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!)

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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.


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.)