How to find focus in the modern workplace

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Belle B. Cooper, co-founder of Exist.

Focus is something I struggle with a lot. In my freelance writing work I have to spend hours at a time researching, writing, and editing. When I’m working on Exist, my company’s personal analytics app, I sometimes spend whole days writing blog posts, or working on our iOS app.

With so many different types of work on my schedule every week, I find it hard to stick to one task until it’s done. Too often I pick up my phone or start browsing Facebook without even thinking about it. Before I know it, I’m struggling to even remember what I was doing before.

I’m not the only one, either. A study from the University of California at Irvine found that the participants (who worked in the tech field) could only work on a project for 11 minutes before being distracted, on average. What’s worse is that it took them 25 minutes to regain their focus.

25 minutes for every distraction can quickly add up. For work like writing and software development, your best work can only be done in a state of deep focus, since you need to keep a lot of information in your head as you work. If you’re only doing 11 minutes of work every time you hit your stride, and taking another 25 minutes to get your focus back, you won’t have much to show for your efforts after a full day of work.

So what can we do to stop this vicious cycle from holding us back from productivity? According to science, there are quite a few actions we can take to improve our ability to focus for longer periods.

take-a-break

Take breaks more often, and get away from your computer

Looking at Facebook or checking your email isn’t a real break. Taking real breaks means leaving your computer, standing up, maybe even going outside or walking around your workspace. A real break takes your mind away from what you’re doing completely, giving it the ability to reset before you hit the desk again.

Research shows the kind of unfocused, free-form thinking we do during breaks helps the brain to recharge.

If you find it difficult to fit in real breaks, try scheduling ten-minute meetings with yourself throughout the day.

Spend more time near trees

Spending time in nature is great for your brain. When I say nature, I don’t mean the nearest city street. I mean somewhere green and leafy. And, in particular, somewhere with lots of trees.

While walking is a healthy activity, when we walk in busy areas like an urban street, our brains have to stay switched on to keep us safe. There’s a lot of stimuli demanding our attention in this kind of environment—advertising, stores announcing sales, other pedestrians, cars, bikes, and maybe even trams.

When we walk in a natural area like a park, the peaceful surroundings allow the brain to relax, which helps us recharge our ability to focus. But more importantly, make sure there are some trees around. Trees don’t just add to the natural vibe, they also do something special to the brain. Research has shown just seeing trees is enough to improve our health.

trail-walk

Spend time on a hobby you enjoy

If taking a walk outside isn’t your thing, or you’ve already tried it an need another option, finding a hobby you enjoy could do the trick.

Daniel Goleman says doing something that’s passive, but requires focus, is key. For instance, playing a song on piano or guitar that you already know well, or cooking a favourite meal could work. It needs to be an activity that keeps your attention, but doesn’t work your brain too hard beyond that.

The key is an immersive experience, one where attention can be total but largely passive. — Daniel Goleman

Goleman says this type of activity can give the brain a chance to recharge. By staying passively focused on what you’re doing, you’ll stop yourself from continuing to think about work. If you don’t already have a go-to hobby that fits the bill, you could try cycling, knitting, drawing, or even colouring in.

Move your desk

For those times when you can’t leave the office, or you need to push through without a break but you’re struggling to focus, this may be the most simple change you can make. Research has shown working in natural light can improve productivity and decrease how many sick days employees take.

Unfortunately, most of us work in offices with artificial lighting that can cause eye fatigue and make it harder to focus. If you can, try moving your desk closer to a window so you can get more natural light during the day.

Take a flow day

Author, university professor, and productivity expert Cal Newport says the idea of batching similar tasks together sounds useful, but rarely works. This process introduces more complexity, says Newport, and “most people will abandon a tactic as soon as it makes their life more difficult.”

Newport tried a day of batching tasks himself, to see how it affected his productivity and focus. He established firm rules and stuck to them for an entire work day. The rules stated all work had to be done in 30-minute blocks.

If he needed to do a small task that would only take a few minutes, he had to spend that entire 30-minute block doing small tasks. If he needed to check something in an email, he had to spend a full 30-minute block on processing and replying to emails.

Newport concluded after his experiment that the type of strict rules he used are necessary for batching tasks to work. But he also found these kind of rules “will absolutely make your day more difficult.”

There’s no avoiding the reality that there will be times when you have to take convoluted action to solve a problem that could so easily be handled with just a quick bounce over to your inbox.

This is a pain in the ass.

Despite the extra effort and frustration that came with the experiment, Newport found his day was more focused and more productive than normal:

Even though I dedicated 6 hours in one 10 hour work day to uninterrupted focus, another 1.5 hours to exercise and eating, and another 1 hour to a doctors appointment, I still managed to accomplish an impressive collection of logistical tasks both urgent and non-urgent.

Most importantly, Newport found he was able to find more of that elusive “flow state” than he usually would. “Flow” being that state of getting so caught up in what you’re doing that time passes without you realizing it. Newport found the 30-minute block rule helped him achieve this by making small distractions a non-option:

…the percentage of time spent in a flow state was as large as I’ve experienced in recent memory. I ended up spending 2.5 hours focused on my writing project and 3.5 hours focused on my research paper. That’s six hours, in one day, of focused work with zero interruptions; not even one quick glance at email.

Since the strict rules can add effort and complications to your day, it might be best to save this approach for those rare times when you really need to spend a whole day focused on one big project. Scheduling a “flow day” once a month or so may help you get more done than you thought was possible.

Chew gum

It might sound strange, but research shows chewing gum can boost mental performance. Gum has been shown to improve cognitive abilities more than caffeine, but the improvement seems to be short-lived. One study found gum-chewers only performed better than those not chewing for around 20 minutes, after which they stopped seeing any benefit.

Researchers have tested gum that includes sugar and is sugar-free, but glucose content doesn’t seem to have any affect on performance. The best suggestion of why this happens seems to be something called “mastication-induced arousal,” which just means that the act of chewing wakes us up and makes us focus.

If you’re not a fan of gum, you could try this trick from author Gretchen Rubin: chew on plastic stirrers or straws. Rubin says the act of chewing helps her focus while writing.


It’s taken me longer than I care to admit to finish this article, thanks to constant distractions. With this list handy, next time I’m struggling I’ll have a few options to try that may just improve how much I can get done in a day.


Email Is Controlling Your Life: Here’s How to Change That

email-drown

Editor’s note: This is a guest post by SaneBox, a service that helps you save time by filtering unimportant emails out of your inbox. Learn more about them at www.sanebox.com or follow them on Twitter.

Email is a fast and convenient way to communicate with coworkers and family. When email first became popular, it was because the recipient could respond to the email at their leisure rather than right away. More urgent matters could be managed with a telephone call.

However, checking and replying to email has replaced simple and quick calls to those same people. It has become the standard for urgency given the immediacy of delivery. Where once it helped to expedite work production at the office, it now consumes over a quarter of an average employee’s work week according to McKinsey Global Institute. Some companies are trying to reduce time spent reading emails by including email management in their time management workshops. Others have gone as far as axing company email altogether. And then there are those who either see no problem or have given up and accepted it as a necessary evil.

Email Overload and Addiction

Our internal data at SaneBox shows a twenty percent increase over the past few years of the amount of unimportant emails in the average user’s mailbox. Workers are copied on emails that do not require them to take action, the amount of promotional and cold sales emails continue to rise, and people are sending emails when they should be calling or saying nothing at all. Reading and deciding what to do with these emails is an incredible drain on workers’ productivity. The Danwood Group study published in 2015 reported that it takes approximately a minute to process the email interruption and return to the flow of work. This interruption dramatically decreases productivity.

Studies are being conducted around the globe relating to the amount of stress induced by email access. In the U.S., study participants wearing heart rate monitors were discovered to have reduced stress when given limited access to emails. This same study also showed that participant focus on tasks was higher in the group that had limited access to emails as opposed to those that had unlimited access. This shows an absolute correlation between unlimited access to emails and decreased physical health.

France recently passed a law that included a right to disconnect amendment. This portion of the new labor law was designed to help workers achieve a work-life balance and separation by urging companies to limit the amount of work done during off hours and at home. Workers worldwide are struggling to balance their private and professional lives because of technology, and now France has potentially set a precedent for other countries to follow.

But are policy changes the best course of action? And whether they are or not, what good will future regulations do to help us today?

Strategies to Help

For those in search of a more efficient, less stressful, and overall better email environment today, look no further than these strategies.

  1. Don’t get stuck doing email—use the Scan-Block-Ask system to keep yourself honest. Its steps include a) scanning for urgent items that need attention now, b) establishing scheduled blocks of time to tackle less urgent and less important email, and c) when you get sucked into your inbox, asking yourself if that’s the best use of your time l right now.
  2. Notify colleagues and clients that you value their communication but have to limit responding to emails to certain times of day. Stick with that time. By establishing and sticking to a schedule, you help others break the horrible habit of using email for urgent matters. In general, responses required within an hour should get a phone call or face-to-face visit; those requiring a response within a few hours can be addressed via text or instant message; and those needed within 12 to 24 hours can be emailed.
  3. Turn off mobile and desktop notifications to save yourself from continuous distractions. If you don’t know that you received an email, you can remain focused on the task at hand. If you hear that ding or see that push notification, your brain will be pulled in a different direction even if you don’t act on the new message at that time. Over the course of a day, these disruptions add up.
  4. Move your email app off of your phone’s home screen. As with notifications, simply seeing the app icon can distract you or incite you to check your email. Removing the visual cue, like removing junk food from the house when you are dieting, can prevent you from checking email out of boredom, habit, or mental weakness.
  5. Stop responding to every email. Not every message needs an answer and most do not need an answer right now. Some emails are sent to you for informational purposes only while many others are spam, bacn, or solicitations. Aside from saving time by writing fewer emails, sending fewer emails has the amazing added benefit of receiving fewer (and therefore reading fewer) emails.
  6. Adopt an email system with automated and intelligent filtering. This can be one that you create yourself by setting up rules within your client or can be an email program. When only important emails arrive in your inbox, you save an incredible amount of time and boost your clarity and focus.
  7. Keep yourself accountable by tracking and even preventing your time in email. We at SaneBox have been big fans of RescueTime for a while now for this reason. Anecdotally, it’s easy to feel that you are spending too much time in email, but seeing actual numbers and trends over time is impactful in a way that prompts better choices. Beyond the data, blocking distractions is paramount for times of weakness that occur when you need to get things done.
  8. Remember that it’s important to disconnect to recharge. Constantly being plugged in can have emotional, physical, and psychological consequences that compound over time. When you are stressed, distracted, and overwhelmed, your work-life happiness and output suffer. Take time for yourself, away from digital devices, to reset and recharge. Your sanity and your career will thank you for it.

Recognizing that you have an addiction to email is the biggest step in breaking the cycle. Adapting your work and off-work habits can help reduce your stress, increase your focus, and achieve a better work-life balance. Adopting an email management strategy also will help you save time.

There are many other ways to eliminate email addiction and increase your focus and productivity at work—which strategies are missing?

About SaneBox

Remember when email used to help your productivity, not hurt it? SaneBox gets you back to those days again with intelligent filtering, one-click unsubscribe, follow-up reminders, and much more. Start your 14-day free trial today, then enjoy an additional $20 off for being a member of the RescueTime community. Clean up your inbox »


Faster, Not Smarter: Does Caffeine Really Make You More Productive?

Editor’s note: This is a guest post by Alex Senemar, the CEO of Sherbit.io. Read more about exploring data and turning numbers into meaningful insights on the Sherbit Blog.

Cropped shot of a woman at cafe working on her laptop computer. Female wearing smartwatch using laptop with a coffee cup on table.

With over four hundred billion cups of coffee consumed each year, caffeine is by far the world’s most widely-consumed psychoactive drug. For many of us, a hot cup of coffee proves to be a powerful and potent stimulant — a necessity to start the day. But caffeine’s effects vary significantly from person to person, and its actual effects on productivity remains unclear. Beyond anecdotal evidence, numerous studies show that, in small doses, caffeine provides an increase in energy and alertness, while improving reaction time and cognitive performance. But is coffee really making you more productive?

What does the research say?

The effects of caffeine on productivity have been a topic of considerable academic interest — researchers at Johns Hopkins University recently found that consuming small amount of caffeine can have a positive effect on long-term memory. In a double-blind trial, participants were given either a 200-milligram caffeine tablet or a placebo, and were asked to study a series of images. The next day, both groups were shown a new set of images, including pictures that were visually similar to the previous — the caffeine group was better able to identify these new images as “similar” rather than citing them as the “same.” In a paper published in Nature Neuroscience, the researchers wrote that this ability to recognize the difference between similar but not identical items — called “pattern separation” — suggests that the caffeine group benefited from greater memory retention.

However, other research suggests that many of the benefits of caffeine can be replicated by placebo. In another double-blind study at the University of East London, participants were randomly given either caffeinated or decaffeinated coffee — half were told they were regular coffee, and half that they were given decaf, also at random. Interestingly, the participants who were told that they received caffeinated coffee performed better on tests measuring reaction time, self-control, and reward motivation. The researchers concluded that the relationship between caffeine consumption, mood, and performance depends on many individual psychological variables — strangely, all participants in the study reported increased feelings of depression after drinking coffee, although this increase was slightly lower in the group that received caffeine.

Research also shows that caffeine also has a complex effect on creativity. Maria Konnikova observed in The New Yorker that “creative insights and imaginative solutions often occur when we stop working on a particular problem and let our mind move on to something unrelated.” As evidence, she pointed to a 2012 study in which participants performed better in creative thinking exercises (for example, devising novel and inventive uses for an everyday object like a newspaper) after they had allowed their mind to “wander” by switching between “undemanding,” low-intensity tasks. This suggests that caffeine may assist more in very simple, repetitive tasks like checking e-mails or filling out forms, and less in jobs that require high levels of insight and creative thinking.

And, for the same reasons caffeine increases alertness and wakefulness, it also has a tendency to cause anxiety, jitteriness, and sleeplessness. Scientists at Rice University studied the effects of caffeine on sleep — they observed that a typical cup of coffee decreased the average sleep time of study participants by an average of two hours; it also increased the amount of time it took to fall asleep by thirty percent. Coffee also had significant effects on quality of sleep: the number of sleep awakenings in the experiment subjects doubled. These conclusions has been reproduced in numerous studies, and suggest a significant risk of impairing your creativity and productivity if you don’t properly manage your caffeine intake.

Many people don’t know that the human body naturally “caffeinates” itself with the hormone cortisol at specific times of day, depending on your body’s natural circadian rhythm — typically early in the morning (between 8am and 9am), around lunch time (between 12pm and 1pm), and once again in the late afternoon (from 530pm to 630pm). If you are an avid coffee drinker, you may be impairing your body’s ability to produce cortisol — by drinking coffee when it’s not needed, i.e. when your body is attempting to naturally energize itself according to its hormonal cycles, you may build a faster tolerance to it.

Test it for yourself!

All the research shows a complex interaction between caffeine and bodily cycles — so instead of relying on the abstract conclusions of large-scale studies, how can you determine the specific effects caffeine has on your body? Caffeine’s effects depends on dosage, body type, weight, age, time of day, and many other factors; so it’s best to monitor all these variables by collecting your own data. First, you need to make sure you’re collecting accurate information: here are some tools we recommend.

RescueTime
RescueTime records how much time you spend using computer applications and browsing web sites. It allows you to keep track of how you are spending every minute of the day, and when and how you are wasting time, and it doesn’t require any effort to set up! It simply runs in the background and stays on top of your browsing habits for you.

Jawbone UP Coffee
Jawbone UP Coffee is a great app for tracking your coffee intake — it’s a simple tool for logging your coffee, tea, and energy drink consumption, to see how it changes overtime.

Sherbit
Sherbit is a personal dashboard that gives you access and control of your personal data in one place. The app syncs with over twenty-five applications including Facebook, Fitbit, Uber and Withings to gather and visualize data. From there, you can identify patterns in your daily habits and correlations across multiple services. For example, if you wanted to find out if you were less active on days you worked more, you could add steps counted by your Fitbit and productivity hours tracked by RescueTime. Download Sherbit from the the App Store here.

Here are some results from our own test:

image01

By combining the data from Jawbone UP and RescueTime, I found a correlation between caffeine and productivity. You can see this by looking at the trend lines and flipping between the tabs at the top of the chart.

image00

However, I found an even stronger correlation with my sleep and productivity — the more coffee I drank, the less sleep I got. This seem to be true for everyday other than JuIy 22nd and July 29th, but as I looked closer I realized that I had consumed coffee earlier in the morning on those days. This may seem like an obvious conclusion in retrospect, but being able to visualize the data made the effects of coffee on my life much more apparent to me. By reflecting on my data, I realized that there’s is a dual effect on the relationship between coffee and sleep: caffeine affects my quality of sleep and reduces the length of time I’m awake… however, when I don’t get much sleep the previous night, I tend to drink more coffee the next day, perpetuating the cycle. I also noticed that my quality of sleep decreases much more significantly when I drink coffee late in the afternoon — I realized that caffeine tends to work best early in the morning, when it will have a minimal effect on my sleep that night.

Have you found interesting correlations between different data sources? Let us know in the comments below.

Editors note: This is a guest post by Alex Senemar, the CEO of Sherbit.io. Read more about exploring data and turning numbers into meaningful insights on the Sherbit Blog.


Tracking my data proved that I’m actually kicking ass (even when it feels like I’m not)

megan-post-header

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Megan Seling, Culture Editor at the alt-weekly newspaper The Nashville Scene. It’s a world of constant tight deadlines and moving pieces – exactly the type of environment where it’s easy to lose track of the time. We asked her to share some ways that RescueTime helps her make it through the day. You can follow Megan on Twitter at @mseling.

I don’t track my personal data well. Okay, scratch that — I don’t really track my personal data at all. I am a writer, and for a very long time I believed the only legitimate measure of my productivity (read: evidence I wasn’t a worthless human being) was based on the number of blog posts, articles, or cookbooks that I actually published.

That’s not true, of course. The time spent writing those words means something, too. But because so much of my career has been spent at a fast-paced weekly newspapers with even faster-paced blogs, I spent nearly my entire adult life believing the lie that the amount of time I spent on the blog post or article or interview didn’t matter and that there was only one measurement of true productivity: If my byline didn’t go up, my day was a waste. Using RescueTime over the last few years has absolutely changed my perspective on how I view my own productivity, though, and it has taught me to trust and appreciate the writing process.

When I first got RescueTime, there were days I wouldn’t publish a single word yet I’d have a productivity pulse in the 80s or 90s, thanks to hours spent banging my head into a keyboard. I was shocked. Wait, even though all I did was write, delete, write some more without any grand finale, my day wasn’t a complete waste? All those hours of typing, revising, and deciding ultimately to “sleep on it” was worth something? Lookatmego! It might’ve taken me a couple days (or weeks) to finish a story, but at least I had evidence that it was being worked on. (Related: I so regret not using RescueTime when I wrote a cookbook in 2011 because now that it’s all over I have no idea how I did it — all I remember is staring blankly at my Twitter timeline for hours on end while wishing the book would just write itself.)

But the productivity pulse can only account for so much. What about the days I had a low productivity pulse but felt busier than ever? What about the days I listened to the same record over and over and over again, trying to sort out exactly what about the guitar tone is so great (or annoying) so I could finish that album review that was three days late? What about all the meetings that were mostly just a bunch of smart people telling each other jokes for an hour until something sounded good enough to stick on paper? What about the days I was on assignment, hanging out in the kitchen with a punk rock pastry chef, learning her secrets and asking her about all the different kinds of sugar she uses for each dessert? Okay, now I’m just bragging. But really, with so much of my actual job being away from a computer, my productivity pulse wasn’t always a reliable representation of my work, either.

But now RescueTime is making it easier for me to recognize that work, too. They’ve always had the option to log time spent offline, but I never cared enough to actually do it — I never considered that time real work. The new Highlights feature has, once again, changed that. No matter how productive (or how unproductive) I am, the Highlights feature pops up on my screen a few times a day (I control how often) and it prompts me to log a few of the things I’ve gotten done so far.

Screenshot 2015-03-28 at 10.46.58 PM

December was all a blur, but thanks to Highlights I have evidence that I got things done amidst the craziness.

So right now, after every two hours of productive time, I get a pop up that alerts me of all the ass I’ve been kicking and then it reminds me to make a note of the other productive points in the day that may not have been picked up by Rescuetime. Like meetings, in-person interviews and reviewing things like movies and restaurants. It’s finally okay to not have a day that fits into a pretty little easily-defined productivity package. (This was especially helpful when I was doing a lot of freelance writing — being able to easily log offline work and log which work I got done on which assignment gave me hard evidence to better judge what kind of rate I should charge in order to make enough money without working 24/7.)

And, yes, how many things I publish any given day is still very important — Highlights can log those too, thanks to RescueTime’s integration with Zapier. Everytime my byline goes up, whether it’s a blog post or a story, it automatically gets listed among the other Highlights that show up in my weekly email.

I’m still not all that great at tracking my personal data — I’m the kind of person who will “forget” to wear their FitBit if I’m feeling especially lazy and don’t want to record an embarrassingly low number of steps that day — but even if I still can’t (or don’t want to) account for every second of the day, I now have indisputable evidence that it wasn’t a complete waste and I can stop being so hard on myself, even if I do still spend too much time on Twitter (some of it is for work, I swear!).

 

Full disclosure: I’m married to RescueTime’s Robby Macdonell (VP of Product Development) and I wrote this because he bribed me with pie. (Just kidding, of course, but he does make a really good key lime pie.)

 


Here are other examples of people using data to understand and optimize their days:

How I Used RescueTime to Baseline My Activity in 2014 and Set Goals for 2015
In an excellent, in-depth analysis, Author Jamie Todd Rubin looks back at how he spent his time in 2014 and uses it to create strategies to optimize his time moving forward.

The big mistake nearly every designer makes
Digital strategist Marie Poulin writes about building in “margin” into her schedule – critical time that’s held in reserve for the inevitable unplanned. Room to breathe, essentially. It’s easier said than done, and she takes a structured, analytical approach to fit it into her schedule.


Using personal data to find work/life balance

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Belle Beth Cooper. She is the co-founder of Exist, a kick-ass personal analytics platform that we recently launched an integration with. If you have ever wanted to examine the relationships between your RescueTime productivity stats and other data points such as mood, sleep or fitness, Exist is a great option.

Balance
I love the word balance. It implies that you have enough of everything. You’re not wanting for anything, or drowning in anything. When we talk about work/life balance, it means you’re getting enough work done, but you’re also spending enough time resting, relaxing, and attending to your family, hobbies, and interests outside work.

For those of us whose work tends to blend into our lives it’s even more important to find this balance. For my co-founder Josh and I, we find ourselves working in some form or another every single day. Which means if we’re not working we tend to feel a nagging sensation that we should be, because it’s become our default state.

Not to mention the ever-growing mountain of side projects and volunteer activities we want to take on, and new skills we want to learn.

I’ve always been keen to fill up every day with learning and practising new skills, but I’ve never been great at making sure I get enough exercise. Maybe you have a particular area of work or life that gets neglected. My ongoing imbalance was the impetus for me to start tracking my activity and other areas of my life.

I started out with a simple activity tracker on my phone, and graduated to wearing a Fitbit all day, every day. I use apps like RescueTime to track what I do each day, and put as much of this data into Exist as I can.

Exist is designed to help you find meaning in the data you track. There are three big reasons it’s helpful for finding that balance between work and “life” activities: it uncovers hidden correlations and trends, it has built-in mood tracking, and it creates personalised goals based on your data.

Data insights

Tracking data about my own activities causes me to ask myself questions like “Am I improving?” and “Have I been doing x more or less this month?”. Exist helps me answer these questions by surfacing insights into my data. For example, I recently had this insight on my dashboard:

Walking less this week

8,545 average steps, 1% decrease

Walking less isn’t something I want to make a habit of, but thankfully I only dropped by 1% in the past week. And knowing that my overall average steps is around 8,000 per day, I’m pretty happy with that average from last week.

I also noticed these sleep-related insights recently:

Sleep insights

For some people, going to bed later and getting less sleep would be a bad thing but those sleep numbers are pretty good for me. I have a tendency to oversleep some days, just because I don’t have a set time I have to start work, and it tends to set my day up badly. Knowing this, I’m putting in a conscious effort to not stay in bed too long in the mornings, and these insights show that it’s working.

Averages

Seeing what my average is for each type of data can be illuminating, too. Exist breaks down averages by day of the week, as well as showing my overall average for each data point.

Exist averages

(Note: I used a Jawbone UP between my Fitbit Force breaking and the Fitbit Charge being released, which doesn’t track floors. I haven’t been wearing my Fitbit Charge long enough to increase my floors average yet)

It’s good to see, for instance, that my average mood is 4/5. It’s also pretty obvious, looking at this chart, that I tend to rate my mood higher on weekends.

I can also see that I tend to walk more on Fridays, and that my average steps is just over 8,000 per day.

My productivity tends to dip on weekends, and jumps up most on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. This makes sense, since Monday is our catch up day at Hello Code, so Tuesday is when I start to really get stuck into my work for the week.

I like knowing these averages, because it helps me calibrate my own goals. If you’ve ever used a fitness tracker or a pedometer app on your phone, you’ve probably been confronted with a suggested (or enforced) 10,000 steps per day goal. Although this might be suggested as a healthy amount of exercise for adults, it’s ridiculous to expect someone who walks 3,000 steps per day on average to suddenly jump up to 10,000.

8,000 steps per day has been my average for the past six months or so. I know this is the amount of exercise I get without trying too hard, so if I want to increase my activity levels I’ll know to start by aiming for around 8,500 steps.

Correlations

Seeing the correlations between different data points is one of the most surprising and useful parts of Exist. Although correlation doesn’t imply causation (i.e. just because two things are related doesn’t mean one causes the other), correlations can still give us useful clues into our existing behaviour and how different things affect us.

I’m especially interested in what affects my productivity (tracked with RescueTime) – both negatively and positively. I’d like to learn from my correlations so I can set myself up for the best chance of being productive each day.

Here are some of my current productivity correlations:

You are somewhat less likely (35%) to be productive when you walk more.

This is a fairly obvious one. The more I’m exercising, the more time I’m spending away from my desk. If I had a treadmill desk I might be able to turn this correlation around…

You are somewhat more likely (26%) to have a better day when you're productive.

I’m pleased to see that I have a better day when I’m productive. I’d be in a tricky position if being productive put me in a bad mood!

You are slightly less likely (22%) to be productive when it's warmer overnight.

Although I don’t work at night, a warm overnight temperature usually means less sleep (or lower quality sleep), which doesn’t bode well for a productive day. It also means it’s likely that the next day will be warm, which makes me uncomfortable and less likely to get work done.

I can also see from my correlations what affects my mood, and when I’m more likely to exercise:

You are somewhat less likely (22%) to have a good day when you climb more floors.

Lots of floors climbed could either be walking up and down hills (yuck) or staying home all day where I go up and down stairs a lot.

You are somewhat less likely (27%) to walk more on days after you've gone to bed later.

You are somewhat more likely (24%) to be walking when it's raining or snowing.

I don’t purposely go out walking in the rain, but I guess it just happens to catch me often.

Mood tracking

Exist has built-in mood tracking that works via a simple email. Every night at 9pm you get an email you can reply to including a rating for your day from 1-5 (1 being terrible, 5 being perfect) and a note about what happened.

Exist mood email

Mood tracking is a really simple way to make sure you reflect on what happens each day and how you feel. We’re adding mood tracking to our mobile apps (currently in beta testing) to make it even easier: each night at 9pm you’ll get a notification that will take you to a simple form with five numbered buttons and a box to type your note into.

Exist mobile apps

Although I tend to dread the effort of thinking back over my day and choosing a rating for it, I’ve found mood tracking to be so useful that I’ve kept it up for over a year now. As I go about my day, I tend to be more mindful of how things affect me because I always have in mind that I’ll be rating my day later and making a note about what happened.

My favourite part of mood tracking is that in the nightly emails we’ve added a feature called “Looking back” that shows you the mood entry you made on this day one year ago, or a random old entry if you don’t have one from exactly a year ago. It’s fun to open the email wondering how I felt and what I was doing this time last year, and to reflect on the notes I left to myself.

looking back

This reflective feature also makes me more mindful each night of what I enter as my note. Knowing that I’m essentially leaving a note to my future self each day helps me think about what was most important about my day, and what I’d want to know about it on this day in the future.

I also love comparing my old mood notes with my partner Josh to see what he wrote on the same day. We’ll often find we both mentioned something fun we did together, or the weather or some big news that was happening at the time.

Using averages as goals

We dropped goals from Exist a few months ago. One of the problems we’ve always had personally when tracking our behaviour, especially exercise, is working to hit a particular goal every day and losing motivation to do so after a while.

These days we use averages as goals. It works like this: if today is Monday, we create your steps goal for today by finding the average of your steps for every Monday in the past 90 days. We do this for productivity goals, too. So if you’ve been working late on Friday nights in the past few weeks, your RescueTime data will reflect that and your productivity goal will be higher on Fridays.

Averages as goals

And here’s why it’s awesome:

I don’t need to waste any time setting goals. Exist does it for me, and each goal is personalised to me.

This also means I’m competing against myself. Every goal is created from averages of my own data, so I’m only ever competing against “past me”, rather than aiming for a goal set by someone else.

And lastly, it’s always up-to-date. When I moved house recently my average steps per day dropped as my situation changed, and after a few weeks my averages started to reflect that. Because we only use averages based on the last 90 days of your data, your goals will always reflect what your activity has been like recently.

This affects each daily goal, as well. If you play in a sports team on Wednesday nights and get lots of steps those days, your Wednesday average will be higher than other days. Exist will create a goal for you, then, that will be higher on Wednesdays than it will on other days. This makes sure your goal is always as appropriate as it’s based on your existing behaviour.

I tend to get number fatigue really easily, so aiming for a set goal every day didn’t motivate me for long at all. One thing I really enjoy about having a new goal created for me each day is that I need to check Exist to see what my goal is. The simple act of checking my goal is a good reminder to be more active or productive.


With just RescueTime, mood tracking, and an activity tracking device or app, you can get a lot of useful data. Exist connects to other service like Twitter and last.fm as well, but just a few data points are enough to start seeing insights and correlations that will help you improve your work/life balance.

You can try it yourself with a 14-day free trial (note: we start you off with a set goal and switch to averages as goals once we’ve collected enough data).


The End of Year Review: Set Yourself up for a Productive New Year by Reflecting on the Past

Productivity Reflection

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Sam Spurlin, a graduate student studying positive psychology. He coaches and writes about the art and science of personal development at SamSpurlin.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @samspurlin.

I’m a graduate student studying and researching psychology so any time I want to understand something better I turn to data. As long as you collect it honestly and in a methodologically sound manner, data don’t lie. Good science is built on good data and one of the most important experiments I’m involved with isn’t funded by any grants and doesn’t have a team of scientists working on it — it’s the ongoing study of the way I work and live.

Data-Driven Self-Improvement

Every year I try to take a look at the data that best describes my work habits over the past 12 months to better understand whether I’m doing what I’ve set out to do. I’m trying to find inefficiencies, misguided attention, and other gaps so I can make sure I’m doing my best work as much as possible. I happen to work for myself while going to school full-time, but regardless of the details of your work situation you probably want to be operating at peak capacity as much as possible. Conducting an End of Year Review is a great way to recalibrate as you move into the new year.

The first step of any End of Year Review is deciding what questions you want to answer. This is partially dependent on the data you have available but some possible examples include:

  • How am I using my time?
  • What do my actions say about my priorities?
  • Have I left important but non-urgent projects by the wayside?
  • How much time do I spend doing email?
  • What have I done in the past year that I want to make sure I never/always do again?

The answers to these (and I’m sure countless other) questions can provide very benficial information for how you’ll try to conduct yourself in 2013. The next step is to look at the data that will help you answer these questions accurately. While many people do End of Year Reviews that are nothing more than pure mental reflection on the past 365 days, I’m always skeptical of my ability to remember things accurately. One thing being a psychology student has taught me is to be intensely skeptical of my memory. We aren’t nearly as good at remembering things as we like to think. Go with the hard data whenever possible.

Sources of Data

Obviously, RescueTime is a great source of data if you’re interested in knowing how you spent time at your computer. This is the first place I start with any sort of review on my work habits. There’s nothing quite like the shock of seeing you spent over 24 hours on time wasting activities over the course of several weeks to serve as a serious wakeup call.

Other than RescueTime, other great sources of data include; your calendar, daily journal or log, digital pictures, financial information, saved text messages, archived information from task management software, personal writing of any kind, etc. All of these sources help you see where you spent time, attention, and energy.

As you look through your calendar you may remember the awesome conference you went to last February which reminds you to follow up with that promising business lead. Looking through a year of photos will make you realize you’ve accidentally distanced yourself from some people important in your life (work, personal, or both). You may look at a year’s worth of saved work files and realize the big project you told yourself you’d work on last year is still sitting forlornly in the “unfinished” file.

Using The Data

Once you have all this data and have done any analyzing you need to do to draw some conclusions (more time on work that matters, less time on Facebook, call Steve, more writing in the morning, less computer on the weekend, etc.) how do you move forward?

First, let me point out that a potentially great first step is to decide to spend a little bit more time and effort recording more data on yourself in 2013. The better the data you have, the more you can learn about what does or doesn’t work for you.

Assuming you’re happy with the data you collect, my favorite way to make changes is to focus on one major change for 30 days. For example, when I did my most recent End of Year Review I realized I was spending way too much time on mind-numbing websites. I decided that I’d severely limit the amount of time I allow myself to mindlessly surf for 30 days. At the end of that period I’ll re-assess how the past 30 days went and whether I want to a.) continue with the experiment, b.) modify the experiment, or c.) go back to the way I was before.

Obviously, you can make changes in your life without collecting data on yourself first. You could also “do science” without collecting data — but nobody would take you very seriously. Why not apply the same standards that ensure good science to the way you make changes in your own life?


How I Saved 4 Hours Per Day Using RescueTime

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Maneesh Sethi, a RescueTime user, productivity hacker, and author of the blog hackthesystem.com. He’s experimented with several creative ways to increase his productivity, and has decided to document the whole process as he goes so others can benefit from what he’s learned. If you’d like to follow along with his productivity experiments, you can sign up for his mailing list at http://hackthesystem.com/rescuetime.

It’s not easy growing up in a culture of distraction.

You’ve noticed it—it’s never been harder than today to focus on one task at a time. As I sit in this cafe, writing this article, my phone is buzzing with Facebook notifications, Twitter mentions, and–oh, hey! my Klout score just increased!

Fifteen years ago, none of these distractions existed. If you wanted to waste time at home, your options were to read, eat, or maybe watch television—if anything was on. Now, it’s never been easier to spend a day (or a week, or even a year) doing absolutely nothing.

What do you do online every day? Where do you waste the most time? Everyone has a different answer, but most people honestly have no idea. RescueTime was invented to help people track their wasted hours and determine what they should stop doing. So, ask yourself now—“Where do you waste your time every day?”

Growing up in an Indian family, I’ve always been driven to be more productive, but I’ve never been able to succeed. Recently, I sat down with Tim Ferriss, the master of productivity, to talk about how to get more done—and I realized that I was having the same conversation I had when I was thirteen years old.

“I just feel like there is nothing I can do. I waste all my time chatting and browsing reddit. Imagine what I could do if I just learned to focus!”

“Remember man,” said Tim, “that you’re going to die. Do you want to want your time spent to have been wasted—or spent producing something? Focus on output.”

Small Changes That Cause Big Effects

I don’t want my life to be filled with unmemorable Skype chat and funny cat pictures. It’s a waste of living. So, I began to undertake a series of productivity experiments to determine what actually works—what small changes could I make to effect massive change. Over the past year or so, I’ve used RescueTime to measure the results of my online productivity. The results have been astounding.

I want to discuss a few experiments that I’ve done, and let you know that I’ll be conducting several more over the next few months. I’ll be revealing my stats, writing about what works and what doesn’t, and attempting to help others join the movement to improve their habits.

If you’re interested in following along, sign up over at http://hackthesystem.com/rescuetime.

Hiring a Craigslist Slapper

I spend a lot of time online every week, and the majority of it is unproductive.

38% productive. That means that almost 19 hours of my time last week were wasted—disappeared, never to be seen again.

So, what could I do to fix this? I decided to outsource an authority figure and hire someone to watch over me, and if need be, hurt me.

I used Craigslist to hire a girl to sit next to me. Her job? Every time I used Facebook, she would slap me in the face.

Yes I know. I’m weird. And yes, she actually slapped me.

But the results were astounding. My average RescueTime productivity skyrocketed from 38% to 98%.

But not only did my productivity skyrocket—the quality of the work I did skyrocketed as well. Kara forced me to complete my first guest post, The Sex Scandal Technique. She also helped me push through an application for a secret project that I applied to—an application that won, out of hundreds of applicants.

It was certainly a funny experiment, but it also seemed to be relevant around the world—the HackTheSystem article I wrote about it ended up being featured in NPR, on ABC News, in the Telegraph, Venturebeat, and the front page of Yahoo. Clearly, the whole world recognizes the amount of time we waste using Facebook.

The Bet-Switch Mechanism — $50 For A Cookie

[Before we move on, I want to remind you—to follow along with future RescueTime experiments, please sign up at http://hackthesystem.com/rescuetime . I’ll help you improve your productivity—guaranteed.]

Another of my most successful experiments involved using competition to improve my productivity and my health.

I decided that I wanted to lose 10 lbs. So I made a rule—every time I ate something that wasn’t healthy—anything that wasn’t meat, vegetable, or eggs—I owed my friend $50 / item.

I wrote an article where I described what happened: The Bet Switch Mechanism: The One Simple Social Tactic That Will Get You In The Best Shape Of Your Life. The difference was astounding—instead of looking at food and saying ‘Oh, one chip won’t hurt,’  my mental processing was completely changed. I began to look at a bag of chips and say ‘I’m not paying $50 for that chip, no way!’

I’ve used the Bet Switch Mechanism to write guest post articles and articles on my own blog, too. My friend will give me a deadline for an article, and if I don’t write it, I owe her $500. In fact, I have a bet on the article I’m writing right now—if I don’t finish it today by 8pm, I owe Robby from RescueTime $50!

Betting allows you to make a competitive game out of a goal, and makes it much more fun to play.

You’re just one step away from skyrocketing your productivity

Over at my site, Hack the System, I talk about small hacks that can cause big changes. I’m really excited to announce that RescueTime and Hack the System are partnering to help readers become more productive.

If you head over to my site using this special link, you’ll be able to sign up for the Hack the System productivity challenge. I’ll be testing several experiments to see how they affect my productivity, and inviting you to join along.

I’ve also created a special gift for RescueTime readers, The Minimalist Guide to Hacking Your Habits. It’s my special gift—a worksheet that will help you identify exactly what’s holding you back, and how you can overcome your barriers.

Thanks a lot, and don’t forget to join in over at http://hackthesystem.com/rescuetime .