Google Wants to Help You Actually Do the Things You Intend to Do

Photo: Ferran Traite Soler/Getty Images

If you actually did all the things you intended to do, you’d be the world’s most sickeningly perfect person. You’d run three times a week; you’d read a little bit every day; you’d remember to call your grandma more often. The problem, obviously, is when intentions collide with reality. Sometimes the stuff you have to do takes precedent over the stuff you’d really, sincerely like to do.

This is, essentially, the problem that Dan Ariely hoped to fix with his time-management app Timeful, which Google acquired last year. Earlier this week, Google unveiled what it did with that purchase, with the addition of something called Goals to its calendar app. As Science of Us reported last year, the ideas behind the app can be found in a 2009 philosophy paper, the gist of which is the simple, yet very easy to forget, truth that things are way more likely to get done if you write those things down.

“Decisions about time are inherently decisions about opportunity cost,” Ariely told Science of Us. We don’t often think about it that way, but if you decide to, say, stay at work late, what does that decision cost? What are you giving up, in other words? The simple act of putting something on your calendar makes that trade-off starker, Ariely said.

And yet, there’s another issue here: The way a calendar — be it paper or digital — is set up, it doesn’t really allow you to schedule in the things you’d like to start doing more regularly if those things do not have a firm time attached to them. If you want to start exercising three times a week, it doesn’t really matter when you exercise — it’s just a matter of getting it done. So the point of the Goals feature is that it identifies free time in your schedule, and then gives you a little alert suggesting one of your previously identified activities.

In truth, the app might work a little too well. After a short time of trying it out last year, I got tired of having a digital goody-goody checking in with me at all times. “Hey, looks like you’ve got nothing going on right now. How about that run?” Don’t tell me what to do! But, okay, you’re also probably right.

Google Wants to Help You Get Stuff Done for Once