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I Paid $35/Hour To Outsource My Life For A Week

Magic is a personal assistant app aimed at coastal tech types. How would it do with the mundane tasks of my regular-guy life?

I Paid $35/Hour To Outsource My Life For A Week
[Source Photo: Oliur Rahman/Unsplash]

You may have heard about Magic, the “personal assistant on demand” that acts like a 24/7 concierge for your over-scheduled life.

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The basic idea behind Magic is to make it seem like, well, magic: Just text it anything you need handled–from the practical (“reschedule my morning meeting”) to the WTF (“Can you get me an iPad Pro tonight?”)–and its invisible, AI-augmented elves “find a way to make it happen,” in Magic’s words. It sounds either too good to be true, or like a reductio ad absurdum of the Silicon Valley tendency to make apps that basically just do everything for you that your mom used to. Or both. But when Magic recently texted me to say I’d gotten off its waiting list–and that the app now works nationwide, not just in coastal tech hubs–I knew I had to take it for a spin.

Magic’s expansion beyond techies interested me because–aside from writing about tech for a living–I’m just a regular guy: married with two small children, living in a second-tier city with a car and a mortgage. I don’t take Ubers anywhere. I don’t feed myself exclusively via Seamless. I don’t try to “hack” my dad bod with quantified-self apps. I’m probably over-scheduled, but not in the “cool” way that Magic’s own suggested use cases imply. (“Get me a mobile dentist to my office ASAP” or “I need to rent out the Exploratorium this weekend” are not challenges I face.)

Magic’s “do anything” service costs $35 per hour–so I wondered, does a person like me even have problems that an on-demand personal assistant can make a dent in?

DAY 1: I PRETEND I’M JACK DONAGHY FROM 30 ROCK

I’m terrible at delegating. My Midwestern upbringing programmed me to feel waves of shame at the mere thought of hiring someone else to do a job I might prefer to avoid but could clearly do myself. So my first challenge with Magic was coming up with jobs for it.

I recalled an interview I did years ago for this site with Jim Coudal (whose company produces the popular line of Field Notes notebooks) about how to achieve work-life balance. His advice? Delegate every single “administrative” task you can, no matter how mundane. Treat your time and attention like the precious, non-renewable resources they really are. Paying cold hard cash simply to not be interrupted every five minutes is money well spent. In other words? Channel your inner Jack Donaghy (the iconic, gravel-voiced alpha executive played by Alec Baldwin in 30 Rock).

So, when a work appointment popped up in my calendar that conflicted with a haircut I’d scheduled weeks earlier (quelle horreur!), I swallowed my pride and tossed the “problem” over to Magic.

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[Screenshot: courtesy the author]
As you can see, I didn’t fully trust it. Jack Donaghy would never make a request in so much detail–he’d just have barked, “Jonathan, move my haircut.” But I was worried Magic might screw things up. I shouldn’t have–in 30 minutes, my “magician,” Michelle, texted back with my new appointment details and even asked if I’d like her to add it to my Google Calendar for me. For this, I was billed a total of $8.37. (Magic charges by the minute.)

Was it worth it? I have no idea—I don’t quantize the value of my own time in such small increments, so I can’t do a price comparison. I do know the calendar conflict that I hired Magic to handle went away on its own while Magic was in the process of rescheduling–which made the whole thing feel pointless in the end–but that’s not the app’s fault. It felt pretty cool to have someone else manage my calendar, though–even just for a day.

DAY 3: I LEARN THAT ATOMS ARE MORE EXPENSIVE THAN BITS

My email inbox isn’t overflowing, and I’m not overbooked with meetings. As a full-time freelancer who works from home, most of my “make it go away, please” problems involve stuff: like the three half-filled paint cans and metal mattress frame I don’t know how to get rid of, or Fedexing hard drives of video footage back to clients and collaborators. This isn’t the kind of thing Magic can handle by logging into my calendar.

Still, I was getting more comfortable shooting off orders to Magic without worrying about how my “magician” was going to parse them. So I texted:

[Screenshot: courtesy the author]
The process that unfolded from there was both impressive and slightly exhausting. I spent the next few hours intermittently texting back and forth with Magic as it gathered information for me (and from me), requested my approval on various actions, and updated me on ETAs for various outcomes. The bottom line is: They figured out how and where to dispose of my weird trash items (for the cheapest price!) and got my hard drives Fedexed (they sent a very detail-oriented courier to my door).

But it ended up costing $155.06—an eye-popping bill for someone like me, who’s not used to outsourcing random household errands. Furthermore, using Magic didn’t really let me reclaim much attention to apply to more important tasks, because I was going back and forth with it so much on my phone. I found this to be a chronic problem: If you’re not feeding Magic tasks on a daily basis, it starts to nag you. (It once texted me about something called “National Chicken Wing Day,” asking if I’d like to celebrate it by having wings delivered.) This probably does wonders for goosing Magic’s engagement stats, but in the real world, it’s the opposite of helpful.

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DAY 5: MAGIC MINDFULNESS?

I definitely didn’t want to continue spending a small fortune hiring Magic to move various objects from A to B. I was also feeling incredibly stressed out: My town was enduring a record heat wave, I’d come down with a sore throat (most likely contracted from my kids), my family was preparing to depart for a weeklong vacation (if you have small children you know this really means: not a vacation), and deadlines were piling up. Is “clone me” something Magic could do? How about “warp the fabric of spacetime in my immediate vicinity so as to create more hours in the day”?

Then I remembered one of Magic’s suggested uses: “Check my email and let me know if there’s anything urgent.” Maybe what I needed was just permission to unplug and focus for several hours. I decided I had nothing to lose:

[Screenshot: courtesy the author]
Handing over my email login made me feel queasy, but I was surprised to find that delegating my inbox for three hours straight left me feeling significantly calmer. It’s not that I didn’t go into my email–in order to do my job, I still needed to send outgoing messages. It’s just that, having already decided in advance that it was Magic’s job to triage my inbox, I was able to see unread messages appear and simply not care. I trusted that if anything really needed my attention, Magic would let me know. Now this was an experience worth paying for.

Except . . . I didn’t fully let go. I saw that a magazine editor had emailed me about an article we had been trying to wrap up quickly. I couldn’t tell from the subject line whether the contents were genuinely urgent or not, and Magic wasn’t sounding the alert. But I just couldn’t stop myself from opening it up to make sure. And good thing I did: My editor had a request I needed to respond to. Did Magic screw up? I’ll never know. But that pretty much broke the whole “mindfulness” spell that I’d been enjoying thus far. (The cost of monitoring my inbox was negligible, at least.)

DAY 7: BACK TO NORMAL

The day before my family was due to leave for our “vacation,” I was a bit of a mess. We hadn’t packed. My deadlines seemed overwhelming. And Magic was already bugging me again about giving it more busy work. Talking to my wife over a bowl of Cheerios, I lost it. It wasn’t pretty–some tears, some unmanly blubbering. “What do you need to get done?” she asked. “Well, what I’d like to get done is . . .” I began. She cut me off: “No. What do you have to do?”

“What, like the bare minimum?” I whined. “The minimum is all you need to deal with,” she answered, calmly. “Honestly, it’s all we can deal with today.”

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With that, I fired Magic.

Not because it hadn’t been effective, or been surprisingly easy to use–or just because my weeklong assignment to test it was wrapping up (although that was part of it). In that moment I realized that Magic was just the right solution to the wrong problem. I didn’t need help doing more. I needed help doing less. In other words, I just needed a human moment of perspective and permission. This is pretty basic stuff that most people get for free from their IRL flesh-and-blood relationships, rather than from AI-powered smartphone elves that charge $35/hour.

But this isn’t a knock on Magic. For someone who needs a mobile dentist sent to his office stat, maybe Magic feels like a godsend. But for a regular schmuck who sometimes gets bogged down with mundane nonsense, just losing it once in a while over your breakfast cereal can work magic of its own.

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About the author

John Pavlus is a writer and filmmaker focusing on science, tech, and design topics. His writing has appeared in Wired, New York, Scientific American, Technology Review, BBC Future, and other outlets.

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