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.


A little hack that made our remote team not feel so remote anymore

coffee-shop-work

I’m jealous of people who work in coffee shops.

Not because I dream of pulling espresso shots and doing pour-overs (although they’re delicious. I wish I had those skills!). The thing I’m jealous of is how easy it is to just know how things are going at any given moment when working in that environment. Especially when compared to a distributed workplace like ours, with me here in Nashville, and the rest of the team spread out across Seattle, Atlanta, and Miami.

It’s too easy to wind up in a bubble when physically isolated like that, and end up completely missing things like:

  • Roger being buried with support the morning after we pushed out a new feature.
  • The mid-week rush of new signups after we were mentioned in a news article.
  • Tim being head-down in focus mode on some new stuff for the RescueTime desktop app.
  • The general “we’re all in it together” vibe that comes from seeing everyone busting ass to make things work.

Information like this just flows freely in my local coffee shop (and I’d assume in most other brick and mortar businesses). It’s obvious how long the line of customers is, that Megan is buried under a ten-latte to-go order, or that Joe is just plain wiped out after a ten-hour day. And there’s the shared satisfaction of knowing that everyone did a good day’s work together. That’s not to say that I dislike remote workplaces. I think they’re great, actually. I’m just saying that feeling connected takes more work.

I’ve been thinking about this idea of connectedness for the past few months since I moved away from our main office. It’s tricky, because there is so much about a loosely-connected team that actually works really well, and trying too hard to replicate an “everyone in the same room” feeling would be forced and likely bad for our culture. Always-on video chat? Nope. Every-day status meetings? Blech. Taking on a whole new project management system to understand what everyone else is working on? Doesn’t fit how we work at all.

A few weeks ago, we tried an experiment and so far it’s working out really well. We use HipChat as our company chat tool, and it’s great for general back and forth, asking questions to the entire team, even taking a quick break and laughing about ridiculous pictures of cats. You can also post messages to it programmatically with their API, so we created a new chatroom just for things that would hopefully make some of the basic rhythms of the workday pop out a little more. We used Zapier to plug a bunch of different applications into HipChat, then let everyone on the team get creative with it. We gave very loose guidelines ( ”Add anything you feel like telling the rest of your team about your day. It has to be automated. Excessive use of emoticons and gifs is encouraged.”) With only a few hours of experimentation, we came up with an interesting feed that required no manual input, but let us get and give some really interesting information about our days.

Some examples (with admitted over-use of HipChat’s fantastic emoticons)

New signups and upgrades (via Zapier’s Gmail integration)

wh-customer-info

Company tweets, new blog posts, code deploys, and meeting notices

wh-company-events1

My frequent coffee runs and Tim’s lunch breaks (via Foursquare)

wh-foursquare

Several of our self-defined status updates based on our RescueTime stats, where we share some details about how we’re spending our time (via the RescueTime Alerts API)

wh-rescuetime-alerts

Sometimes we use the alerts as a chance to poke fun at ourselves and share things we might not in a normal status meeting

wh-rescuetime-humblebrag

It’s done a surprisingly good job at filling in a missing piece of the remote-experience for us. I feel like I’m much more aware of everyone else on the team, how their days are going, but without requiring tedious status updates that would just slow us down. I feel more connected, and it’s really nice.

The full "What's Happenin'" feed

The full “What’s Happenin’” feed in all it’s messy chaotic glory

We intentionally kept the messages light on details. I’ve seen a lot of “Quantified Self in the Workplace” projects, and they seem like they can often turn into micro-managing minefields. I think we avoided this by making everything voluntary and giving each person on the team complete control over what messages they wanted to contribute to the feed. For example, some of the feed items came from the RescueTime API, where there is a LOT of detailed information that each team member privately has about themselves. But at a team level, we don’t need (or want, if I’m being honest here) that level of insight into people.

It would probably be idealistic to assume that something like this would be helpful or even welcome in every remote-workplace, but it’s worked out great for us, and seems to fill a gap that has led other companies to take some pretty drastic measures to deal with in the past.

I’m really interested in ways that companies are taking advantage of the data-rich environments of their remote workplaces, and using them to create more engaging, more fun, and ultimately more productive experiences for their employees. Have you seen other examples, or tried something that’s worked particularly well?


Getting the most out of RescueTime for your Quantified Self projects

I’m pretty sad that I’ll be missing the 2014 Quantified Self Europe Conference this weekend. From what I can tell of the lineup, it’s going to be a great conference that’s full of insights, sharing ideas, and learning about all the amazing ways that people are looking internally to understand themselves better. Seriously, if you’re there, I’m jealous. Have a fantastic time. If not, and you’ve never been to a quantified self event, consider checking out a nearby meetup.

Not to mention Amsterdam looks absolutely amazing.

I suspect many people will come away from the conference energized and inspired for some new tracking projects, so I wanted to offer up a few tips for how to effectively make use of the data in your RescueTime account. Of course, we try to make the default reports as informative as possible, but here are some power-user moves that should help you dig a little deeper.

A number of these are premium features, but if you are on the free plan and would like to try them out, you can click here to upgrade at a 25% discount until the end of May.

1. Export your data to a spreadsheet.

export to csv

Most of the reports can be exported to a .csv file  (premium version only). This lets you bring them into your spreadsheet program / database / visualization engine of choice to do some further analysis or compare with other data sets. I used this extensively for a project I did last year comparing my sleep and physical activity levels to my time spent in email and software development.

Just look for the green “Export / Share” button underneath the graphs on the reports.

2. Use time filters to compare your time in different periods

Time filters

One of the most straightforward explorations you can do is to see how your computer time looks like when you’re working vs. when you’re not. That’s pretty easy to do with time filters in RescueTime. You can restrict your time in a given period to specific days (“weekends” for example), or specific times of day (“After lunch”).

You can find the time filter controls on the date picker widget that is available on most reports. There are a few default time filters available for people on the free version of RescueTime. The premium version of RescueTime allows you to customize the filters and create new ones.

Some ideas to explore:

  • How do my weekends differ from my weekdays?
  • What types of activities do I spend more time on in the morning? what about the afternoon?

3. Use the RescueTime Data API

If you are comfortable with a scripting environment, you can request data from RescueTime programatically as JSON or CSV data. This can be great if you have already written another tool to consume data from another service.

The API is available to people on both the free and premium version of RescueTime, and will allow you to get the same data that you can find from most of the reports on the website.

Check out the API documentation to learn more.

4. If you are trying to use your data for behavior change, have a look at our integration with Beeminder.com

beeminder-chart

Beeminder is an interesting service. They allow you to state a goal that you’d like to stick to (“Less than 30 minutes a day on Reddit.com”, for example), and they will track your progress for you and give you daily updates on how you are doing. But if you fail to stick to your goals, you will “derail”, and getting back on track will cost you money. It’s a form of commitment device and it can be a really helpful incentive if you have a habit that you would really like to break.

You can read more about Beeminder and RescueTime here.

5. To find correlations between your RescueTime data and other sources, use Zenobase

time-on_computer_vs_steps

Zenobase.com is an analysis tool for personal time-series data. In other words, anything about you that can be expressed as data points that occurred at distinct points in time. I’m going to be honest, it has a learning curve, but once you get over it, you can do some really interesting things with it. You can do simple exploration of your data in ways that other services may not offer (for example, in RescueTime there’s not a way to see a histogram of the time you spend per day, normalized to the nearest hour). You can also mash up several data sets and look for correlations.

Use RescueTime alerts and Zapier to automatically log milestones about your time in an online spreadsheet

zapier-spreadsheet-1

RescueTime’s alerts are highly configurable and can let you know when you have spent more than a specified amount of time in a productivity level (example: “all productive time”), a category (example: “design and composition”), a specific application (example: “microsoft word”) or a website (example: “mail.google.com”).

These alerts are delivered by an email or popup on your desktop, but they can also be used to log when the threshold for that activity was reached. You can connect your RescueTime account with Zapier.com and whenever an alert is triggered, you can insert a row in a Google Spreadsheet, or mark down the timestamp as an event on a calendar. Zapier has interfaces for a lot of applications, so you aren’t limited to spreadsheets or calendars. There are many other places you can log your alert data as well.

Check out our integrations page to learn more.

Good luck with your tracking projects!

I hope these tips are helpful. If you’re looking for some more inspiration on things you can do by tracking your time, check out these talks from past Quantified Self events. If you come up with some interesting insights based on your RescueTime data, let us know. I’d love to hear about them!


RescueTime alerts are now 280 times more awesome (thanks, Zapier!)

zapier_banner_590
You can now use your RescueTime Alerts to automate your favorite web applications, thanks to our new integration with Zapier.com.

Say what? Probably easiest to show some examples. Here are a few things we’ve been doing around the RescueTime offices that illustrate some of what you can do with this integration.

1. Deliver alerts differently than the standard popup messages or emails

reddit-alert

2. Automatically share time milestones as status reports

whats-happenin

3. Log alerts as datapoints for future Quantified Self analysis

calendar-track

4. Poke fun at ourselves for going on workaholic binges while getting this integration done!

Auto-tweet-help

 

Zapier allows more than 280 web applications to speak to each other

Zapier is a web service that makes it easy for non-developers to connect their web applications together, saving time and improving productivity. They connect with over 280 different services, including several of the most popular project management and communication services, such as Basecamp, Asana, Podio, Yammer, iDoneThis, and HipChat to name a few.

How does this work?

zap-rescuetime-twitter
When you connect your RescueTime account with Zapier, we will make a special feed of your alerts accessible to them. Then you can set up any of your alerts to trigger an action in Zapier. This can be used to log a block of time, send a status message, or add a note to a calendar. You can even send a humblebragging tweet about your horrible work-life imbalance. A more technical explanation can be found here.

How do I get started?

Alerts - and consequently the alerts API - are only available to RescueTime premium subscribers. But to make it easier to give them a try, we’re offering premium subscriptions at 25% off the normal price until May 31, 2014. Click here to upgrade so you can get started.

First, make sure you have some alerts set up, then head on over to Zapier.com and start creating zaps. If you need any help, check this help document or open a support ticket with us and we’ll be happy to help.

Let us know what you think, ok?

The great thing about Zapier is it puts you in control of your data without relying on us to do tedious one by one integrations. Play around with it. Have fun! Do amazing things! If you find something that’s really working for you, please let us know so we can share the knowledge!


April updates: Compare mobile to desktop time, Alerts improvements, and auto-updates to the desktop app!

We’ve pushed out  a number of new things over the past week or so that we are pretty excited to share with you. Here is a brief rundown. We will have expanded posts about some of these features in the next few days.

New premium report – Compare your mobile, desktop, and offline time side-by-side.

If you are using our Android app, or you log a lot of offline time, you will have noticed that all that time gets combined with your desktop computer time in the reports. This is actually pretty convenient, because it allows you to see everything all at once. But it does tend to obscure some of the details about those different contexts. We just added a new report that will allow you to see your time coming from different inputs separately. (Personally I was a little shocked to see just how much time I spend looking at my phone each day.)

source-report

Updates to alerts

We made several improvements and additions to the RescueTime’s alerts system.

More automatic FocusTime choices. After much feedback, we added more options to the automatic FocusTime site-blocking. Now you can set a longer interval for distracting websites to be blocked after an alert is triggered, or you can choose to have websites blocked for the entire rest of the day (requires the latest version of the application).

focustime-alert-options

You can now create an alert for any individual website or application. You used to have to go through a pretty clunky process to create an alert for a specific website, now there is a link on the website or application’s report page to create an alert. This allows you to get extremely specific with the alerts you create.

create-alert-for-activity

Power user trick – Automatically launch a url when an alert is triggered. If you create an alert with a custom message, and you include a url enclosed with backticks in the message, the url will be opened automatically when the alert triggers. I have an alert for when I’ve been really productive that tells me:

Long day today! Take a break and look at puppies! `http://www.reddit.com/r/aww`

This automatically opens up the /r/aww subreddit, and gives me a nice little moment of decompression (Looking at cute animals is proven to boost your productivity. Science says so!)

pssssst! Speaking of doing interesting automated things with alerts, we’re working on a few integrations that we’re really excited about, but they won’t be ready for a few more days.

Desktop-application update improvements

We’ve overhauled the way the RescueTime application handles updates, and the new process is much smoother. New users are currently getting this functionality, and we’ll be pushing out an update automatically in the next couple of days, and after that any future updates should be much less obtrusive than they currently are.

You can get the new version of the app now from the RescueTime download page.

The input sources report and RescueTime alerts are only available to premium subscribers. If you are on the free plan, you can learn more about upgrading to RescueTime premium here.

I hope you like these new features. There’s a lot more on the way!


Some tips for safe web browsing in a post-Heartbleed internet

Over the past week, we have noticed many people (friends, family members, etc…) asking for general advice on things they can do to protect themselves from the recently revealed Heartbleed vulnerability. While a lot of the major work needs to be done by owners of individual websites, there are some more general security steps that you can take to minimize your risk. Most are not that difficult to set up, so you might as well go ahead and do them, especially now that security is probably fresh in your brain due to all the Heartbleed coverage.

If you use Chrome, install the Chromebleed extension.

This browser extension will give you an alert when you are on a secure site that appears to be vulnerable to the Heartbleed bug. The good news, as many websites have patched their servers, you should see very few alerts. If you do see an alert. Get off that website and come back later when they have had a chance to patch their servers.

Change passwords on sites that have given the all-clear

It’s a good idea to change your passwords, but only for websites that have given the all-clear that they are no longer vulnerable to the bug. If a site hasn’t patched their servers and you update your personal information, it doesn’t do much good.

Use a password manager like LastPass

It’s really hard (damn near impossible) to remember a unique password for every website you visit. Most people use a single password for many websites. A password manager shifts that burden out of your brain and into a piece of software, allowing you to remain secure while only remembering a single password.

Use two-factor authentication wherever possible

Two-factor authentication minimizes the risk of a password breach by forcing you to provide an extra piece of information  when you log in. Usually this is a rotating security code that you read from an app, or an access code that will be sent to you via text message when you attempt to log in to a website. They are not very difficult to set up, and the security benefits are pretty great. If you haven’t started using two factor authentication on websites that offer it, you really should think about it.

Many sites support two factor authentication. Here are links to set up two factor authentication for Google accountsFacebook (look for “login approvals”), Twitter (look for the “login verification” options), Github, and Evernote. A much larger list of sites can be found here.

Review the applications you are connected to on major social media sites

It’s likely that over the years you have built up many sites that have used a connection to one of your social media accounts. It’s easy to forget about the random website that you connected with your Facebook account two years ago. You should review these applications and revoke any services that you are no longer using.

Here are links to see the connected applications for your Facebook, Twitter, and Google accounts.