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Upcoming Software: Microsoft Achieve for Time Management

Upcoming Software: Microsoft Achieve for Time Management

April 13, 2009

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.

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