I’m about to start working remotely, and it’s sort of freaking me out

In about two weeks, I’m moving from Seattle, WA to Nashville, TN. This is awesome for a number of reasons. Nashville has less depressing winters, some great friends and family live there, there’s an NHL team, and I’m really excited to reacquaint myself with the city I grew up in. (That said, I am going to really miss Seattle. This place is amazing). There’s just one part that makes me a little nervous: Working remotely. It freaks me out. It shouldn’t, but it does. Kind of a lot. Several people at RescueTime work remotely, and they make it work just fine, but I’m still uneasy.

You see, I’ve worked remotely once before, and I was terrible at it. I mean, I still got my work done and all, but I fell into just about every conceivable work-from-home trap in the process. It was several years ago, and I was living in Boston, working for a small web design company in Anchorage, AK. The four hour time difference meant my work day didn’t start until noon (which is awesome), but it meant I was working until about nine (opposite of awesome). I didn’t have to keep those hours, but between everyone else being on Alaska time and me not being a morning person at all, it was an easy pattern to fall into. Finishing work so late each day sort of wrecked my motivation to go out and do anything afterwords, so often times I would just keep working. That’s a really bad habit to fall into, and led to some pretty bad workaholic tendencies (also not so great for my social life :\). I was working out of my house, so the isolation started to get to me. For days at a time, I found myself with literally zero reasons to put on pants. In a way, that sounds luxurious, but it stops being fun real quick. After a while, I figured out ways to get a little bit more balanced, but it never really got to a spot where I could say I actually enjoyed it all that much.

So you can see why getting back into a remote work situation would be unsettling. But I’ve got some reasons to be optimistic this time around.

I’m not the only one in my company working remotely

The last time I worked remotely, I was the only one in the company not in the main office, and that caused a huge disconnect. I felt guilty being the odd man out, like I was burdening everyone with my weird schedule and the fact that I couldn’t be there for meetings. At RescueTime, more than half the team works remotely, so I don’t feel that same pressure. It’s already a part of our culture. And the folks I work with have been doing this for years, so I don’t have to figure it out all on my own.

Technology is way, way better now

Before, the main options I had for interacting with my coworkers were phone calls, email, and FTP. Now I have all sorts of options to stay connected. We sync files through Dropbox, share code with Git, and share all sorts of random knowledge tidbits with Evernote and Google Drive. On a more social level, Google Hangouts makes it so we can see each others faces (and screens) whenever we need to. And we use HipChat for group chat, which has been surprisingly effective at making everyone feel a little less spread out across the country. On the time management front, RescueTime helps me steer clear of some of the really bad habits I’m prone to by keeping me aware of how my days are shaping up.

There are other options for not working strictly from home

I know that working from home drives me crazy after a short while, so I have to get out and find somewhere else to work. This time around, I have two things working in my favor. Coffee shops are a great option now that I’ve developed a fancy coffee addiction (thanks a lot, Seattle!), and Nashville has an abundance of coworking spaces that I can go to give myself some structure (as well as some physical distance from home, so I can draw the line when I’m done for the day). I’ve spent a few days at CoLab Nashville, which has been great, and there are several others that look really good. I have a lot of options.

Nashville-to-Seattle is way different than Boston-to-Anchorage

It’s not as hard to go back. Flying to Alaska was always a huge, expensive undertaking, no way around it. (To be fair, a huge, expensive undertaking that also involved moose, bears, Northern Lights, and a bunch of other completely magical stuff.) Seattle is still far away, but I’m only crossing two time zones, not four. (No direct flights though, so that’s sort of a bummer.) I’m not really sure how necessary going back will end up being. Going back to the first point, the other people working remotely give me some new options for face to face time. There are two RescueTimers in Atlanta, and that’s only a few hours’ drive.

Remote work is actually a thing people think about now

In the time since I last worked remotely, the conversation has gotten a lot more interesting and sophisticated. In addition to all the tools I listed above, there’s just a better understanding of what the tradeoffs and pitfalls are. A lot of people have put effort into figuring this stuff out, so there’s a better roadmap. It also helps that I have a pretty clear idea of some things that simply don’t work for me (living and working in the same space, all the time, for example). This time around it feels like there is a lot less that I’ll have to sort out by pure trial and error. I’m about halfway through reading Remote, by 37signals, and it’s a really nice rollup of the dos, don’ts, and current thinking about remote work.

So I think it’s all going to work out ok. Still, got any tips?

While I’m optimistic, I still know myself and know the traps I’m apt to fall into. Does anyone have any good tips or strategies for remote work? If so, leave them in the comments, I’d love to hear about them!


Four awesome improvements in RescueTime alerts

There are a lot of things I’m really excited about in the new version of RescueTime. We rolled out over 30 new features, but I’m particularly thrilled about a few of the changes we’ve made to the alerts you can set up to let you know when you’ve spent a certain amount of time on an activity.

Improvement 1. You can now set alerts for ANYTHING.

Before, I could only set alerts for categories or productivity levels. This left out two important situations. First, I’m interested in staying mindful of the total time I’m on the computer each day, not just the productive or distracting time, and it just wasn’t possible to create an alert for that before. Now, I can set an alert to notify me when I log above a certain amount of total time on a given day. This is a great way to curb my workaholic tendencies (and gets even more effective with improvement #2). Second, I can also now set up alerts for specific websites and applications. There are some times when an entire category is too abstract for me, and I just want to know when I’ve been doing something specific.

candy-jewels

For example: I have a problem with Candy Jewels on my phone. I can’t stop playing it sometimes. Not that I think games are bad or anything, but I fall into a hole with this one in particular. I have an alert that let’s me know when I’ve played it for more than a half hour a day.

Improvement 2. You can now include a custom message to get sent along with your alert.

RescueTime alerts are often a way of sending myself a message in the future. Present Robby who’s thinking about how much time he’d ideally like to devote to certain things wants to send Future Robby a note either congratulating or chastising him when he crosses a certain threshold. The problem was, I couldn’t actually include any sentiment with that alert, just a dry status message “You have spent more than 2 hours on distracting activities today”. Now, I can customize the alert to say whatever I want, which allows me to get creative with it. Here are couple examples:

After 2 hours of distracting time:

GrowlHelperApp

After 10 hours total on the computer:

10-hr-alert

And here’s an alert our CEO uses to manage a shoulder injury he’s working through:

Google Chrome

Improvement 3: You can automatically start a FocusTime session after an alert is triggered.

One problem I always had with alerts is I felt they were only half-useful when I was trying to nudge myself into changing my behavior. Sure, getting a reminder where my time is going is helpful, but sometimes I wanted something more. We combined our alerts with FocusTime, our site blocking feature to make the alerts a little more meaningful. Now, I can not only say “let me know when I’ve been getting too distracted”, I can also turn off distracting websites for a period of time as well.

alerts-focustime

I’ve found an interesting productivity hack for this one. When I first get to work in the mornings, I have a bad habit of making the rounds of Reddit, Twitter, Hacker News, etc… before I settle down onto something more serious. I wanted to see if I could improve how I started my day, so I set up an alert to block distracting websites for 30 minutes after 0.01 hours of time is logged each day. This effectively says “no distracting websites for the first half hour that I’m at the computer”.  This is usually enough time for me to sink into something more productive, which sets the tone for my day. I’ve been doing this one for a couple weeks now (weekdays only), and it’s working pretty well.

focus at the start of the day

Improvement 4: Goals now have alert functionality built in.

In the old version of RescueTime, goals and alerts were completely separate. Goals were for keeping track of metrics over time, and alerts were more transient. This always seemed cumbersome to me. The new version still has the ability to create goals and alerts separately, but I can choose to get alerts directly from a goal if I like. This saves me the extra step of creating the alert (and editing it if I ever need to change my goal).

Creating a new goal with notifications built in Creating a new goal with notifications built in

These improvements have really changed the way I interact with goals and alerts in RescueTime, and opened up a whole bunch of new possibilities. I hope you like these new capabilities as much as I do!

If you’d like to sign up for RescueTime, you can do that here. (Alerts are a premium feature. If you’re on the free plan and want to use alerts, you’ll need to upgrade.)


Offload motivation to a machine and let it force you to keep good habits – it will only hurt a little!

work-life-balance-bot

Tweaking a routine to be more balanced / less distracted / more productive / etc is hard. Motivation only goes so far, and there are so many temptations and easy excuses to fall off track. Wouldn’t it be nice to outsource motivation? Here are three projects you can use to automate your efforts to form good habits. *, **

* Except you can’t actually use them. These projects are all proof-of-concept at this point.

** Some of these might be really terrible. What do you think?

Pavlov Poke – Get an electric shock when you spend too much time on Facebook

Pavlov Poke

Two MIT students found that they spend WAY too much time on Facebook, so they decided shock therapy was the way to go for kicking the habit. They rigged up a keyboard with conductive metal strips attached to a shock circuit. When you spend too much time on Facebook (or any other website of your choosing)… ZAP! The idea is that you’re subjecting yourself to Pavlovian conditioning, and after getting shocked a few times, you’ll gradually wean yourself away from the site you’re spending too much time on.

All that said, this study suggests this project might not be as necessary as you think.

Git Sleep – Restrict your code commits until you’ve gotten a good night’s sleep

gitsleep

Sleep deprivation sucks, and it affects a lot of people (over 35% of adults according to the CDC). The impairments from chronic loss of sleep can cause all sorts of problems at work. If you’re a programmer, you’d be smart to not check in any code you wrote on 3 hours of sleep. That’s where Git Sleep comes in. It syncs up with a Jawbone UP wristband that monitors your sleep (as well as your physical activity when you’re awake). Every time you try to commit code, it checks to see how much sleep you had in the past 24 hours. If it’s too little, it blocks your commit until you have gotten more sleep. If you ever want to make progress on anything at work, you’ll need to be well rested, so avoid those all-nighters!

In all seriousness, I think this one sounds pretty damn cool, especially after doing some of my own analysis on my sleep and work patterns.

GitFit – Each code check-in will cost you 500 calories

Exercise is important. So is taking breaks. If you’re sitting on your ass all day writing code, you’re eventually going to burn out. GitFit just won the “Best health hack” at the HackMIT hackathon last month. Details are a little sparse on their web site, but from what I can gather, you connect with your FitBit or Jawbone Up, then your code commits will go through a check to see how many calories you’ve burned since your last commit. If you haven’t burned enough, you’ll need to go run around the block for a while. Sounds very similar to the GitSleep concept, but that’s okay – you’ll be well rested so you should have a bunch of extra energy to burn off. #WinWin!

Update: Woah! Looks like the Moscow subway had a similar idea? Instead of paying money for your train ticket, you can pay with 30 squats instead.

These are all only projects at this point, not polished services. But they all explore an interesting idea, that you can use data to enforce a balance between your digital and physical life. There will be even more opportunities as more things become trackable.

Have you heard of any other projects, services, or mad-science experiments that fuse data together in interesting ways? I’d love to hear about them in the comments!


Stop beating yourself up about “all that time” you waste on Facebook, it’s probably less than you think

bigredclock-1

When I tell people about RescueTime and what it does, one of the most common things I hear is:

“Oh wow! I don’t even want to think about how much time I waste on Facebook!”

When people have actually been using RescueTime for a little while, I often hear something different:

“Ya know? I really thought I spent more time on Facebook than that!”

Two things jump out at me when I hear this. First, many people think they spend more time on Facebook than they actually do. Second, they seem to feel guilty about it.  The first observation makes the second one sort of sad. I don’t want anyone to feel bad about themselves, and certainly not for something that’s not really even true!

That’s why I LOVE telling people about the following study.

Rey Junco, a professor of library science at Perdue University, recently investigated how students’ estimates of their time on Facebook differed from the actual time they spent on the site. Since many studies that focus on social media usage rely on self-reported data, this is a pretty important thing for researchers to understand. He asked test subjects to report how much time they spend each day on Facebook, then used RescueTime to monitor their actual time on Facebook. The results were very surprising.

“students significantly overestimated the amount of time they spent on Facebook. They reported spending an average of 149 minutes per day on Facebook which was significantly higher than the 26 minutes per day they actually spent on the site (t(41) = 8.068, p < .001).”

When I first read these results, I did a double take. Subjects were overestimating their Facebook time by 473%. Four Hundred Seventy Three Percent?!?! It seems almost unbelievable. In his blog post, Rey covers some factors that could have affected the data, but it seems like the gulf between the estimate and the actual time on Facebook is real.

It’s interesting to contrast that overestimation with something else I’ve noticed. Many people fairly drastically underestimate the amount of time they spend in email. According to a study from last year by the McKinsey Global Institute, up to 28% of the average desk worker’s week (or around 13 hours) is devoted to managing email. While it’s necessary for work, it’s often a distraction, due to its tendency to pop up every few minutes on someone’s screen while they’re trying to focus on other work. People are usually not that great at accurately adding all this time up, and that’s not even taking into account the refocusing time that comes when trying to get back to the original task that the email interrupted.

I wonder if there isn’t some sort of guilty pleasure factor at work there? For whatever reason, do people’s negative judgements about their time on Facebook (or Twitter, or Reddit, etc…) cause whatever time they DO spend to be over-inflated in their minds? On the other hand, email doesn’t have this problem, because very few people think about email in those terms. That’s just a theory of mine, which is partly based on my own experience, but I’ve seen a lot of anecdotes that back it up. If it’s actually true, it’s sort of a bummer. It means people have a general tendency to beat themselves up over things that feel too much like an indulgence.

To me, this is a great illustration of the awesomeness of RescueTime. Having an accurate, real record of how your time is spent can totally change your perspective. When you’re sitting at a computer all day, it’s too easy for it all to just blur together. With a real understanding of how little time I actually spend on sites like Facebook or Hacker News, I’ve been able to let go of any negative judgements I had about them.


All work and no play (and no rest) makes me super unproductive

Last month, I spent some time digging around with two big personal datasets of mine – my RescueTime logs and the information about my physical activity and sleep that I’ve collected with my FitBit. After comparing over 8.5 million steps and 5,000 hours of my sleep with around 7,000 hours of my RescueTime data, I noticed that my physical activity seems to have a generally positive effect on how I spend my time on the computer. Or it’s the other way around, I’m not quite sure. But there definitely seems to be a link between the two.

Daily step count vs. meaningful work

steps-vs-coding

The first thing I looked at was the number of steps I’ve taken each day for the past two years. I compared it to the amount of time I spent on the computer, and what activities I was doing while on the computer. On days when I take more steps, I tend to spend a greater percentage of my time on the computer writing code. For me, software development is an activity that I feel is pretty meaningful, and I’d rather spend more time on it than, say, meetings or email. I’d also like to be more active, so it’s really great to see that days where I walk around more don’t seem to hurt my work productivity.

It’s not really clear to me which one of those things influences the other. Could be that more physical activity makes it somehow easier for me to focus? Or it might be the other way around. A solid day’s work makes it more likely that I’ll be motivated to get out and get some exercise.  Or, there could be some unknown factor that’s influencing both of them. It’s still interesting, nonetheless.

Also interesting, it seems like I shouldn’t get too crazy with it. On days when I get more than 12,000 steps in a day, the percentage of software development time goes back down.

Sleep vs. Time on the computer

sleep-vs-computer-time

I also found that I seem to be more focused on days when I get more sleep. Focus is a hard thing to measure, and this isn’t a perfect metric, but I looked at the amount of time I spend writing code (something I’d like to be doing more of) vs. the amount of time I spend on email (something I generally try to minimize). When I get less than six hours of sleep, things are pretty much even. As I get more sleep, the percentage of time in email goes down, and the time spend on software development goes up.

What does this mean?

The really cool bit about these observations is they suggest that it’s not only possible to balance good amounts of physical activity with a productive workday – they may actually reinforce each other. Another RescueTime user saw similar effects on his sleep last year. He summarized the results in this guest post.

To get these two datasets together, I used the RescueTime API and John McLaughlin’s fantastic FitBit-to-Google Docs script that I found on the Quantified Self website.

Have you ever found an interesting link like this between your physical activity and some other metric? I’d love to hear about it.


Confession: I completely missed Information Overload Awareness Day

Oh, man. The irony of what I’m about to say…

This past Monday was Information Overload Awareness Day, and I totally missed it because an email about it went unopened in my inbox.

Information Overload Day 2013 - October 21, 2013

I usually do a pretty good job of keeping email under control, but it’s really gotten away from me over the past few weeks. It’s downright sad how out-of-sync I feel when I have upwards of 100 unread emails in my inbox. I feel more and more scattered by the mental weight of those un-dealt-with messages as they pile up. “Am I missing something important? Probably? But do I have time to deal with it right now? Probably not, especially if it’s something really important.”  Once that cycle starts spinning, it just gets worse and worse.

Even though it seems ever-so-slightly corny to holiday-ize the concept, I’m really glad there’s a serious conversation going on about information overload. It’s one of those things that (increasingly) affects our days so much, yet it feels like so many people simply write it off as an unfortunate fact of life.

The Internet Overload Research Group (IORG) brings together a really interesting mix of smart folks that are focused on the effects of information overload and possible solutions to the problems it can create. IORG members Joshua Lyman and Jared Goralnick hosted a really interesting webinar on Monday (which I did not watch live, due to the email being stuck in the aforementioned purgatory of my dumb ol’ inbox). The recording is really worth checking out if you find this stuff interesting.

The webinar features a panel discussion with Dimitri Leonov from SaneBox and Shawn Carolan from Handle, two companies which take different approaches for helping people cope with information overload. There is also a really interesting presentation by Professor Sheizaf Rafaeli of Unviersity of Haifa in Israel. He questions if multitasking is really as evil as some people make it out to be, and makes a really good case for the fact that, sometimes, it’s actually something to strive for (which runs fairly counter to a prevalent meme in the information overload world that multitasking is the root of all evil).

It’s a long video (just under an hour), but really interesting if you’re curious about the current thinking around information overload and multitasking.


Are you ready for National Novel Writing Month?

It’s almost November, which means it’s almost time for another National Novel Writing Month! For those who don’t know, National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) is a month-long writing binge with the goal of completing a 50,000 word novel by 11:59pm on November 30. That’s an average of 1,667 words per day! It’s an amazing challenge for anyone who has ever kicked around the idea of doing long-form writing.

Last year, we worked with a group of aspiring novelists who were also using RescueTime, and we were able to learn some interesting things. Check it out: (click the image to enlarge)

Lessons learned from RescueTime's NaNoWriMo 2012 experiment

We’re running this experiment again this year. If you would like to use RescueTime to track your time working on your novel for NaNoWriMo 2013, click here.

Here are some other tools that can make your 50,000 word journey easier:

750 words

As far as domain names go, 750words.com can’t get much more self-explanatory. It’s a site that wants you to write 750 words, every day. While that’s less than half the daily word count you’ll need to complete NaNoWriMo, it’s the writing every day part that’s important. Also, the site gives you some pretty analytics about your writing efforts.

Write or Die

Write or Die gives you a kick in the pants to keep you motivated. The idea is, you should be afraid of NOT writing, so they give you negative consequences when you don’t write enough. I love the fact that they have a “Kamikaze mode” where the words you have written will start deleting themselves unless you keep writing.

Beeminder

Beeminder lets you make a bet with yourself that you’ll accomplish a goal, then track your progress as you work towards it. If you stray too far from your path, it’ll cost you money. They can track your daily word count, giving you a great way to stay focused during the parts of your novel where you might otherwise give up.

Written? Kitten!

Written Kitten is simple text box with a single, brilliant feature. Every hundred words you type, you get to see a new picture of a kitten. I could say something about the science behind cute animals making you more productive, but who needs it? Cats are adorable, why wouldn’t you want to keep typing to see more of them?

Feeling inspired yet? Go get ‘em!