“You Have Been in 50 Hours in Meetings this Week, Do You Want to Continue?”

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Are Personal Informatics Tools Effective?

Information overload at work is at crisis levels and it’s getting worse. It’s not just the flood of emails, text messages, and now chat messages that are overwhelming workers. It’s also the vast array of disparate apps that workers need to use to get work done. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that 10% of organizations are using more than 200 apps, with the average number being 129. With each app containing only a portion of the information needed to complete business activities, workers are overwhelmed by trying to connect information together to see ‘the big picture.’

On top of that, distractions from constant notifications announcing incoming messages and updates from all these apps makes it hard to people to concentrate on getting work done.

So, it makes sense that organizations are trying to consolidate IT platforms to reduce complexity. Microsoft, with its Office 365 offering, proffers to help by providing a one-stop productivity cloud platform. But paradoxically, Office 365 is making the problem worse. Because with Office 365, workers have over 25 apps to pick from, and some of these provide overlapping capabilities. For example, to communicate with colleagues, workers can opt for Outlook, Teams, Yammer, Skype for Business, or SharePoint, with each app providing an unstructured set of mailboxes, channels, or groups. The situation is so complex that Microsoft even provides blog posts and documentation to guide workers about which tool to use.

To help workers get a grip, Microsoft recently released a tool called MyAnalytics; to help workers ‘minimize distractions and stay focused.’ MyAnalytics is the latest in the realm of ‘personal informatics’ tools; tools that allow people to collect and review personally-relevant information with a goal to change unwanted behavior. (Note: these are also called ‘quantified self’ or ‘self-tracking’ tools.) At the recent Build 2019 Conference, Microsoft billed MyAnalytics as a way to establish a ‘daily focus time routine’ that will help people focus on deep work and thereby, increase productivity by ‘providing insights and AI-powered suggestions to help you work smarter.’

Personal Informatics Tools

MyAnalytics joins a cadre of similar offerings for mobile devices and the web, such as Moment, Instant, RescueTime, and many other apps that track your phone (or web) activity and report on usage. Typically, these tools provide feedback on where you have been spending time online; some let you set limits on how much time you spend in each app; essentially, telling you when you are out of control and reminding you to shut down.

The problem is getting so bad, that these solutions are no relegated to specialized app developers. Awareness driven in part by the Center for Humane Technology, has prompted Apple and Google to offer time tracking functions on mobile devices, ‘out of the box.’ Today, both the Android and iOS operating systems provide insights into how much time you spend in each app. iOS 12 provides a number of capabilities, such as Screen Time, that enables you to set time limits for specific apps, ‘Do Not Disturb,’ to eliminate distracting notifications, and a function called Downtime that restricts usage of your device on a daily basis.

Do Personal Informatics Tools Work?

Are these tools making a difference? Recent studies show that while these functions represent a good start, it appears that there is a long way to go.

A review article of research studies that examined personal informatics systems found these solutions are generally not effective, citing problems with interpreting the data and not knowing what do to with their findings. One assumption inherent in these time-trackers is that simply knowing how much time you are spending on a given activity or in a specific app will be enough to change your behavior. But is this assumption true in practice? Not really. When presented with findings, typical user responses in the studies were passive statements like “Huh, I didn’t know that,” or “Wow, I should do something about that.” Moreover, these tools don’t really provide people with any new information; generally, people know they are wasting too much time on social media and spending too much time in meetings at work.

So, while Seneca said, “The first step in a person’s salvation is knowledge of their sin,” this first step seems to be a necessary, but not sufficient step in changing behavior.

Second-generation tools are going beyond analysis and enabling users to limit app usage as well, using a variety of ‘self-control’ techniques. Do these advanced tools really work? Do people stick with the tools, or do they simply find a way to override them? A recent review article analyzed 367 digital “self-control tools” and found that there are basically four methods to ‘nudge’ users into desired online app usage behavior; namely, reward/punishment, goal advancement, self-tracking, and active blocking. The paper concludes that the current methods used by most of the tools do not optimally address the cognitive processes that drive online behavior and are therefore largely ineffective. As such, there is a long way to go before we can expect effective and acceptable behavior-shaping tools to keep us in line. The article does offer some direction for future research/products, but only a few examples of use are currently available.

What’s Next?

With the problem of information overload gaining widespread attention, we can expect to see many new attempts to help people focus and use their time wisely online. Since our most valuable resource is time (and the only one that can’t be recycled), there are sure to be many exciting developments to come.

Accomplished technology product and marketing expert, information overload researcher, award-winning technology and business writer.

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