A warning for productivity apps: Even the best of you will be rendered completely worthless by my horrible, horrible memory.
The hardest part of pretty much all to-do lists / project management tools is actually remembering to use them. It just doesn’t matter how good the app is, how much time it saves, or how much money it makes you if you can’t be bothered to open it up and do things with it.
I’m the worst about that, but lately I’ve found a fix. RescueTime can automatically open web pages right at the moment they’re needed. I’m letting a machine take over the job of staying organized from my flighty brain that’s just not very good at it.
It works – and it’s sort of magical.
Alerts within RescueTime can be set to open up an arbitrary url when triggered, and go off at very specific, contextually relevant times. If I’ve just spent two hours writing code, chances are I have something to cross off my to-do list.
Example: I actually keep my iDoneThis calendar updated now
I use iDoneThis to record a list of what I get done each day. They try to remind me to update my calendar with a daily email reminder, but for me it totally fails. I’m swamped with email and the last thing I want is something else that’s going to add to it. Instead, my iDoneThis calendar just automatically opens up when I’ve done five solid hours of productive work in a day (which usually happens around 4-5pm).
It’s great. My iDoneThis calendar actually stays up to date now. I don’t have to worry about looking for an email, and I don’t have to worry about messing with it on days when I have nothing to say. It’s just sitting right in front of me when I need it to.
Try it out
RescueTime alerts are part of RescueTime Premium (You can upgrade here if you’re on the free plan) If you want to give these alerts a try, here are a few to try out:
Several weeks ago, I stumbled on this video of Linda Stone speaking about what she calls the Essential Self, which is a way of thinking about personal data and how people should interact with it at a sensory and emotional level. I was really intrigued by the idea. Essential Self technologies are, in her words:
Passive, ambient, non-invasive technologies are emerging as tools to help support our Essential Self. Some of these technologies work with light, music, or vibration to support “flow-like” states. We can use these technologies as “prosthetics for feeling” — using them is about experiencing versus tracking. Some technologies support more optimal breathing practices. Essential Self technologies might connect us more directly to our limbic system, bypassing the “thinking mind,” to support our Essential Self.
This is a somewhat different perspective than that of the Quantified Self movement, which places emphasis on analysis and reflection of personal data. I’m generally on Team QS in this regard. Numbers are good, right?. The more data you have about something, the more opportunities to understand yourself at a deeper level. Right?!
Still, there’s something I really like about the idea of bypassing the analysis and skipping to the benefits that hopefully will be the result of the Quantified Self-flavored reflection. Digging through ever-growing piles of data searching for meaning has it’s drawbacks. Mainly, not everyone wants to be a data scientist. It can be daunting to learn how to think about your life in such a clinical context, both from a skills perspective (learning statistical analysis), and simply because it can feel really unnatural to think of yourself as a bunch of rows on a spreadsheet when that obviously can only represent a sliver of who you actually are. Also, I LIVE this stuff and I find it difficult to carve out the time to dive into my personal datasets and do some proper exploration (although its one of the most satisfying things when I do manage to find the time). I think this is one of the reasons many self tracking products fail to stick with people. They’re neat, but not enough to justify the effort to keep using them.
In many ways, I see the ideas around the Essential Self (as far as I understand them) as a progression of the Quantified Self, or at least something that is layered on top of QS. They attempt to sidestep the analysis and focus on creating a meaningful connection with the user at a purely emotional or sensory level. I think it’s an exciting idea, and really starts sounding like the future. You’re not building tools that people use to methodically figure things out. You’re giving them something that feels like super powers.
Here are some examples:
- You sleep better than your co-workers because f.lux helps you avoid disrupting your circadian rhythms while you work.
- You have a magical sense of direction because you wear a North Paw anklet.
- Your posture is fantastic thanks to the Lumoback you’re wearing that nudges you to sit up straight.
While watching that video, my brain started racing with thoughts about RescueTime in this context. Could I have an ambient sense of how my work day is going without constantly disrupting myself to check some numbers? Often, the exercise of pausing what I’m doing – however briefly, checking my stats, then understanding what they mean is counterproductive to the state of flow that I’m in.
With an Essential Self perspective in mind, I hacked together an alternative that uses a colored LED to keep me persistently aware of how productive my online activities had been. It fades between bright blue for productive activities and red for distracting ones. Here’s what it looks like:
It’s a neat first attempt, but I don’t think it totally succeeds. There are a few reasons why.
The experience of a real-time monitor felt a little bit like having a personal trainer. This is really awesome sometimes, but imagine if you had a personal trainer staring over your shoulder at all times? I felt an uneasy pressure when the light would fade to red.
It was too “right now”, and ignored previous aspects of my day. I oddly found myself resenting the red light, especially later in the day after I’ve already gotten a lot of work done. I think the problem was that the interval was too short, and perhaps should take the overall productivity pulse for the current day as some sort of weighting mechanism.
The red light feels like a slap on the wrist. I’m not huge on things that wag a finger in my face when I’m doing a bad job. I much prefer positive reinforcement. I may experiment with some other color schemes that prioritize communicating a state of focus. Perhaps using brightness instead of color.
The good news is, some of those objections can be address with a relatively simple design iteration. So I’ll keep investigating and see if I can make it feel better.
But in a way, this still seems like QS-style reporting. I’m swapping colors for numbers, but I haven’t fundamentally ventured outside of the realm of what most Quantified Self apps attempt to do. One thought I’m curious to explore is seeing if I can pulse the light in a way that encourages a calm breathing pattern when in a state of focus (addressing another idea from Linda Stone, email apnea). In that case, the light would become something that not only informs you about a state of focus, but actively takes a role in supporting you while you’re in it.
This is still very much a nights and weekends project for me, but I think it’s an interesting idea and wanted to share. What do you think about an ambient monitor to help you stay focused and productive? Or what about technology’s ability to communicate with you directly at an emotional or sensory level? Have you seen any other examples of this that you really like? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.
The ability to block distracting websites is one of my favorite parts of RescueTime Premium. It’s so easy to keep bouncing over to momentary distractions when I’m trying to stay focused, and if I’m not careful it can eat up my whole day. At best, work that I’d like to plow through quickly and be done with ends up taking three times as long because I can always think of several things that I’d rather be doing at any given moment. Being able to put up a wall and just block out all those alternatives is a great way to offload my willpower to the computer so I can devote my brainpower to actually getting my work done.
There are a few different ways to use FocusTime, and a few things to be aware of to get the most out of it.
How do I tell FocusTime which sites to block?
The great part about FocusTime is you don’t have to worry too much about compiling a big list of distracting sites you’d like to block. RescueTime already does that for you based on the types of activities that you’ve told it were distracting. The defaults aren’t perfect, but they save you from doing 80% of the work. Just by running RescueTime and telling it “Social networking sites are generally distracting”, RescueTime can figure out what sites you are going to and which ones should be blocked.
There’s one unfortunate side effect of RescueTime getting smarter the more you use it – it actually doesn’t start out with much of a list. If you try to use FocusTime to block distracting websites right after signing up, it won’t be very effective. Give it a day or so to warm up. It generally doesn’t take too long to build up a useful list. You can see a list of which sites would be blocked on the “block distractions” page (you must be logged in for that link to work), which can be found under the “tools” menu on the RescueTime website.
The auto-categorization will hopefully get you most of the way there, but there will likely be some distracting websites that we don’t have a default category for. In those cases, you can just give those sites a productivity score of “very distracting” and they will be blocked next time you start FocusTime. It’s probably easiest to just make sure you don’t have too many items in your “uncategorized” list (click here to view - must be logged in). That way, your preferences for each category will be used to determine which sites to block and you don’t have to worry about individually scoring hundreds of websites as “very distracting”. It may also be helpful to review the productivity levels assigned to each category.
How do I start FocusTime?
There are two ways to start a FocusTime session. Depending on the way you work, one might be better than the other.
Method one: Start a FocusTime session from the RescueTime application menu.
The most straightforward way to start a FocusTime session is to click the RescueTime icon on your desktop. It will either be on the menu bar on Mac, or in the System tray for Windows. Then choose “Get Focused…” and select an amount of time you’d like to block sites for. Click the button and that’s it! Within 30 seconds distracting websites will be blocked. You will receive an alert letting you know when your FocusTime session has ended.
Method two: Start a FocusTime session when an alert is triggered.
Using an alert to kick off a FocusTime session allows you to set some rules for yourself ahead of time, so you don’t have to rely on being motivated enough to actually start FocusTime at a point when you’re already struggling to get focused in the first place. RescueTime has a robust alert system that allows you to take actions when you have spent a pre-defined amount of time on certain activities. When an alert is triggered, you will receive a pop-up on your screen with a message (“You have spent more than 2 hours on Facebook today, Robby!”, for example.) In addition to the message, you can also optionally tell RescueTime to block distracting websites for a while. This is a great way to give yourself a good amount of freedom, but then automatically put up the productivity defenses at times when you really need them.
Six scenarios where blocking websites makes a whole lot of sense:
1. You’re using the Pomodoro Technique
The Pomodoro Technique is essentially working in 25 minute intervals, then taking a short break to recharge. It’s similar to how you might workout at the gym. You can use RescueTime to reinforce your focused intervals. Block sites for a 25 minutes of focus, then take a break for a few minutes. When you’re ready, start another session. See how many you can do in a day.
2. You are working on writing a novel (or any other long term project that requires long periods of focus)
Every year, National Novel Writing Month participants go on a writing marathon and attempt to complete an entire novel in just 30 days. We’ve done some analysis of some successful writers and found that working on a set schedule really helps. You can set up a daily period that’s devoted to writing and block all distractions during that time. (Note: You will need to create a custom time filter for this alert to work. You can do that under “advanced filters” under the “tools” menu)
3. You find yourself spending a lot of time on Social Networks when you feel like you should be working
Set an alert to give yourself a 30 minute FocusTime session after 1 hour on Social Networks to snap you out of it.
4. You want to start the day off as productively as possible
When you first start working in the morning, block distracting websites for 15 minutes to avoid starting the day off unproductively. You can do this manually, or create an alert that will do it for you. (Tip: Use the “when” dropdown when creatign the alert to restrict the time of day this happens. You could create one for just weekday mornings, after lunch, etc…).
5. You’d like to nudge yourself away from the computer after a particularly unproductive day
Sometimes I get to a point where I’ve fallen down such a distracting hole that the only thing that makes sense is to get up and move around for a while. You can block distracting websites for the rest of the day after 5 hours of unproductive time in one day.
6. You’re trying to get better sleep, and don’t want to spend so much time on the computer late at night.
You can block distracting websites between the hours of 10pm and midnight to help you get off the computer late at night.
Hopefully this gives you a good starting point for how to use FocusTime to help keep distractions in check. If you have any other scenarios where FocusTime is helpful, I’d love to hear about them in the comments.
RescueTime was initially imagined as a way to capture and evaluate data from the computerized workplace – essentially an online-activity meter. The core logging functions of RescueTime are meant to provide a precise measure of active time spent on the computer, with an eye towards maximizing productivity and efficiency. Our application retains this functionality, but it has been expanding its boundaries as the product develops and user demand dictates. It has become evident that users desire a broader spectrum of time-recording functionality with RescueTime, one that can include various activities spent outside of or away from work. Accompanying this demand is an increase among users in the use of measurement tools for these various life activities. There has been increasingly broad adoption of devices and applications recording various aspects of personal life, such as calendars and and health monitors (exercise, diet, sleep, etc.), and the wish for a way to include these details in RescueTime metrics. There are some engineering and future planning decisions that we face here at RescueTime as a result of these two, possibly competing viewpoints – work, in isolation from the rest of life, and work, incorporated into a holistic picture of a person’s activities.
Here are two examples of situations where we are faced with development decisions.
1. Logging active vs. passive device usage
RescueTime works by recording the window titles of whatever application, document, or webpage currently has focus on a computer or mobile device. This recording is of active use, defined as regular keyboard or mouse input. After five minutes without such input, RescueTime times out and stops logging until there is input again. The result is a very precise record of “active” computer use, meant to capture user activity. But what if someone wants to record activities usually considered not to be work – watching videos, for example? Currently, RescueTime does not record extended use of most video players, but users generally expect it to and are surprised when it does not.
• Should RescueTime record all computer usage as inclusively as possible or retain a focus on work only?
• How should it include other non-work activities?
2. Offline time activity support
For Premium users, RescueTime does have the means to provide details about time spent away from the computer or not otherwise registered by the application. There are two options here – a time-away popup that asks users to categorize the time spent since the computer went idle, and the Enter Offline Time page, where users can select specific spans of non-categorized time and allocate them as desired.
• Are there ways that this functionality could be improved to better include life activities?
Users have suggested several ideas here: more options in the time-away popup; integration of calendar data from an external source; the ability to create new top-level categories to accommodate these types of activities.
• What can RescueTime do to better serve users here?
I’m jealous of people who work in coffee shops.
Not because I dream of pulling espresso shots and doing pour-overs (although they’re delicious. I wish I had those skills!). The thing I’m jealous of is how easy it is to just know how things are going at any given moment when working in that environment. Especially when compared to a distributed workplace like ours, with me here in Nashville, and the rest of the team spread out across Seattle, Atlanta, and Miami.
It’s too easy to wind up in a bubble when physically isolated like that, and end up completely missing things like:
- Roger being buried with support the morning after we pushed out a new feature.
- The mid-week rush of new signups after we were mentioned in a news article.
- Tim being head-down in focus mode on some new stuff for the RescueTime desktop app.
- The general “we’re all in it together” vibe that comes from seeing everyone busting ass to make things work.
Information like this just flows freely in my local coffee shop (and I’d assume in most other brick and mortar businesses). It’s obvious how long the line of customers is, that Megan is buried under a ten-latte to-go order, or that Joe is just plain wiped out after a ten-hour day. And there’s the shared satisfaction of knowing that everyone did a good day’s work together. That’s not to say that I dislike remote workplaces. I think they’re great, actually. I’m just saying that feeling connected takes more work.
I’ve been thinking about this idea of connectedness for the past few months since I moved away from our main office. It’s tricky, because there is so much about a loosely-connected team that actually works really well, and trying too hard to replicate an “everyone in the same room” feeling would be forced and likely bad for our culture. Always-on video chat? Nope. Every-day status meetings? Blech. Taking on a whole new project management system to understand what everyone else is working on? Doesn’t fit how we work at all.
A few weeks ago, we tried an experiment and so far it’s working out really well. We use HipChat as our company chat tool, and it’s great for general back and forth, asking questions to the entire team, even taking a quick break and laughing about ridiculous pictures of cats. You can also post messages to it programmatically with their API, so we created a new chatroom just for things that would hopefully make some of the basic rhythms of the workday pop out a little more. We used Zapier to plug a bunch of different applications into HipChat, then let everyone on the team get creative with it. We gave very loose guidelines ( ”Add anything you feel like telling the rest of your team about your day. It has to be automated. Excessive use of emoticons and gifs is encouraged.”) With only a few hours of experimentation, we came up with an interesting feed that required no manual input, but let us get and give some really interesting information about our days.
Some examples (with admitted over-use of HipChat’s fantastic emoticons)
New signups and upgrades (via Zapier’s Gmail integration)
Company tweets, new blog posts, code deploys, and meeting notices
My frequent coffee runs and Tim’s lunch breaks (via Foursquare)
Several of our self-defined status updates based on our RescueTime stats, where we share some details about how we’re spending our time (via the RescueTime Alerts API)
Sometimes we use the alerts as a chance to poke fun at ourselves and share things we might not in a normal status meeting
It’s done a surprisingly good job at filling in a missing piece of the remote-experience for us. I feel like I’m much more aware of everyone else on the team, how their days are going, but without requiring tedious status updates that would just slow us down. I feel more connected, and it’s really nice.
We intentionally kept the messages light on details. I’ve seen a lot of “Quantified Self in the Workplace” projects, and they seem like they can often turn into micro-managing minefields. I think we avoided this by making everything voluntary and giving each person on the team complete control over what messages they wanted to contribute to the feed. For example, some of the feed items came from the RescueTime API, where there is a LOT of detailed information that each team member privately has about themselves. But at a team level, we don’t need (or want, if I’m being honest here) that level of insight into people.
It would probably be idealistic to assume that something like this would be helpful or even welcome in every remote-workplace, but it’s worked out great for us, and seems to fill a gap that has led other companies to take some pretty drastic measures to deal with in the past.
I’m really interested in ways that companies are taking advantage of the data-rich environments of their remote workplaces, and using them to create more engaging, more fun, and ultimately more productive experiences for their employees. Have you seen other examples, or tried something that’s worked particularly well?
Working from home is certainly a great experience, and simply put not for everyone. I tend to feel cruddy when I get distracted and am not giving a full day of effort. Last week I got stuck in a rut where I was more distracted than I demand of myself. I started a massive open online course (MOOC) a few weeks back and started getting distracted by this and letting it leak into my desired professional time (roughly 8am to 5pm). Lucky for me, I am able to see this in my daily reports and jumped on attempting to do something about it before it became a major issue.
Tending to wake up and start working between 8am and 9am, and wanting to start a little earlier like 7am, I took measures to push me into making the first hour or two the most productive I can make it. Setting up a few alerts on my RescueTime account has helped drastically. The first alert is triggered once I’ve spent approximately 1 to 2 minutes on the computer, it greets me with a “Good Morning” and encourages me to get something awesome done today. It also automatically starts a 15 minute FocusTime session to get the gears spinning in the right direction.
The next two alerts I set up as a goal to monitor how well I am doing over time. They run on a filter from Monday to Friday between 7am and 10am. They will trigger once I spend 1 hour of time on productive activities and a challenging 2 hours of time on productive activities. So far since starting this I have been able to reach the 1 hour productive goal, but since I am still waking between 8am and 9am, I haven’t yet been able to hit the 2 hour productive goal but am looking forward to continuing to try.
What I have found, is that spending the first hour or two in a really productive state, it actually carries you throughout the rest of the day. It acts like momentum, helping you plow through distractions like the stone above.