The Day Doesn’t Start At Midnight

There are many apps which try to help you out by aligning some of their functions to happen on a per-day basis, whether it’s a reminder or a calendar event, or some other kind of task which has a day-bound relevance. This is a good idea dogmatically but I’ve found all implementations to fail in a pragmatic way: the day doesn’t start at midnight.

The best example of an app violating this is Things (both for Mac and iOS), which has a handy feature for recurring todos. The gist of the feature is “repeat this task every X days (or weeks or months, etc.) after I’ve completed it” with the idea being, I’d like a repeating task, but I only ever want to see it at most once in a list — if I haven’t completed it by the time it’s scheduled to appear again, don’t show it until I’ve marked it as complete and the proper time has elapsed.

In theory this works really well. I’ve got a task to “do some dishes” once per day, but if I happen to miss a day, I don’t get two todos the next day, I just stick with the one. Once I check it off, it recurs again the next day, where the day starts at midnight. Here’s where the problem is:

I stay up a little late at night and usually go to bed between midnight and 2AM. As I’m getting ready for bed, I’ll often review the day’s tasks in Things and mark off my stuff as completed, often things I’ve forgotten to mark as completed while I was going about my day. So let’s say it’s 1AM on Tuesday (technically this is Tuesday, but since I haven’t yet gone to bed, it’s really still Monday to me) and I mark off my recurring “do the dishes” todo. That’s great, and I expect to see the todo again tomorrow (during the daytime of Tuesday). But this is where my view of the situation diverges from that of the software: to me, “tomorrow” means “any time after I wake up and get dressed but before I go to sleep at night”, but to the software it means “any time after midnight”.

What ends up happening, because of our silly disagreement, is Things thinks I’ve already marked the task as being done for what I’d consider “the next day” and instead won’t show me the task again until after the next midnight rolls around. So in this case, I don’t see the task at all on Tuesday and it doesn’t show up until I start using the app Wednesday morning.

In this case, it’s not so grave because, well I’ll probably see the dishes and remember to do them anyway. But it’s still an error in pragmatism for the software to do something like this. There are probably way more users who go to bed at 2AM than who wake up and start their day at 2AM. And yet our software almost always treats us as though we’re mechanically bound to clocks, that our lives are grasped tightly by their hands.

A slightly better example of software handling this is with Siri. If it’s a little after midnight on Monday (so technically Tuesday) and you say “Siri, remind me to do the dishes tomorrow morning”, Siri will respond with something to the tune of “Just to be sure, did you mean Tuesday or Wednesday”. This is a step in the right direction, but it’s still an extra step the person almost never needs to take.

How to solve this problem

The obvious first solution to this problem is to simply have a setting in your application which says “The day starts at X” and let the user pick a time. That works, but it still pretty much stinks because the user is going to have to set this for every app which supports it, and it might change over time as the user’s habits change (student life to working life to parenthood, for example), not to mention many users probably won’t dive through the settings and designate a particular time anyway, so the program remains daft, treating the user as if they’re a clock.

The better solution is to infer what time the person starts and ends their day. It’s pretty easy to figure out with some simple usage statistics, by using what times of day the app is used (of course treating weekends slightly differently). If the app is used late at night, then you learn usage patterns and adjust the day cutoff to match the usage. If the app doesn’t get used late at night, then you don’t learn anything, but you don’t need to because the app doesn’t get used late anyway, so it doesn’t matter. A simple example of usage recognition can be found in Bret Victor’s Magic Ink in the “Engineering inference from history” section.

If you have to, be smart by being stupid

At the very least, consider solving the problem by making the day end later than midnight. You won’t throw off anyone by making the day end at 3AM vs midnight, and there’s no sense pandering to the edge case of those starting their day that early anyway. It’ll make your software work more like people do.

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