Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Google Calendar's new life improvement update is something other calendar apps could learn from

I don’t classify myself as an Apple fanboy. I mostly prefer Apple products over competing ones, and I do find life is easier if I allow myself to be assimilated by a single ecosystem, but my opinion pieces are variously critical and supportive of Apple – and I’m certainly not blind to cool tech offered by Apple competitors.

I was particularly impressed by a feature Google released this morning: automatically and intelligently finding time in your calendar to work on your personal goals.

Most of us these days lead busy lives with packed schedules, and sometimes it can feel hard enough just keeping up with the essentials of work, family and those boring but essential chores – from clearing out the gutters to filing tax returns. When we do get some downtime, it’s all too easy to fill it with Facebook, Netflix and other time-snaffling activities.

This means those personal goals we optimistically come up with in the first enthusiastic days of welcoming in the new year – like writing a blog (gratuitous plug), learning a new language, running a marathon, or practicing a musical instrument – all too often get neglected.

Google Calendar turns 10 this year, but the service isn't ready to rest until it has ordered your entire life into neat chunks. Calendar's newest mobile feature, announced late last night, is Goals — a way for users to automatically set aside time for self-betterment tasks like learning a new language or working out by telling the app what you want to do and relying on it to find a spot in your busy schedule.

The way Google’s new calendar feature works is simple but really well thought-through.

You start by setting a goal. Google prompts you with some categories, like exercise and building a skill. It then offers some suggested activities within those categories, but of course also allows you to specify your own.

Once you’ve chosen your activity, the Calendar app asks you how often you want to engage in it:

  • Once a week
  • Twice a week
  • Three times a week
  • Five times a week
  • Every day

It then asks you to let it know how long you’d like to devote to the activity each time, from 15 minutes to two hours, and the best time of day: morning, afternoon, evening or no preference.

Once it has all this information, the app intelligently looks for free time in your calendar into which it can slot your chosen activities.

Of course, just because a time slot is free when Google goes looking for it doesn’t mean it will remain free. That 15 minutes you had free on Thursday afternoon could be snagged by a meeting. So the app prioritizes manually-scheduled appointments over the ones it auto-scheduled.

Additionally, when you’re prompted to begin an activity, you have the option to defer it – in which case the app looks for the next suitable slot – or to manually reschedule it. 

Google being Google, the master of data-driven decision-making, the app also intelligently learns from your deferring or rescheduling of activities to try to suggest more appropriate time-slots in the future.

I absolutely adore this idea. I love technology which genuinely enhances our lives, and I love technology which is smart. This is both.

It’s also completely in line with Apple’s ethos. Apple frequently emphasizes the ways in which its technology can help us be more creative and learn new skills, so this is absolutely on-message for the company. I hope this is one Google idea that Apple introduces in its own Calendar apps. 
If you do need Google to add a little structure to your free time, though, the new Goals are available now in Google Calendar on iOS and Android

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