08/18/2014 01:21 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Intention Economy Or: What Productivity Applications Have to Do With Kids' Backpacks


It seems like every year the "back to school" frenzy hits us just a little bit earlier (I'm sure commercial interests have nothing to do with it). Yesterday, my wife asked me to buy the kids new backpacks (never mind that their current ones seem impeccable), along with several other back-to-school errands.

I want to be a good dad, I really do. But here's what my day was actually like yesterday: I read a draft of a paper by my PhD student Eric and later called him to discuss revisions needed before the deadline (which was yesterday); I met with my co-founders Jacob and Dan about our company's first product; I called my mom and my oldest daughter, both of whom live abroad; I told my wife I'd try to be home by 7pm; I decided I wanted to go swimming in the afternoon; scrapped the swimming idea in favor of a bunch of tasks and errands; and eventually, I wrote this piece. I was home by 7, but the backpacks will have to wait until Monday.

All of these things -- the paper, the meeting, the phone calls, the workout, the backpacks, being home for dinner -- were my intentions, or conscious choices on my part about how to spend my time. Some of them ultimately resulted in action. Sadly, some of them did not.

Much has been written (184,000 pieces, according to Google) about the attention economy -- the notion that we can't possibly process all the information that is hurled at us in this wired age. But if information is the input to our decision-making process, then intention is its output. And an overabundance of intentions is no less problematic. There are way too many potential activities vying for our time than we can possibly engage in, and we need to make conscious decisions about what to commit to. Welcome to the intention economy.

We already know what information is made of and how to manipulate it. In particular, we know how to write software that essentially compresses mountains of information down to a few relevant bits. But what is intention and how do we manipulate it to our advantage? This is something we need to understand if we're to design software that truly helps people manage their most valuable resource: time.

Our current productivity tools don't understand intention. Think about the calendar, one of our most basic tools. It captures a certain class of intentions -- those firmly anchored in time ("3-4pm") that usually involve other people. We typically call these intentions "events" (or sometimes more specifically, "meetings"). But other intentions are different and don't live naturally in the calendar. "Call mom" sometimes lives in a to-do list, either physical or digital. Other times we shoehorn these things into the calendar either by scheduling them at some artificial time, or labeling them as an "all day" event. Most often, we simply leave them as a thought in our head.

Meanwhile, other types of intentions (work on the book, jog three times a week, arrange Jane's fifth birthday party, take time to think, sleep!) fit even less naturally into these standard apps. At best, we manage to write them down as a note. The result is that our various intentions are scattered across multiple forms of media that do not integrate well with one other and are not optimized to represent many of these intentions to begin with.

We need a better system. We need to be able to naturally express what's on our mind (David Kadavy hit the nail on the head when he said "mind management," not time management). For this, the system needs to understand the concept of intention deeply. Applications shine when their internal logic is crisp and beautiful. I'm sure there are many ways to arrive at this understanding, but my money is on the philosophical literature on rational action and the logic-based area in artificial intelligence called knowledge representation, where much has been written about what intention is, and how best to represent it.

As technology continues to evolve, we see companies do a better job of addressing these needs. Companies are starting to grasp the concept of intention and are genuinely trying to help people make time for the things that matter most to them, instead of getting lost in their to-do lists and calendars. We have only a finite amount of time to address our intentions, so utilizing advances in technology to help us complete these tasks will not only make us more productive, but ultimately make us happier.

So here's to parents, students, and all the rest of us. May we use our time wisely, and may we discover the tools to help us do so. And may our kids have the right backpacks.