Technology Overload Roundtable (video from PBS) (RescueTime mentioned)

There’s a great roundtable discussion on “Technology Overload” on a recent PBS Mediashift show featuring Leif Hansen (follow him on Twitter here: @leifhansen). The whole show is 25 minutes, but if you skip to the second video section titled “Taking Breaks” at 2 min 30 sec there’s a nice mention of RescueTime by Leif (another panelist chimes in with “It’s brilliant!”).

Technology overload is something we here at RescueTime are acutely aware of.  Every day we’re being introduced to new products and new bits of information– all of these require time.  Purveyors of distraction and “info porn” (our affectionate name for news and blogs) are scientifically optimizing their sites to grab more of our time and attention and we’re all pretty ill-equipped to deal with it.  So how are people dealing with this kind of overload?  They’re working longer hours, catching up on weekends, and taking fewer vacations.


The Great RescueTime Work-From-Home Experiment of ’09

telecommuteVirtual teams are increasingly popular.  One of the software companies I most admire has an entirely virtual company of over 40 people spread all over the world cranking out outstanding software.  Yet the concept is terrifying to a lot of managers.   Highlights of the big fears include:

  • Will productivity go down?  There are a lot of distractions at home and presumably the workplace is optimized for workplace productivity better than home, right?
  • Will we lose that intangible synergy that you get working in the same room with other folks?
  • Will I, as a manager, be able to have a sense of whether folks are working?  Of what they are working on?
  • Will we still feel like a team?

The RescueTime product team is a small one (5 people), but we think this is big enough to run an experiment… For this entire week, we’ll all be working from our homes.  Here are the questions we’ll be answering at the end of the week (many of them will have juicy data bits, thanks to RescueTime):

  • Do we end up spending more time in aggregate on our productive tasks?  In theory, having no commute, no walk to lunch, and no drive-by interruptions in the office wil actually result in more minutes spent doing actual product development (or more free time!).
  • Does communication time go up radically?  Without the ability to interrupt our teammates, we’ll have to resort to emailing and IMing.  How much time will this suck up?
  • Is our total work-day longer?  Are we replacing our commute times with computer time or free time?
  • Does our work day become more spread out?  Working from home presumably makes it easier to punt work when you hit a wall.  Does this happen?  If it does, do people make it up at other times during the day?
  • (Subjective) How does the change FEEL?  Do we feel less creative?  Collaborative? Connected?  Does it effect how much we like (or don’t like) our jobs?

Stay tuned– early next week I’ll be posting a graph-heavy post with the results!


RescueTime for Project Time Tracking (coming soon, but we need your help!)

As we get ready to launch some really really cool tools that will allow to you to block the distracting parts of the web, some of our team is starting to look forward to our next major initiative…  Projects!

RescueTime does a great job of tracking time, but doesn’t really do a very good job of allowing you to bucket that time into projects.  This isn’t an easy problem– lots of time (like email and Google.com) is difficult to automagically bucket into projects.  But for all of the people who are laboring under the yoke of painstaking (yet still horribly subjective and inaccurate) timesheets, we’re hoping to be a solution.  And, of course, all of the managers who are trying to make sense of this timesheet data, we’re hoping to help you out as well!

So PLEASE- chip in with your thoughts.  You can weigh in here in the comments if you want, but (IF you are interested in RescueTime tracking time on projects), we’d love to have you fill out this super short survey:

Please click here to fill out the survey (it’ll just take a sec!)

You have our promise the it is (at worst) only moderately boring and will truly give you a hand in shaping the product to be what you want it to be.


Turning off the distracting parts of the Internet

[note: the features discussed below will be launching within a week or so.  Get started ASAP and, when the features go live, RescueTime will be much smarter about the stuff that’s distracting you!]

We’re currently working on a feature that we’re really excited about and we’d love to get your feedback.

What it does is this:

1. In the menu of the installable part of RescueTime is an item that says, “Get Focused…”
2. It pops up a window that looks something like this:

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For the duration that you enter, we’re going to turn off the bad/distracting parts of the internet.  You’ll be sent to a block page like this.  Your “get out of jail” cards include:

  • telling RescueTime that we’ve mistakenly categorized this site as distracting (we’re pretty good at defaults and you can edit your list, but a false positive is theoretically possible)
  • Doing a simple math problem.  Our goal here is to create just enough work to make you think about what you’re doing.
  • Force-quitting RescueTime.  The geeky among you realize that you can kill the process (though that’s a touch harder than the math problem.

So here’s the question for you— we’d love to hear back in the comments:  How sharp should the teeth be?  Ideally you’re focusing for short bursts (30-45 minutes) – should we let you out or force the commitment?

More details below if you’d like to hear more about our thinking on this feature.

Why Build this Feature

The web is getting scientific.  Specifically, it’s getting scientific about separating you from your time.  Entertainment and news sites are doing multi-variate testing trying to maximize the metrics that matter in their business.  That is: pageviews, time-on-page, and bounce-rate (a measure of whether you look at more than 1 page).  They’re getting good at these tests, and it’s costing us.  Even the best of us.  We’ve all experienced that moment where we look at the clock and realize, “Holy crap– I just spent 2 hours surfing when I really wanted to be getting things done!”.

A while back, we were inspired by a really cool app for the Mac called Freedom.  Basically, it allowed you to turn off the entire internet for a fixed period of time.  The only way to turn it back on again was fairly costly- a reboot.  Surely this was a great tool for short bursts of self-imposed focus!

But it didn’t take too many tries to realize that the internet is just too central to how we work.  Google Docs holds critical information that we need ready access to.  It’s nigh-impossible to code without access to the huge pile of debugging info and tutorials that Google search gives us access to.  Designing is crippled without the internet as well– stock image sites and color palette inspiration sites are a big part of our design process and we can’t get quick feedback on a design direction if we can’t post it to Skitch and IM the team a link.  We needed something that only turned off that distracting bits of the internet.

So we moved on and tried LeechBlock, a nifty Firefox plugin that allows voluntary blocking.  But we quickly ran into painful limitations here as well.  The distracting swaths of the web are vast– Leechblock allowed you to create a list of distracting domains, but www.facebook.com doesn’t catch 3rd level domains like app.facebook.com.  And a friend can IM you a link to a funny website that you’ve never been to (and might never go back to) which can be a huge distraction.  Managing that list is imperfect and time consuming.  And, of course, Firefox isn’t as big a part of our browsing lives as it once was.  Many of us use Safari or Chrome.  And, from a product design point of view, it’s hard to ignore that a big mess of people still use IE.  A solution that enforces across all browsers seems critical for something like this.

So, as of now we’re internally testing the “Get Focused” option and loving it.  We don’t have to build lists of distracting sites, it works in any browser, and it has enough “teeth” to keep us honest without actually locking us in a closet.  What do you think?


Your Efficiency Scores may have changed!

Just a quick newsflash for those keeping score at home.  Individual users of RescueTime may have their score look very different as of this release.  The reason for this that previously, you probably had much of your data untagged and unscored.  Also, RescueTime didn’t do a fabulous job of making sure all of the many sites people visit every day had categories and scores– so these didn’t really effect your scores.  So what’s likely happening is that lots of “surfing” time (which was previously not effecting your efficiency because RescueTime wasn’t smart enough to assign it a default score) was not hurting your score.

All that being said, assigning default scores is HARD– everyone is different.  For me, email is a sorta-productive necessary evil and IM is the devil.  You might work differently.  While we’ve done the best we can with default scores/categories, you should feel free to override them based on your workstyle.

Quickest way to do this is:

Go to the new Manage Categories Settings Page.  Here you’ll see a bunch of boxes that look like this:

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You can mouse over each of the categories to see an edit button, where you can change the default score (-2 is bad, +2 is good) to better fit your style.

If you find that a lot of your time is uncategorized, you can go to the list of all uncategorized activities and spend a minute or two categorizing the big ones.

And, finally, you can check out your top activities in a list ranked by how much time you spent on them.  It’s a good idea to glance down this list to see if the scores are appropriate.  As with all things, don’t go crazy here– once you find yourself scoring sites that you visited for only a few minutes in the month, it’s probably time to say, “good enough!”.

The exciting thing about the new release is that everyone’s scores and categories contribute to everyone else– so as people categorize and score sites, that means you’ll get democratic “defaults” and won’t have to spend time monkeying with your data in RescueTime (making us all more productive!).


Major Release: Time to Put out some Fires!

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I remember seeing this little gem on Twitter many months ago and @inem recent retweeted it.  The original fellow probably had no idea how much it’s been a call to action for us!

We’re incredibly excited to announce that we’re ready to start putting out some fires and that individuals and teams can now choose to make RescueTime a bit more of a harsh mistress.  This is a huge release for us, so I’ll start with a quick summary list of what’s in the release and then I’ll add a list of screenshots to illustrate some of the fabulous stuff in this release.

The Big List of What’s New

  • We now have near real-time alerts– right on your Desktop. Set a limit of how much time you want to spend on a particular activity and RescueTime can instantly nudge you when you exceed that limit (we’ll even tell you how much your average coworker is spending on that activity).  This is our first step at giving you the option to make RescueTime a “harsh mistress”.  We often liken the power of RescueTime to the ability to look at how you spend money with apps like Mint or Quicken.  Now imagine if Mint could send you a quick text message RIGHT BEFORE you’re about to spend money at a place you’re trying to avoid spending too much money in! (note: this is a premium feature)
  • Tags are officially gone. We broke down our reasoning here if you’re curious.
  • SEARCH. Now that RescueTime has the option of tracking documents within many applications, getting at the data you care about has gotten more challenging.  Now you can just type in an application name, document name, or site name in the search box.  In times past, if you wanted to know how much time you spent on Google related activities, you had to tag everything googly and then look at that report (dozens of clicks!).  Now you could just type “google” into the search box to get a report for anything matching that in the URL.
  • Graph Widgets for your site/blog/favorite dashboard. Every single RescueTime time data graph can be embedded into any HTML page that allows you to drop in a JavaScript snippet.  Are you worried about people getting buried in email?  Embed the email graph onto your company’s internal blog/wiki to keep people aware of email.  Making a public commitment to reduce your Twitter addiction?  Add your Twitter graph to your blog to hold yourself accountable!
  • A brand new categorization system. Previously, categories were a bit sparse and sometimes maddeningly hard to use.  We’ve refreshed our categories (with a nested category system) and have made the user experience for adding/editing categories worlds easier.
  • Great default categories and scores.  Much of the value of RescueTime really only manifested when you took the time to label and rank things– which is a timesink (ironic, no?).  Henceforth, all apps and sites will be categorized and scored based on the majority “vote” (you can always override it).  This removes most of the ongoing burden and makes the lives of our new users much easier.  Rejoice!
  • Numerous UI/UX improvements. We pored over all of the feedback we’ve gotten over the past months and attacked all of the confusing bits that we could find.

Release Screenshots

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v_2
A new report!  A breakdown of your time based on productivity.  In this view, blue is good and red is bad.


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New categorization selection UI.


v_6
New scoring UI


Death of a Feature: The Impending Demise of Tags

We know that we’re going to have some angry users as a result of this decision– but for those of you who love tags, I hope you’ll read this post and (more importantly) try out the changes we’ll be rolling out next week before you get angry or kick RescueTime to the curb.  So here’s the big news: our release next week is going to remove the concept of tagging from the user experience.  Below we’ll detail what we’re adding/changing to compensate for this and (if you’re interested) why we’re doing it.  We’ll also talk a bit of how you can get help if you are a paying customer and you are using tags.  We’ll also show you some preview screenshots.  We are really freakin’ excited about these changes–  we’re making RescueTime less work, easier to understand for new users, and (most importantly) we’re making it easier to understand and improve your own productivity.

Breakdown of the Impending Changes

Tags are going away. As we looked at how our customers were using tags (the few who were using it, much less using it successfully), we saw people tagging things like they were categories (“graphic design”, “coding”) or saw people tagging things in terms of productivity level (“work”, “personal”, “procrastination”, etc).  To allow for both of these cases, we’re expanding categories and making the act of categorizing (and creating custom categories) one billion percent easier (measure it when we launch!  It’s true!).  Further, we’re are implementing a smart default-categorization system that will provide our users with well categorized data out of the gates.  Here’s a screenshot of the new categorization UI.  It’s inline and it’s FAST.

tagblog1

We don’t show it in this screenshot, but there are two things we’ve added since this mockup.  First, a category dedicated to software developers (a big slice of our userbase and obviously one close to our heart!).  Two, we’ve added an inline “add custom category” selection that will make adding in your own categories close to as easy as adding in a new tag was.

So that’s attacking how most people were using tags– pretty much as categories (in fact, the average number of tags a tagged activity had in RescueTime is 1.26).

But we’re also attacking the “subjective” use case by enhancing how RescueTime scores work.  First, we’re going institute smart defaults scores for all of the top apps and sites.  This can obviously be subjective, but we think it’ll help people get up and running faster and have more meaningful data.  Second, we’re going to make scoring easier and clearer.  Here’s a screenshot of the scoring UI:

tagblog2

One click in any view in RescueTime and you can rescore an activity.  Note that we are exposing categorization and scoring UI in ALL reports (rather than putting them a tab deeper like in previous version).  All of these scores are now available in graph report form.  Want to see how you spend your time in terms of productivity levels?  Check out this graph:

tagblog3

This shows a week of my time with a breakdown of good stuff (above the line) and bad stuff) below the line.  While it’s not strictly related to this issue, this seems like a fine time to note our new URL structure, which will allow clever folk to see reports with any granularity that they want.  Want to see a graph of a day by hour?  Fine.  How about a WEEK or a MONTH by hour?  Here’s an example of the new (human readable) URL structure:

tagblog4

We’re hoping that all of these changes will more than compensate for the sting that some will experience from losing tags.  To learn more about why we’re doing this, read on.

Why We’re Getting Rid of Tags

We’re a metrics driven company.  Any time we release a feature, we look hard at whether people are using it and how they are using it.  When look at tags, we have some fairly ugly data to look at:

  • The VAST majority of our paying customers are not using tags or not using them well (i.e. tagging Excel as “excel” doesn’t seem like a productive use of time).
  • Most users have a minority of their time data tagged.
  • The average number of tags a tagged activity has is 1.26… In other words, people are using tags as categories and are not taking advantage of the one-to-many powers of tags.
  • When asked, most users who quit cite tagging as one of their reasons for quitting.  “Seemed like constant work with tagging”, “tagging was confusing– it was hard to make sense of my data” are very common responses.

In addition to the data, tags create some big challenges for us.  Creating visualizations of tags is difficult due to the one-to-many relationship (imagine a pie chart of tags- If Outlook is tagged as “work” and “communication”, where does Outlook time go?).  Looking at a bar graph of tags, people mistakenly assumed that if they added up the bars, that’d equal their total logged time.  Not the case!

But the biggest reason for nuking tags is that we want RescueTime (as it stands now) to be as simple as possible to make room for some of the exciting things we have in store for you.  I remember reading a comment about RescueTime that really stuck in my craw (because it was RIGHT).  Paraphrasing: “RescueTime is like a fireman walking up to you and saying, ‘Hey!  You are on fire!  You should stop being on fire!'”.  RescueTime in the coming months is going to shift into firefighting mode– and help our customers stop being on fire rather than just letting them know that they are.  We’re going to damn well live up to our name.

But why not just keep the feature and de-emphasize it? In an ideal world, this is what we’d do.  But every feature that doesn’t bring joy/satisfaction to a meaningful percentage of our users has a cost.  It clutters the UI, slows down our development process, and gives us something else to maintain until the end of time.  Too much cost, and not enough benefit, in short.

What to Do if You Have Tags

As part of this release, we’ll be assigning automatic categories and scores based on the tags people have assigned.  The 98% of our users who don’t use tags very much will have much improved data.  The 2% who use tags a lot SHOULD have improved data as well (most people who tag don’t have all of their time tagged– this will help!).  For those of you who have tags and desperately want to keep them, you’ll have the custom category capability should you need it.  If you are a paying business customer, we will help you do this from our end to minimize the pain  for you.  In other words, we’ll learn from you which tags are critical and we’ll move them into a custom category on your behalf.

For folks who are anxious about this, we apologize.  And we ask that you reserve judgement and give the adjustments a few weeks to sink in before you pass judgement.  We’re are incredibly excited about what’s coming out next week (we’ve been using it on our dev server as we’ve developed it and it’s a huge improvement on a lot of fronts).  We’re also excited about what’s on the horizon (API and a rash of cool productivity features, to name a few things)