Guest Column

What you should be doing right now

Every now and then a company breaks through my communications perimeter (voice-mail, e-mail, nervous body language) and I end up in front of a demo machine while some reps try to convince me that they’re going to turn their ludicrous Net play into a real business.

Today it’s The CEO has absolutely no memorable characteristics at all. White shirt? White teeth? It’s hard to be sure. As an introvert’s psychic defense, I forget his name three seconds after we’re introduced, so I study his business card and put it on the table in front of me where I can refer to it. I keep having to look down at it, so I pretend I’m nodding in agreement.

“Michael, I’ll be brief. The world of work is changing, people’s jobs are getting harder, and we have new technology that can really help. What did you do this morning?”

I’m surprised. Usually I’m the one asking the “intelligent” questions.

“Well, let’s see. I walked to work, answered my voice-mail, checked out the news, skimmed my e-mail and met you.”

“Exactly. But why didn’t you walk to work, answer the voice-mails, skim your e-mail, check out the news and then meet us?”

“I don’t see what you’re getting at.”

“What I’m getting at is: time. Time really matters.” He leans forward excitedly. “There’s an infinite number of things you could be doing right now. If you worked day and night every hour for the next 10 years you couldn’t possibly meet your current commitments. You’re not alone. Every knowledge worker in the Internet Economy faces the same challenge. You have the tools and the technology to be completely productive at all times. You have global markets to conquer. Your competition is cut-throat. How are you supposed to manage your time? Napoleon said he didn’t mind losing space, because he could always win it back. But when you lose time, it’s gone forever.”

“It’s not that bad. I keep a diary.”

He shakes his head quickly. “No. Time-management solutions don’t help. They remind you what you forgot to do when it’s too late to do it, and they make you plan what you should do when you should be doing it. Serious people don’t use them because they don’t answer the most important question, which is – what the hell should I do right now?”

I’m intrigued. “You can actually help with that? I thought it was just me.”

He presses the button on the demo machine, and a pull-down menu pops up. “We’ve broken down the actions of the typical knowledge worker into an incredibly rich natural-language database. We can then randomly generate a series of elegantly planned, strategically intelligent ‘To Dos’ and appointments for you, so you know what you should be doing, every minute of the day.”

“The software will actually tell me what to do?”

“Just check it and go. It’s a total solution. We provide e-mail notification, Web calendaring, wireless Palm Pilot updates, pager alerts. We can even fax you pages for your Daytimer.”

“But that’s ridiculous! You’re suggesting that I hand over control of my working day to random forces over which I have no control.” My cell phone rings. “Sorry, I have to take this.”

It’s the New York office. Their Web connection is down. I know the IS manager told them to do a rain dance to try to bring it back up, but I’m pretty sure he was kidding. The Motorola i1000 cell-phone speaker makes their chanting sound plaintive. I hang up.

“OK. I’m in. How would it work for me?”

He smiles and says, “You’re a software type, right? Here’s the list of appointments we’ve generated for the rest of your day.”

I read the entries with surprise: Leave meeting. Go to lunch. Do e-mail. Plan future deals. Check out on-line competition. Stare blankly into space. Engage in pointless turf war. Lick wounds. Talk about going to the gym. Eat cake instead. Go home.

I have to admit I’m impressed. They seem to have nailed it.

“Is anyone else using this stuff?”

He nods briskly. “The basic algorithms were developed in the Defense Department procurement technology group, but we’ve done extensive testing in the federal government, at IBM and at Apple, although they recently decided the software didn’t meet their needs. And we’ve been in the New York Times for months.”

“Does it really work?”

“Of course. And I think you should spread the word.”

I click the mouse on the What Next? icon, and the words “Approve hot story idea” appear in the window. “I’ll see what I can do,” I said.

Parsons, the executive news editor of The Industry Standard in San Francisco, can be reached at