I first encountered Doodle.com a few years ago while working with a dozen or so volunteers on a project. The participants were scattered all over the world — India, Israel, Singapore, California, Massachusetts — and we somehow had to find a time when most of us would be able to meet online to discuss the project. One of the volunteers sent out a link to Doodle.com, and from then on, the dates and times for our meetings came together like magic.
Doodle is a free website and service that makes scheduling as simple as creating a poll. You invite people to the poll, and they simply tick off times when they are available to meet based on a number of choices the poll creator provides. It is an efficiency dream come true.
Michael Naef (also spelled Näf) founded Doodle in 2007 and is the company's CEO based in Zurich. I had the pleasure of speaking with him recently about how Doodle works as a tool that promotes organisation and efficiency. He also shared some of his own tips for staying productive and organised.
But before you read the interview, have a look at a quick overview of how Doodle.com works in this video:
Jill Duffy: I'm a huge fan of Doodle, and I have to say, I feel like I'm introducing it to people all the time. Is that a problem, getting the word out?
Michael Naef: On one hand, we're doing very well. We're now at more than 15 million users every month. So that's an awesome success and very exciting for us. But on the other hand, there's still a lot of potential out there if you consider that almost everybody has to do scheduling at some point or another.
Our best communications mechanism is the tool, the service, itself because it has virality built right in. You get other people on the platform by scheduling because you have to invite people to participate in your poll that you send out.
JD: That's certainly how I found out about it. Tell me about the productivity advances in wasting less time scheduling by using a tool like Doodle.
MN: That's related to a recent study that we did. A couple of years ago we did a study in which we examined how much time people need to organise their meetings every week. We found people would be able to save up to half a day each week if they could take out all the time spent organising meetings.
This new study we used to find out what online scheduling in particular helps you save in terms of time, compared to classic means, such as email or phone calls. We found you can save up to two-thirds of the time that you need to schedule, just by taking the human coordination out of the loop and making the whole process more efficient and less nerve wracking.
JD: What's the average number of people on any given meeting schedule?
MN: In our case the average is somewhere around five to six. It's right there where you start to save maybe half the time you would need to schedule [compared with scheduling via email or phone], and you save more and more time the more people who participate. In fact, we see a lot of scheduling polls for ten people, 20 people, up to hundreds of people.
JD: I'm thinking if you have only two or three people, you don't need a tool to schedule. At that point, it may be easier to just talk to people and save time that way.
MN: It often is. That's very true. In the two-people case, we have a tool for one-on-one scheduling. It's called MeetMe, and it works a little bit differently. You publish your free and busy times on a small calendar that's published at your personal URL at Doodle.com.
So in my case it's Doodle.com/myke. You can publish it, and if people want to meet you, they can just go ahead and make suggestions in [your calendar] with a high probability that you'll have time because they can see your free time slots. And then you can accept, reject, or ignore the request.
It's true that for three people, you can still get to a result via email or phone, but I find that method to be not as fast as using a tool such as Doodle.
JD: Does that calendar connect to any other tools, such as Outlook or Google Calendar?
MN: Yes, it does. Everything we have at Doodle — we also have a customer appointment solution tool called BookMe that takes it one step further for, say, a massage studio or whatnot — all these products offer calendar integration. It's all based on the same technology at our end. That's one of the advantages. If you ever populate your calendar, whether it's Outlook or iCloud [support for iCloud only recently launched], or Google Calendar, once you're connected to these calendars, you can use those in all the services that we provide. This will make the whole process more seamless and easier for you.
JD: I want to back up to the larger picture for a moment and talk about productivity in general. A reporter asked me the other day if we're obsessed with productivity, and I think that's particularly true for Americans. Since the 1970s, since we got our hands on computers in the workplace, we thought that we would become so much more efficient that we might even get more time back and maybe even have a four-day work week. And I find that's not at all the case. We have become obsessed with productivity in this drive to work harder, produce more results, make more money for the company — I was wondering what are your thoughts on that?
MN: That's kind of a broad topic [laughs]! We experience that in Europe, too. I think it's definitely a tendency in the United States, but in all the very industrialised countries and mentalities where people also drive on being productive, on getting things done.
Also with the "quantified self" movement where you try to measure everything that you do and try to optimise. I think there's some danger in there that loops get shorter and shorter, and it gets very strenuous on the individual. People should be aware of where their strengths are and where their limits are so they know when to slow down or when to accelerate when needed or on a regular basis.
On the other hand, I think it's a very positive trend that many of these more tedious tasks — whether it's scheduling an event or finding a flight or looking up connections on the train, or finding stuff on the Internet — whatever, all these arduous tasks get so much easier and help you save time.
I think the challenge is to invest that saved time not only in increased productivity but also in increased quality of life for you personally. There's a delicate balance between how much work you want to do, what work gives you, and how much private life you need. And how much grey zone you need between those two, and that's a very personal decision in the end.
JD: I find more and more people prefer to have a blended life, that they want their personal calendar and their professional calendar to be one. I certainly use Doodle a lot for social purposes, probably more so than for work. Like you said the increased productivity there is resulting in some benefit of leisure time and reduced stress.
There are other examples of productivity apps, though, that create a vicious cycle of trying to make you more productive so that you just keep working.
MN: There's always these two different views. There's the private life and the work life, and there's this talk about work-life balance. This again is a very personal question: Whether you think work and life are very separate things and there's a need to have a balance between the two, or whether the blend of these two areas of your life needs to be in the right rhythm for you as a person.
JD: Tell me more about the study that you conducted. Was there anything surprising you found?
MN: We were not surprised by the result itself. We had a lot of anecdotal evidence that Doodle helps people get the job done and helps people save time, and that was also our own experience when we used the tool. [The result of the study] was just more systematic proof that this is really the case.
What really astonished us was the difference. If you look at the table that shows how much time is used, people who schedule without a tool spend 90 to 120 minutes to schedule something with 10 to 15 participants. With Doodle in this experiment they only need half an hour, and that's a huge time saving that I wouldn't have expected.
JD: Could you share some organisational tip or practice that you personally use? It doesn't have to necessarily relate to scheduling.
MN: A couple of years ago I read Getting Things Done, the book. It was a very thought-productive book for me. I didn't use all the techniques he describes. But one technique I adhere to is to get everything out of my head and into useful systems and reliable systems.
Nowadays, I strictly work with calendars and to-do lists. Most of it brings all these little tasks out of my head, and frees my head for more productive work. Knowing that I have a reliable system that will remind me when something necessary has to be done is what has helped me get much more done, to make my workday much more productive. But it also frees up my mind. Having a free mind for leisure time and for whatever else I do, rather than having to think, "I must not forget this or that."
JD: My partner is an operations manager, and he has at any given time between 100 and 150 tasks on his to-do list. He's told me, "I keep the most important ones in my head because I'm worried about them, and the rest I keep in email." I was trying to explain to him that this is a stress on him. When tasks are not in a clear place where you can see them, they create a stress. But once you move to a reliable system that you can trust, you know that everything will be present when you need it.
He wants to move to a new and more organised system, though. I estimated that he would have about a two-week period of painful transition. Did you experience anything like that? When you moved to GTD, did you have any pain in transitioning?
MN: I experienced not that much of a transition period, but I did experience a mental hurdle. Before I introduced the system into my work practice, I didn't really trust that it would work in the end, or that I could keep it up to date, or that it would really be a reliable system that helps me get through the days and through the weeks. That took me quite a long time, a couple of weeks until I decided, "well, let's just try it." And then, I spent one day of setting the system up. Now I don't even have any email folders. I usually just have an empty inbox, and I put everything important into my to-do list. It started out pretty well.
I even simplified the system over a couple of months. Today it's really a very simple system for me. The best proof for it is that most days I don't know to-dos and meetings and other calendar events I have coming up on the next day or the day after that because the system is well organised enough that everything will work out okay and I'll be reminded. I usually only look at my calendar in the morning to see what's going on today.
JD: What other apps and services do you use?
MN: Remember the Milk is very central for me to keep my to-dos on track. I use the web-based system as well as the Android app to write anything down that comes to mind during a meeting or when socialising. Rather than trying to remember, I just write it down.
The other one is Google Calendar. Everything that is truly date and time dated is in there. There are many calendars in there, both for my private life and work-related.