Assignment

How have time-pressed women adopted the internet to help them care for home and family? This project is one of the first longitudinal studies performed at the ID. In 2010, students engaged 25 women across 4 lifestages to better understand how those women use the internet to care for home and family. While the first study focused heavily on online shopping, it also revealed larger patterns of change in both mindset and behavior as participants integrated the internet into their home management practices. In spring 2012, students followed up with 12 of those women to see what changed after smart phones and mobile devices became ubiquitous in their households; patterns from the first study were not only still present, they were more entrenched and evident.

Two such patterns include: A “batch” model for task management has a person execute an entire task all at once: paying bills and reconciling checkbooks at the end of the month, or cleaning house on Saturday mornings or even eating three separate meals a day. A “sliced” model fragments larger tasks, like money management, cleaning and eating, into smaller tasks that can be executed separately and over time, as time permits. This is not multi-tasking, which is about combining together activities that seem complementary at the moment. Task-slicing is about breaking apart large tasks into smaller events that happen more frequently and can be done in stages, and therefore fit between other, more central activities.

Synopsis

The women in our 40s segment (employed with at-home children over five years of age) offered the best evidence of this change, as they are also “pre-internet.” They were most likely to articulate the old way of doing things—the ritual of getting out the envelopes, stamps and paperwork when the bank statement finally arrived—and to compare that to the more “convenient” way of doing things via the internet. This includes checking bank balances on a daily basis, switching their attention to more effectively monitor their cash flow, rather than focusing on the larger picture of their spending practices and cash inflows and outflows. This shift from batch to sliced is widely perceived by participants to be more convenient, to more firmly locate tasks within their control and to offer a better fit with their ever-changing schedules. What is visible is in the data, but not necessarily to participants, is the resulting complexity of managing a growing number of microtasks, a sense of “never being done,” a lack of immersion in tasks and the loss of the larger picture offered by focusing on a task for an extended period of time.

Categories that evidence task-slicing behaviors include shopping, finances, scheduling, communication and education/learning, and our study suggests participants are also applying this “new normal” to categories that are not internet-related. While the internet has given our time-pressed women an unprecedented ability to slice tasks into shiftable units, this newfound way of working is changing how they allocate time in their lives overall, and is clearly building new mental models of efficiency, productivity and time optimization. As a result, task slicing is also building new routines and habits, and setting up expectations that participants carry into offline experiences, which often fail to measure up.

Online shopping offers a good example of how Internet-based task management opens up new conceptions of time. For many participants, the ability to bend time to fit their needs begins online, but bleeds into a general expectation that all tasks should fit around their lives and priorities, not the other way around.

1. Shifting time: Before, tasks were defined by when the store, bank or school was open. Using the Internet, women can shift a task to the time that is convenient for them, not the service provider.

“Right now, I can attend to shopping, searching, researching, making appointments, seeing how my son is doing in his classes, booking a kids birthday party, deciding on a caterer, ordering invitations… all on my own time.  Most of the time it is after the kids go to sleep.”

2. Pausing time: On the Internet, no one cares if you put your task on hold while in the middle of it. Our study participants break from online tasks to interject offline tasks, like changing the baby or making dinner, before returning to their online task. This allows women to build tasks around what matters at the moment—the people in their lives—rather than their To Do lists.

3. Dialing time up and down: The Internet allows participants to match time spent on a task to its perceived importance. They spend more on tasks they value (selecting a breeder for a puppy) and less on routine tasks (scheduling appointments).

4. Mirroring time: Getting tasks done digitally while also being physically present for kids and spouse at the same time makes participants feel like they have superpowers.

“The number one place is our family room. We are in the family room together every night we are at home. I typically am catching up on emails, paying bills, checking my daughter’s grades.”

5. Maximizing time: Online shopping online can be measured in minutes, not miles. Fewer tasks fit into a given amount of time when they are done offline. The Internet allows participants to do more in less time and with greater satisfaction.