Shifu Reminds You of Tasks When You Have Time for Them

Most to-do and reminder apps are all about making lists of tasks that you need to complete, and reminding you to tackle them at specified times. Unfortunately, real life doesn’t always follow a schedule, and we often find ourselves skipping or putting off tasks because we couldn’t find the time to do them when we planned to — leaving with a longer to-do list for the next day. Will we ever be able to conquer these all-powerful lists?

The developers at New Delhi, India-based Signals, believe they may be onto some sort of a solution: Instead of adapting your day to the way your time management app is set up, why not have the app adapt to your life? Their new app Shifu does this by reminding you of tasks when you have the time to complete them and are at the right location. From chores to returning calls to wishing friends on their birthday, Shifu can actually help you get stuff done regardless of your ever-changing schedule. I spoke with Prashant Singh, co-founder of Signals, to understand how Shifu works and to see if I could actually get more done with their novel take on to-dos.


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A Time and Place for Tasks

With traditional to-do lists, whether on paper or on a mobile device, tasks are generally added with a relevant date and time, like so: ‘Call Mike at 5:30 PM’ or ‘Buy snow shovel on Dec 10′. But what if you’re busy at 5:30PM, or nowhere near a hardware store on Dec 10? Those reminders go from helpful to nagging in a jiffy. Shifu’s not so much about when you should get to a task, but more about how long a task will take.

Shifu's interface prompts you to return calls (left); the Reminders tab (right)

Shifu’s interface prompts you to return calls (left); the Reminders tab (right)

To add a reminder in Shifu, you’ll need to describe the task, and indicate how many minutes it will take to finish. You can additionally specify whether you want to be reminded of it during the day or night, and on weekdays or weekends. Shifu then watches your device and your usage, and reminds you of your task when it finds a free time slot when you might find it convenient to get around to completing it.

You can also input other triggers for your reminders:

  • Location – ‘take out the trash’ when you get home, or ‘buy milk’ when you reach the grocery store
  • WiFi hotspot – ‘upload new field recordings’ when you’re in range of your studio network
  • Phone call – ‘ask about our weekend hike’ when you next speak with Joyce (Shifu will display a pop-up when you make or receive a call from Joyce)

Shifu can also remind you to return missed calls or wish your Facebook friends a happy birthday when it notices you have a few minutes to spare.

Adding reminders by time taken (left); by WiFi hotspot (right)

Adding reminders by time taken (left); by WiFi hotspot (right)

How Does It Work?

“Shifu estimates your available free time by statistical analysis of your user data. Here’s an example: let’s say you start your daily office commute between 7:30 and 8:00 AM, and reach work sometime between 8:30 and 9:00 AM. While you’re commuting, your phone will register a change in the cellular tower ID, and that clues Shifu in about the fact that you’re on the move. Next, we also look at the kind of things you do during your commute . If your user log shows that you make calls and read emails during your commute, Shifu understands that it’s a good time to remind you of calls that you need to return within that window of time,” says Singh.

In this example, the app also looks at the average duration of calls made while you’re commuting, so it will only remind you about returning calls from people, whose call duration in the past have been less or equal to that average duration. To put our privacy concerns at bay, Singh adds that Shifu doesn’t look at individual data points, but rather only looks at the data collected in aggregate. Similarly, its algorithms only consider the meta data generated by your device activity, and not in any of the actual information entered.

Shifu can remind you of important discussion topics when you make or receive calls

Shifu can remind you of important discussion topics when you make or receive calls

The Interface

I was intrigued by the concept behind Shifu and so, decided to try it out for a few days. The interface isn’t exactly intuitive, but you could get used to it after a while. The main screen displays contacts whose calls you can return, or to whom you can send birthday greetings via Facebook. You’ll also see a circlular dial with a minute counter, which is intended for you to indicate how much free time you have just then: Shifu will show you all the tasks you can complete in that time slot. While I found the call/birthday prompts very useful, I can’t say that I was comfortable searching for tasks based on how much time I had free: it just didn’t feel natural, perhaps because I’m so used to dealing with my tasks as a checklist.

Return a contact's missed call or send a message (left); Shifu's active wallpaper (right)

Return a contact’s missed call or send a message (left); Shifu’s active wallpaper (right)

Adding reminders involves picking a trigger (time required, location, WiFi network or phone contact) and entering your task, which is simple enough. Shifu takes a few days to learn your schedule before it gets things right, and soon begins notifying you about tasks when you have time for them. You can choose to receive reminders either via system notifications or on the active wallpaper, which essentially is a gesture-enabled active wallpaper that sits on top of your existing one. I did get a couple of poorly timed reminders, but for the most part received alerts as I expected.

Using Shifu

While Shifu is great at helping us cut down on excuses to procrastinate on tasks, I can’t yet say that I would use this a lot — but that’s just me. As a freelance writer who can work from most anywhere, I really need more planning assistance from my to-do list than updates at opportune moments. I generally begin my day by looking at and filling out my to-do list and calendar, and schedule tasks in order of priority. I prefer being able to consult my list and check things off till I’m done for the day.

Plus, I prefer a detailed to-do list: as a devout Wunderlist user, I’ve grown fond of the app’s ability to handle multiple lists, reminders, subtasks, notes and even files. For example, I use it to jot down story ideas for blogs, attaching text snippets and links for research as I go. That’s not what Shifu is built for, and those looking for help planning their day may not benefit very much from this approach. However, for those who have trouble dealing with difficult schedules, this might be the answer they’ve been looking for.

The Road Ahead for Shifu

While Shifu is already available in the Play Store with its core functionality working as promised, the app still has a long way to go. I encountered a few bugs, including a map that refused to accept any location input other than my current whereabouts, display issues on the ‘Add Reminder’ screen, and text that didn’t read correctly across the app. I’d love to see more features too, such as interacting with reminders from the notification panel, support for multiple lists and a planner-style display of tasks. It’d be great to see the user experience simplified and refined further, so as to allow even novice smartphone users to get the hang of this app.

Execution aside, what’s intruiging about Shifu is its Google Now-like learning and recognition of your habits. It’s exciting to see an app pick up on a user’s behavior and deliver relevant, timely content — it feels like your phone finally has begun to understand how to engage you and help make your life easier.

Singh is excited about the future of Shifu. “We’ve only begun scratching the surface of what is possible with this concept — we have some exciting features in mind for the app, but our current focus is to ensure that Shifu reaches as many users as possible so we can utilize their feedback to sketch out our roadmap. At some point, we’d like to extend Shifu to other platforms as well. We’re also trying to raise a round of angel investment and have applied to a few US-based startup incubator programs to take things forward,” concludes Singh.


Summary

Shifu is a free to-do app that learns your routine and reminds you of tasks when you have the time to complete them.

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