Better Life Lab

Can You Download Your Way to a Better Life?

Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photos by Getty Images, Thinkstock.

I have it relatively easy when it comes to work-life balance: a fairly flexible freelance schedule, a husband who is home by 5-ish most nights, only one kid, and a small-town social life.

But while I’m not leading the fast-paced career life of Shonda Rhimes, I still need help keeping my life in order. I’m not a disastrously disorganized person, but I do tend to lose track of appointments and objects and to-do list items around the edges of my core responsibilities (earn income and keep myself and my child alive). Meanwhile, I can’t seem to carve out more time to exercise and clear my own head, and I’m prone to screw-ups like forgetting my quarterly taxes until days past the deadline. I’m perpetually running five minutes late, both psychologically and literally, which amounts to feeling 10 minutes late.

Over the years, I’ve tried various strategies for becoming a more organized, balanced person. My “systems” tend to involve scraps of paper and gentle reminders from my husband that “it would be really great” if I could make the oil change appointment this time. Tired of suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, I have decided to take arms against my sea of troubles. So I decided to download some apps.

After perusing various SEO-attuned listicles, I pick a handful of apps to try out over the course of three weeks. My hope is that I will emerge transformed into a majestic butterfly of maternal and professional orderliness, a veritable Mary Poppins of my own life (but with a cuter bag).

Day 1

I start my new program of self-improvement with Runkeeper. It’s a fitness tracker that keeps track of the user’s route and pace and lets her set personal challenges based on factors like pace and distance. I’m not a runner, but I’m excited about using the app to nudge me into taking more walks. There’s a 3-mile loop around a lake near my house that I used to complete a few times a week before I had a baby. This is one of my top goals: I’d really like to get back into that routine.

Riding high on optimism—or is it pessimism?—I decide to tack on a separate motivational app that forces users to pay up if they don’t meet their preset exercise goals. With Pact, users commit to fulfilling a specific weekly goal and put a set amount of money on the line to motivate them. You forfeit the money if you don’t meet you own goal. If you succeed, you keep your money—and earn a little extra from fellow users who fail. It’s something like the old-fashioned swear jar, although Pact rewards good behavior in addition to punishing failure. And yes, it means you’re basically rooting for others to fail; schadenfreude really gets the heart pumping. Tomorrow I’ll put $20 on the line and commit to looping the lake three times a week. It’s an investment in my own future!

Day 2

It turns out Runkeeper and Pact both require more advanced operating systems than my out-of-date iPhone has. I’ve been telling the phone to “ask me later” about updating my system for months now. Before committing my $20, I give up completely.

Day 3

Luckily, I planned for this kind of contingency. To help me manage any pesky twinges of discouragement during my experiment, I downloaded Happier, which promises to help me develop a “gratitude habit.” The main idea is that I will post upbeat status updates to be rewarded by other users with “smiles,” creating a feedback loop of positive energy. It’s basically a social media community (or, if you keep your statuses private, a journal) that has banished negativity. The website refers to “more than 11,000 scientific studies” that prove that my gratitude habit will make me more optimistic, creative, and productive—and I’ll sleep better, too. I’ll tell you what I’m already feeling grateful for: science!

Day 6

Meanwhile, my husband, Mike, and and I have both downloaded Cozi, an organizer meant to be used by every member of the family—although my 2-year-old, Mary, will have to have me input her schedule for her. It has features like shared shopping lists and to-do lists. But the real selling point is the joint family calendar, which can import items from Google Calendar. (The basic app is free; Cozi Gold is $29.99 a year and includes perks like a monthly calendar view.) The premise is that we can stop Gchatting and texting each other all day with items to add to our independently maintained calendars. Now we can see all relevant items in one place.

I get to work, adding upcoming calendar items and tagging them with a color-coded “Mike,” “Ruth,” “Mary,” or any combination thereof. Ruth: 9 a.m. oil change. Mike: 2:30 p.m. day care pickup. Mary: 4 p.m. doctor’s appointment. All: zoo day trip.

Day 9

I’ve also been testing out ATracker, a time-use app that promises to help you “manage your time, beautifully.” I was won over to it when the promotional copy promised “minimal setup,” my Achilles’ heel when it comes to technology (see Day 2). Here’s how it works: You list your own categories for how you use your time—commuting, watching TV, setting up apps—and then simply tap a task when you’ve started it and tap again when you’re done. The app keeps track of how long you log performing each activity. After a while, presto, you can view a satisfying pie chart that shows you how you really spend your time.

I don’t know how many scientific studies there are behind this one, but the theory seems to be:

Step 1: View pie chart illustrating how you spend your time.

Step 2: ????

Step 3: Celebrate your total efficiency in both work and home life.

The free, or “lite,” version only lets me create five categories, so I start with four: relaxing, work, housework/child care, and exercise.

Day 14

I hate ATracker. OK, I don’t hate it, but I don’t get it. I am constantly forgetting to tap in and out of my categories, leaving the impression that I’ve been doing housework for 12 hours in a row or haven’t worked in days. I should probably also create a separate sleep category, but the prospect of remembering to open a special app and hit “Sleep” every night before bed seems the opposite of restful. Even with my minimalist approach, a “successful” day means tapping in and out of the app something like 10 times a day.

Anyway, the whole thing about work-life balance is that the categories are so often blurry. Is taking my daughter out with the stroller exercise, relaxing, or child care? Does reading a book related to my beat, but not related to a particular assignment, count as work or relaxing? Was that zoo trip relaxing or child care? One solution would be to spring for the $4.99 upgrade and let a thousand flowers bloom: long-term work, deadline work, email, errands (Mary cooperative), errands (Mary screaming “I WAN’ PAINT!”). But then I would spend even more time interrupting myself to tap in and out of various activities. Mary Poppins would never stand for that.

Day 16

Today, I’m very zen about all of this in part because of Happier, which I have been seeding with messages sound like they were written by Kenneth the Page: “Grateful for a day at the zoo with my family!” “Made enchiladas for dinner and they turned out really well!” If my Happier persona were on Twitter I would hate her. I begin to understand why there’s an app for this.

Day 18

Cozi, meanwhile, is proving to be promising—something like an all-family message board, furnished with reminders, lists, and inside jokes. It was easy to set up, it’s easy to use, and it answers a need that a lot of parents have. Is it an upgrade over our existing solution of the wall calendar in the kitchen, supplemented by individual Google calendars? For us, not yet. The wall calendar is still unbeatably intuitive and accessible. It also has pictures of birds. But as my daughter gets older and has more of her own activities and appointments, Cozi could be a very useful tool.

Day 19

The one app I haven’t mentioned is one I have been using for years and one that is by far the best tool I’ve found for working efficiently—and therefore preventing my work life from spilling over into my home life. Freedom provides exactly that, by blocking access to the entire Internet or a hand-tailored list of distractions on the user’s phone or computer. I use it on my laptop any time I have writing to get done: I select a “blocklist,” start a session for as long as I want, and presto, it’s time to work. No app has done more for my sanity over the last several years. And frankly, Freedom is likely the only one of these apps that I’ll keep using a few months from now.

Day 20

According to ATracker I have spent less than one minute exercising in the last three weeks. For once, it has captured my time use with impeccable accuracy.

Day 21

I promised to file this piece to my editor on Friday, but I didn’t turn it in until the following Monday morning. I had excuses: another time-sensitive assignment that cropped up late in the week, a sick kid. But then, won’t I always? I could lock down my internet, log my time, coordinate calendars, and (I guess) exercise, and it wouldn’t stop little emergencies and failures from interfering. There’s no app for life itself. And when there is, it probably won’t work on my phone.