Being able to focus at work is tough in any organization, but Microsoft's (MSFT) flat and freewheeling culture can make the problem especially acute. The sprawling company has so many intertwined product groups that keeping up with all the developments around campus can become a job in itself. "At Microsoft, e-mails fly around, and you get hooked into so many meetings electronically," says Eric Horvitz, a principal researcher at the company. "After a while, you realize you have no time to get anything done."
So Horvitz has been spending some of the past year on a new research project called Achieve that aims to reclaim lost time. The software helps "book time with yourself" and can distinguish between intractable and nice-to-hit deadlines, and glean from e-mails promises employees make to one another about delivery dates for projects. It can also "rehydrate" workers' screens when they return to a task, opening the programs and Web sites last open when working on the project. Achieve is "dead center on this idea of 'there's nothing more valuable than my time,'" says Horvitz.
Far too often, that's hard to remember. Software has long been seen as a productivity boon, and its use has shaved countless hours from tasks in fields as diverse as finance, architecture, and magazine publishing. Yet current computer industry thinking holds that the very digital tools we count on to be more productive can also drag down our efficiency when they're used too much. New research into time management software contends that slashing away at incoming e-mails and maintaining meticulous to-do lists is only half the battle. More important is getting information under users' noses when they need it, without making them constantly switch between programs to get the whole picture.
E-Mail Can Be a Big Distraction
"You could make an argument that there is no one true path to efficiency," says Jeff Pierce, a researcher at IBM's (IBM) Almaden lab in California. Since we're idiosyncratic beings, traditional time management approaches can fall short of effectively organizing all the information scattered across our computers and mobile phones—and in our heads, he says.
Using the e-mail in-box as a to-do list makes it hard to categorize jobs and forces users to remake decisions each time they look at their e-mail. To-do list software can help users prioritize tasks and organize them by project. But such lists are often separate from our e-mail and other programs, which leads to more fragmented attention.
Pierce's Personal Tasks software, which he's been working on since last summer, shows how workers might one day manage their files and communications across the sackful of devices many people own. The system—which is still in the research phase—lets users of IBM's Lotus Notes take fast action on e-mail messages by turning them into reminders with just a couple of mouse strokes, or append relevant files so workers don't have to switch back and forth to read things later. The goal is to develop a style of "activity centric computing" that's centered around gathering the information users need to complete a task, instead of forcing them to think in terms of individual programs.
The cost of software-induced productivity problems is high. Unwanted interruptions consume as much as 28% of the average U.S. worker's day, and sap $650 billion a year in lost productivity from the economy, according to one widely cited study.
Instant Messaging Eats Up the Hours
RescueTime, a Seattle software company that measures how long workers spend in various programs and Web sites so they can see how they're spending their workdays, says 44% of PC users' time goes to instant messaging (average checks per day: 77), e-mail, and social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter. That's according to a company analysis of 500,000 hours of users' data. Tracking time spent—and wasted—can lead to subtle social pressures that benefit a work group, says CEO Tony Wright. "You don't want to be the guy dragging down the team," he says.
But workers find it hard to break the e-mail addiction. Companies including Intel (INTC) and IBM have experimented with ways to cut back on digital interruptions and furnish staff with more free time to think. Google (GOOG) has introduced a feature of Gmail called Email Addict that lets users take an enforced 15-minute break. Time management gurus preach about the ideal of entering "zero inbox" nirvana by dealing with queries immediately. Then there's the drastic step of declaring "e-mail bankruptcy"—nuking weeks' or months' worth of messages—that's been taken by Internet notables including Stanford University law professor Lawrence Lessig and TechCrunch blogger Michael Arrington.
The latest research from the labs goes beyond cutting the e-mail backlog. IBM's work on creating a central place on the PC to accomplish work has academic links to a system called Taskmaster, built several years ago by the Palo Alto Research Center's Victoria Bellottti. That software envisioned a user's inbox as their daily "habitat," containing messages, to-do items, files, and links to the Web.
In a demonstration at his lab, IBM's Pierce showed how typing a few words quickly created a reminder, without the multiple steps most e-mail programs require. Dragging a message into a pane of action items to the right created a reminder to deal with its contents, while deleting the original message from Pierce's inbox. A mobile component of the system that Pierce is building would push out all the reminders about return calls a worker has to make to her phone, so she can deal with them on a train ride home, for example.
What's Worth Interrupting?
Microsoft's research on time management takes aim at an adjacent part of the time crunch—how to blot out the distractions reaching in from beyond your desk. "People get their time etched away piecemeal," says Horvitz, whose work on statistical models that can predict what's worth interrupting a PC user for has influenced Microsoft's Outlook product.
Achieve, which Horvitz hasn't demonstrated outside the company, takes initial input from a user, who might tell the software he needs eight hours to accomplish a set of reviews for his group, wants to finish as close to the specified deadline as possible, but doesn't want to spend more than two hours a day on the task. The system locks up time on the user's calendar so others can't book it. When the work is at hand, the software warns the user his communications are about to be shut down so he can focus. If he's not ready to start, Achieve looks for new time to book for the project.
Eventually, Horvitz says the system could be the basis for a Microsoft "platform for time management" that other companies could use to develop software products that understand concepts of hard and soft deadlines, have access to users' calendars, and understand what windows workers left open the last time they were working on a project so they can quickly resume when they pick up the work again.
Such systems could go beyond the reminders, to-do lists, and electronic red flags people use to prod themselves to focus on their work. "People use those lightweight tools with the best of intentions, and then the deadline flies by," Horvitz says. "With a battle cry of 'Beyond the red flag,' Achieve was born."