipline.

In app terms, such productivity hacks tended toward high adoption and low retention.

Since Any.DO did not want to be similarly forgotten, its data team mined user behavior for some insight as to who was most productive through their app–and, correspondingly, who had the greatest engagement with the product.

How the most productive people do Any.DO

After a few months of research, they found the high-functioning behavioral pattern: Their most powerful users were coming to the app every morning, going through their lists of things to do, delegating some items to other people, and organizing what they were going to do today and what would be put off to later, all before tackling the day’s tasks one by one.

“We came to a very interesting conclusion,” he says, “you need to turn task management into a daily habit, and the way to do that is to turn task management into a daily planner exam.”

That insight became a feature: the Any.DO Moment, a short daily ritual that asks you what you’re going to get done today and what you’re putting off–a piece of software that trains the behavior that Any.DO saw in its most productive, and most engaged, users. The app has seen a 40% increase in retention and a 50% increase in engagement since they launched Moment back in February, Perchick says.

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Ancient technology, postmodern context

With Moment, Any.Do takes one of the oldest human technologies–ritual–and puts it in a new context. The ritual establishes the habit, the habit drives the productivity in the person and the engagement with the app.

Joseph Campbell

Why does this work? The comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell argued that ritual, whether religious or secular, gives structure to life. And as cognitive scientist Tom Stafford observed, although technology erodes structures–look at how lost you get on the Internet–we humans need it for our psychological health. Some apps, such as those of the “Slow Web Movement,” are in the business of building that structure: Everest, Backspaces, and Days are all examples in their own way–and feel free to make suggestions in the comments–but perhaps the most fascinating for our purposes is iDoneThis.

Narrating your workday

Founded in 2011 by Walter Chen and Rodrigo Guzman, iDoneThis is a discreet service that sends you an email at the end of the day asking you what you did–a ritual. The company then stores those completed tasks, letting you or anyone on your team check to see what you got done–which, according to Chen, promotes a culture of gratitude, a sense of reflection about the work you’re doing, and an intrinsic motivation to be productive.

“Because people know they’re going to receive an email, that actually motivates them to get more done,” he says. “A lot of our users, it has that effect is that it makes them more productive because they know they’re going to reflect at the end of the day.”

While he doesn’t want to get too transcendental about it, Chen notes that users have said that iDoneThis “sort of encourages meditative practice” by giving the user a prompt to reflect on the progress that the’re making–like how the pope does mindfulness.

This also grants a greater sense of autonomy, since instead of forcing managers to nag their employees for what they’re doing, the employees are narrating the work that they’re doing–which, we’ve been told, is part of the future of collaboration.

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The narration may be even more powerful: As HBS professor and Progress Principle coauthor Teresa M. Amabile has argued, more than money, people need a sense of progress in their work to feel satisfied. By automating reflection on such progress, it may be that iDoneThis–and other software-enabled rituals–catalyze that fulfillment. But we’ll have to wait on her forthcoming study on the subject to know for sure.

[Image: Flickr user Dave Gough]

About the author

Drake Baer was a contributing writer at Fast Company, where he covered work culture. He's the co-author of Everything Connects, a book about how intrapersonal, interpersonal, and organizational psychology shape innovation.

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