I vividly remember the times in the past when I upgraded my personal time management system with the help of outside tools, but today, in 2010, I am stymied by the hype around smartphones.
The first upgrade occurred in 1980 when, as a teenager, I received an appointment diary from my parents. The second occurred in 1991 when I purchased a DayRunner and the last happened in about 1996 when I purchased a Palm Pilot.
In each instance it was clear what I was doing — changing the way I dealt with all the stuff I needed to take care of, with the aid of a new tool. In each case, I had to make some significant habit changes to get the new system to work, and I fully expect to do that when I complete the planned purchase of a smartphone in early 2011.
I’m ambivalent, to be honest, about joining the millions of smartphone users around the world because I am suspicious that these devices don’t actually improve productivity.
Sure, they provide entertainment, and a pleasing distraction while waiting at the doctor’s office. And they definitely are convenient. I have carried around a knapsack of gadgets (cellphone, PDA, camera etc.) on overseas trips, and I imagine that I could replace it with a decent smartphone.
I’d also expect be the envy of my friends, as they see me watching television at the beach, or texting my friends from a bike ride in the mountains. It’s likely to be the latest model, packed with all the miniature gadgets that their older models don’t have.
Entertainment, convenience and sex-appeal are certainly interesting and valuable things, but what do they have to do with productivity?
When I switched over to using my diary, DayRunner and Palm Pilot, I noticed that they helped me to process the demands on my time in a far more efficient way. I saw fewer items fall through the cracks, and I made better decisions about what to do and what to ignore. My skills at storing critical information were enhanced as I created routine backups. Lists of stuff to do were better managed and I certainly made a dramatic improvement in the way I scheduled each day, using an electronic calendar.
These are bread and butter time management practices, and they are the ones that must change in order to experience a permanent boost in productivity. They are not sexy in any way, but they are the kinds of activities that we use every minute of every day to process all the demands on our time.
Simply being able to send and receive email from a smaller device than ever before does not appear to me to be much of an improvement. From mainframe to desktop to laptop to netbook to smartphone… the trend of squeezing more capability into smaller spaces has continued. Smartphones are (the latest) clever miniatures, but just because they are the smallest of the email devices to be created up until now, does not mean that they have made a profound impact on our email productivity, for example.
In fact, the evidence is to the contrary, as the bad habits around smartphones (such as driving while texting) have more than nullified any productivity gains.
I believe that manufacturers have missed the plot.
Smartphones should leverage the fact that they bring diverse functionality together in a single unit for the very first time.
Here are some possible innovations that could improve our productivity:
#1: Calendar Control
Given the problem we have with digital distractions, why can’t smartphones be programmed to turn off certain features depending on the activity that’s in the calendar? For example, during a meeting the phone could turn the ringer off.
Idea #2: Inbox Reporting
A smartphone could give us a status report on different aspects of our time management system e.g. that we have email messages that have been unread for 2 days.
Idea #3: Multimedia Capturing
With the help of voice and handwriting recognition, time demands from all sources such as email, IM, Facebook and handwritten notes, could be brought together into a single multimedia Inbox so that they could be processed together.
These ideas are the kinds of capabilities that are unique to smartphones, and actually could make users more productive. There are sure to be many others, but manufacturers need to first understand that people want to be more productive in substantial ways that help them save real time.