Zapier integration update: Daily summary reports and Automated highlight logging

daily-summary-highlights-post

A few months ago we added support for using RescueTime’s Alert notifications within Zapier, a service that helps people automate their favorite web apps.

We found that it was really, really useful, so we’ve added two additional triggers and an action to the RescueTime app on Zapier. These improvements will open up a bunch of new ways to use RescueTime with outside apps.

Daily summaries – daily rollup reports to use in your zaps.

Daily Summaries are a high level rollup of the the time you log in RescueTime each day. The summary includes the total time, time spent at different productivity levels, and time spent in each major category.
This lets you export high-level information about your days to other applications. With 20 different data points presented in a variety of formats (raw duration, percentage of overall time, formatted in hours / minutes / seconds), you can filter and customize the output to best fit the needs of your zap’s action.

This will make it easy to do things like:

  • Create a personalized daily email report showing only the metrics that really matter to you.
  • Create a notice when a certain percentage of your time is uncategorized. This notice could be delivered as an email, or an item added to your favorite to-do list such as Trello. Zapier supports over 300 different services, so there are a lot of possibilities here.
  • Create a percentage-based alert for any major category. This will let you keep an eye on how much time you spend on certain activities relative to the overall amount of time you have logged that day.

Note: Daily summaries are available to all RescueTime users, new reports become available each day at midnight in your local timezone.

Highlights – a running log of your accomplishments

RescueTime makes it easy to log notes about what you’ve accomplished each day. These are called Daily Highlights, and they can add important context to the application and website time that is logged automatically. Spend 6 hours coding one day? You can annotate that day so it’s more obvious what you got done during that time.

highlight-dashboard-weekly

Highlights as displayed on the RescueTime weekly dashboard

You can now create zaps to automatically log highlight messages when meaningful actions happen in your other systems. This can make logging your status completely effortless. We’ve been using these a lot internally and it’s really made the quality of our weekly status meetings go up by about 1000%.

Some examples of things you can now do:

  • Log your GitHub commit messages as highlights. This one addition made the biggest difference for the developers on our team. Basically a part of our existing workflow – GitHub commits – was made more valuable by putting the data into a new place.
  • Keep a record of the meetings on your Google Calendar in your highlights list. Meetings can have a big impact on how you spend your time, so it makes sense to keep a record of them. It’s easy to import your Google Calendar events as daily highlights.
  • Log a highlight when new blog posts are published. If you work in media and need to keep a record of your posting progress, this makes it simple. This can be done in a zap via an RSS feed or by connecting your WordPress account to Zapier.
  • When a Trello card is dragged to the “done” column, log a highlight. This pretty much transformed how I use Trello. It was already a great way to manage what I needed to do, now it’s also a great reporting tool that shows me what I got done.
  • Log checkins on Foursquare as a highlight.  I really wanted to understand how my coffee intake affects my productivity, so I started logging any checkin to a coffee shop on Swarm as a highlight. Now I can see just how much of a caffeine addict I am. :)

Some people already have another application where they keep track of their accomplishments, so we also added the ability to broadcast highlights entered in RescueTime to other applications. For example, you may want to keep your ‘dones’ list in iDoneThis in sync with your RescueTime highlights. Or perhaps your team uses a tool like Yammer, and you may want to post a status message whenever you log a new highlight. For us, we send highlights to our “what’s happenin” room in HipChat.

Note: Highlights are a part of RescueTime Premium, to use them you will have to have a premium subscription.

We’re really excited about these new additions, and hope you find them as useful as we have. We would love to hear what you think in the comments. If you’d like to read more about these updates, check out the post about it over on the Zapier blog.

If you aren’t using RescueTime yet, getting started is easy. Just sign up and you’ll be logging time in less than five minutes.


RescueTime and Android Lollipop (system version 5)

Hello from our sometimes Android camp.

UPDATE 2014-12-12 We released RescueTime for Android v 4.0.0 (app version not OS version) today. This release is a major rewrite we have been working on that we accelerated to get out the door in order to support Android 5. Everything looks like it is working well, though we are still working on website time tracking for Lollipop.

UPDATE 2014-12-03: We have successfully re-engineered the app to use the android.add.usage API Google has introduced. We hope to release this update soon, but it is going to be coupled with a major revision of the app including many other features. Stay tuned!

Previously posted:

Android Lollipop has introduced a totally new way to gather system statistics that we are assessing and implementing. The have also completely deprecated a system interface we were depending on to produce RescueTime statistics (read: rendered non-functional).

The upside is, in the future we may be able to improve our statistics. The downside is, that until we can get an update out the door, anyone who uses Android L (5) will cease to get app usage time from Android.

Sorry, and thanks for your patience!


Tip: Use RescueTime to sidestep your forgetfulness and remember to update your to-do list

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 never have to think about updating  iDoneThis any more. It just shows up in front of me when the time is right.

I never have to think about updating iDoneThis any more. It just shows up in front of me when the time is right.

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:

Update your iDoneThis calendar after five hours of productive work. (you will need to update the URL to point to your own iDoneThis calendar)

Update your iDoneThis calendar after five hours of productive work. (you will need to update the URL to point to your own iDoneThis calendar)

trello-alert

Open Trello.com when you first arrive at work in the morning. Remember to set the “when” dropdown to something that makes sense for your workdays.

Update Asana when you've been coding for more than two hours.

Update Asana when you’ve been coding for more than two hours.

If you’d like to learn more about RescueTime’s alerts (which are pretty awesome), check out this post, or learn more about RescueTime Premium.


Crazy things people have done in the name of productivity

Sometimes I get stuck in distracting loops that are so hard to break free from that it feels like the only option is to try something utterly crazy because well, nothing normal is working. These don’t always work (ok, ok, they RARELY work), but every now and then I’ll stumble across something that’s actually pretty effective and makes a big difference in how I spend my day. The other times, well… at least I sometimes end up with a ridiculous story to tell.

You never know until you try, right? So, in that spirit, here are a few of the most over-the-top productivity hacks I’ve ever heard of.

Hugo Gernsback’s “Isolator” helmet

Back in the 1920’s, writer and inventor Hugo Gernsback got fed up with the distractions of everyday life and how they disrupted his thinking. He realized, correctly, we are often our own worst enemy when it comes to focus, cautioning that “You are your own disturber practically 50 percent of the time”.

(hat tip to Aerogramme Writers for pointing this one out to us!)

So how to beat distraction? He came up with a gloriously absurd solution. The Isolator was a helmet that would, as completely as possible, remove any outside stimulus from the wearer’s perception. If you were wearing this thing, you would be in complete silence, and total darkness except for what was visible out of the two tiny eye holes designed to keep you focused on whatever it is you were working on. If that wasn’t enough, oxygen was pumped in through a tube to keep you alert and in the zone.

Gernsback also suggested using electric shocks to combat mid-afternoon drowsiness, delivered either directly to worker’s chairs, or sending current flowing through the air around them! I’m really glad he became better known for his science fiction than his workplace management ideas!

More about Hugo Gernsback and the Isolator

Honoré de Balzac’s extreme coffee consumption

cafetiere

Honoré de Balzac’s Coffee Pot

Just go to any coffee shop and take a look around to see the role caffeine plays for the modern knowledge worker. But the coffee consumption French novelist and playwright Honoré de Balzac used to fuel his productivity was legendary. This guy LOVED his coffee. He would go on epic work benders, allegedly consuming up to 50 cups of coffee per day, two cups at a time, on an empty stomach. He wrote about the highs and lows of his relationship with coffee in the essay “The Pleasures and Pains of Coffee”, complete with details about his personal limits (“you will fall into horrible sweats, suffer feebleness of the nerves, and undergo episodes of severe drowsiness”), and the type of person that could handle such epic caffeination (“men of excessive vigor, men with thick black hair and skin covered with liver spots, men with big square hands and legs shaped like bowling pins.”)

Balzac also died relatively young, with ailments that many people attribute to his all-too-human body not being able to handle the super-human amounts of coffee he poured into it.

Dr. NakaMats’ near-drowning for inspiration

nakamatsu-pool

The prolific Japanese inventor Yoshiro Nakamatsu, also known as Dr. NakaMats, has some peculiar methods for getting focused and generating flashes of inspiration. He spends time in his solid gold plated bathroom because the “gold blocks out radio waves and television that are harmful to the imagination”.  (Full disclosure: If I had a gold-plated bathroom, I’d probably come up with some radio-waves excuse to hang out in it, too.) But after that, he goes for a swim, staying underwater to starve his brain of oxygen because “the best ideas come 0.5 seconds before dying”. One obvious drawback here is that it may be hard to remember the great idea while scrambling back to the surface. Problem? Not a problem. Dr. NakaMats developed an underwater notepad that he can scribble his ideas down on while floating back up.

It’s really weird, and it certainly doesn’t seem safe, but it’s apparently working for him. He holds over three thousand patents and is the inventor of the floppy disk.

Read more about Dr. NakaMats here.

Demosthenes’ ridiculous haircut.

demosthenes-haircut

The ancient greek orator Demosthenes wasn’t born as a gifted speaker. His first few speeches were apparently disastrous. He had to work at it, and to make sure he didn’t lose focus, he developed an effective commitment device. He would isolate himself in a study for months at a time, and shave half of his hair off. The haircut itself didn’t help his oratory, but it made him too ashamed to go out in public, forcing him to stay in and keep practicing.

There are plenty of other examples out there. Someone hiring a stranger to slap them when they look at Facebook? Check. A company paying a user a thousand dollars if they fail to update their website every single day? It happened. This guy has made a whole website cataloging his productivity experiments.

What is the craziest thing you’ve ever tried to force yourself to stay focused and get things done? Did it work? Did you at least get a good story out of it? Let us know in the comments.

pssst! If you’re looking for something a little less extreme, check out our tools to block distracting websites for times when you need to get focused.

Can we skip the “Quantified” part and communicate directly to senses and emotions?

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.


Getting the most out of RescueTime’s website-blocking features

focustime

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.

Sites that show up in your "very distracting" list will be blocked during a FocusTime session.

Sites that show up in your “very distracting” list will be blocked during a FocusTime session.

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.

get-focused-instructions

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.

alert-with-focustime

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.

Setting FocusTime for a Pomodoro session

Setting FocusTime for a Pomodoro session

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)

writing-time-alert

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.

social-network-alert

Click the image to set up an alert like this

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…).

start-day-alert

Click the image to set up an alert like this

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.

brutal-alert

Click the image to set up an alert like this

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.

late-night-alert

 

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 for Work and Life – A Request for Ideas

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?