A behavioral scientist, artificial intelligence professor, and Stanford PhD candidate in machine learning walk into an office. The result, strangely enough, is yet a to-do and calendar app. But it's no joke.
These three smart, uniquely qualified people—noted economist Dan Ariely, professor Yoav Shoham, and CEO Jacob Bank—aren’t in love with to-do apps. But with their app Timeful, they’re trying to solve an acutely modern human problem using the types of tools people are already used to.
"We built many things that looked very different from a calendar and a to-do list, but what we found over and over again is that it’s hard to affect behavior change if you’re not in the environment," says CEO Jacob Bank. "It’s very hard to get people to go to another place that adds functionality on top of a set of tools that they’re already accustomed to—like the calendar and to-do list. We eventually realized that to have an impact we had to leverage some of the familiarities of the current tools."
Timeful uses what the teams calls the "Intention Genome" and "Intention Rank" to algorithmically assist in scheduling a person’s day. The names were inspired by Pandora’s Music Genome and Google’s Page Rank, respectively. The Intention Genome breaks down user behavior to better categorize it and the Intention Rank helps to determine the best place to schedule items throughout the day.
The Timeful app is essentially just a backdrop for the company’s algorithmic magic. Sure, it looks like a smart to-do list and calendar, but that’s the sleight of hand. Its real trick is trying to make people more mindful of their time and form better habits.
"We needed a single starting point to demonstrate how algorithms and behavioral science can help people manage their time, and that’s really around scheduling flexible things and getting them onto your calendar," explains Bank. "Everything about the current app is about inputting the flexible things you need to do and we’ll help you get them on your schedule. Everything that doesn’t directly feed into that goal was cut from the app."
In addition to normal meetings and appointments users are encouraged to add things like drink water, walk, study, or a host of other positive tasks. These are all things that vie for a person's valuable time, but usually aren’t scheduled for specific times. The learning algorithm looks at the person's day and will suggest a time accordingly and let the user confirm or deny the suggestion as well as move it to a different time.
The app will learn from all the different interactions a user makes and decide when they are most productive. It makes sense to do the important and critical tasks when a person is at their most productive and scheduling mindless tasks for other times. As part of the settings there’s a slider which allows the user to control how often scheduling suggestions are made.
Smart calendar apps aren’t new. Tempo and Mynd for example have been around for a while. Tempo includes clever features to connect with contacts, displaying drive times, and other social interactions. Mynd is a fairly similar to Timeful in the sense that both are trying to actively learn about the user. But Mynd includes a few more surface level features that go beyond scheduling a person’s day.
Talking to Co.Labs, Bank and Shoham hammered the point that their visually simple app is about seeing time differently. They don’t want to improve the calendar, they want to improve people’s time management and the app happens to use a calendar. In which case, all, or most, productivity apps out there right now just aren’t doing what Timeful is aiming to do.
Looking forward, the app will evolve over time in natural ways. For one, it will likely grow to other platforms, but more importantly it will continue to be the playground for more machine learning and behavioral science. As you might expect from a data-driven company, usage and stats will heavily play into which directions are pursued the most. This is just the beginning for the Timeful team as they attempt to give people their time back.