A little over a year ago, we quietly added a little feature to RescueTime Premium called daily highlights. It was basically just a “notes” section that someone could use to write down what they got done during the day. It seemed like it might be a relatively simple solution to something that had been bugging me for a while – the fact that RescueTime is great for understanding broad patterns in my time use but not so great for looking back at a specific day and remember the meaningful things I did. That’s a situation that comes up pretty frequently for me, and it was frustrating. Adding in a way to log notes about each day seemed like an obvious way to fix that.
I also thought it might be a totally frivolous feature that would never get used. Hence the fact that we didn’t make much noise about it.
In a way, it sort of goes against the RescueTime philosophy. You see, we have a really strong bias towards automatic data collection, and requiring someone to be motivated enough to submit data manually feels like a design flaw. People are busy, and things slip through the cracks, even if you have the best intentions. It’s just hard to keep up with that stuff. If you’ve ever had a job that required you to fill out time sheets, you know what I’m talking about here. In the end, it really doesn’t matter what kind of awesome insights you can offer if there is no data there to analyze in the first place.
But the problem was bugging me so much that it seemed worth exploring. There had simply been too many cases over the years where my imperfect memory would trip me up. Some examples:
- Status meetings where I’m constantly hemming and hawing. “Hrm… um… I know I did some other stuff this week?”
- Performance reviews where I need to be able to speak intelligently about the types of things I’ve been doing over the past 12 months.
- The defeating feeling feeling I’d get when I’ve been juggling so many things for too long and it all becomes a blur. After thrashing around a lot, it’s really hard to tell if I’m being effective or just being busy.
- When challenged by a manager about something that didn’t get done, it’s demoralizing to say “I don’t know, I guess I was just busy with other stuff?”
Sounds like a great idea, except it totally didn’t work
After launching it, we realized it wasn’t working at all. Having written the feature, I was probably the person most motivated to use it out of anyone, and I would go weeks without entering a highlight. I’d just forget to do it. Because I was never really all that confident about how it would be used, I didn’t integrate very heavily with the rest of the reporting, and it felt like there just wasn’t much value in it. I couldn’t even get the other people around here to use it, despite us all agreeing that the general idea was a reasonable one.
A mostly-automated, more ‘RescueTimey’ approach
We experimented a lot over the next few months, trying new things, and learning a lot. Eventually we realized something pretty great. We couldn’t fully remove the need for manual data entry in this case, but we could largely automate away the need to remember to do it. It was a lot more in line with the RescueTime way of doing things, and it seems to be working. Over over 25,000 highlights were logged in 2014, the vast majority in the last few months as we made more refinements.
We ended up with a two-pronged approach for entering highlights:
1. Intelligent prompts: We added the ability to automatically open the highlights entry page at times when there was most likely something that needed reporting. We thought this would be hugely annoying, but after a little tweaking to fit our own working style, the prompts felt a lot less intrusive than we had feared. Actually, they have a nice side effect of keeping us more aware of our productive time each day.
Examples: Prompt for highlights after 2 hours of productive work in a day or send an email prompting for highlights for the previous day first thing the next morning.
2. Data exhaust: A lot of meaningful information already gets entered in other systems that we work with every day. There are a huge amount of logs and notification streams laying around describing work that’s being done, and all we needed to do was tap into it. We added an API to create highlights, along with the ability to group together highlights from the same system. It’s a little work up front, but after that a lot of interesting data can be logged with no additional effort.
We also kept the original method of manual entry page around to cover the cases that couldn’t be handled automatically, but I’ve gotten to the point now where I rarely go to this page without being first prompted by an alert. It’s something I don’t have to think about anymore. It just gets done.
Quantitative plus Qualitative Data is a great combination
After a while we realized that we were all actually entering highlights on a fairly consistent basis, and they were really useful. We tried using them as a base for our twice-weekly status meetings and immediately noticed such a positive change that we haven’t stopped. We can quickly run through our highlights and then spend the rest of the meeting actually communicating about what needs to happen next. It’s way more efficient.
I log all sorts of things now that wouldn’t have been worth the effort otherwise. Knowing when I exercise, go to the coffee shop, or check off items on my personal to-do list all add valuable context. It’s been a really big help for looking back and understanding how I spent my time on a specific day.
We’ve recently beefed up the reporting, exposing highlights more prominently on the dashboard and in the weekly summary reports. This makes it easier to review highlights on a regular basis. We’ve got a lot of other ideas for how to make the reports more useful. We’ll be working those out over the next few months.
If you are a RescueTime premium user, you can get started setting up your highlights here.
For more examples, have a look at how highlights work into a typical day around the RescueTime office.
Highlights have opened up a new perspective on RescueTime for me, and I’d love to know what you think of them. For the rest of January, you can sign up for RescueTime premium for 25% off and try them out (or upgrade here if you already have a free account). Give them a spin, and let us know what you think.
A few months ago we added support for using RescueTime’s Alert notifications within Zapier, a service that helps people automate their favorite web apps.
We found that it was really, really useful, so we’ve added two additional triggers and an action to the RescueTime app on Zapier. These improvements will open up a bunch of new ways to use RescueTime with outside apps.
Daily summaries – daily rollup reports to use in your zaps.
This will make it easy to do things like:
- Create a personalized daily email report showing only the metrics that really matter to you.
- Create a notice when a certain percentage of your time is uncategorized. This notice could be delivered as an email, or an item added to your favorite to-do list such as Trello. Zapier supports over 300 different services, so there are a lot of possibilities here.
- Create a percentage-based alert for any major category. This will let you keep an eye on how much time you spend on certain activities relative to the overall amount of time you have logged that day.
Note: Daily summaries are available to all RescueTime users, new reports become available each day at midnight in your local timezone.
Highlights – a running log of your accomplishments
RescueTime makes it easy to log notes about what you’ve accomplished each day. These are called Daily Highlights, and they can add important context to the application and website time that is logged automatically. Spend 6 hours coding one day? You can annotate that day so it’s more obvious what you got done during that time.
You can now create zaps to automatically log highlight messages when meaningful actions happen in your other systems. This can make logging your status completely effortless. We’ve been using these a lot internally and it’s really made the quality of our weekly status meetings go up by about 1000%.
Some examples of things you can now do:
- Log your GitHub commit messages as highlights. This one addition made the biggest difference for the developers on our team. Basically a part of our existing workflow – GitHub commits – was made more valuable by putting the data into a new place.
- Keep a record of the meetings on your Google Calendar in your highlights list. Meetings can have a big impact on how you spend your time, so it makes sense to keep a record of them. It’s easy to import your Google Calendar events as daily highlights.
- Log a highlight when new blog posts are published. If you work in media and need to keep a record of your posting progress, this makes it simple. This can be done in a zap via an RSS feed or by connecting your WordPress account to Zapier.
- When a Trello card is dragged to the “done” column, log a highlight. This pretty much transformed how I use Trello. It was already a great way to manage what I needed to do, now it’s also a great reporting tool that shows me what I got done.
- Log checkins on Foursquare as a highlight. I really wanted to understand how my coffee intake affects my productivity, so I started logging any checkin to a coffee shop on Swarm as a highlight. Now I can see just how much of a caffeine addict I am.
Some people already have another application where they keep track of their accomplishments, so we also added the ability to broadcast highlights entered in RescueTime to other applications. For example, you may want to keep your ‘dones’ list in iDoneThis in sync with your RescueTime highlights. Or perhaps your team uses a tool like Yammer, and you may want to post a status message whenever you log a new highlight. For us, we send highlights to our “what’s happenin” room in HipChat.
Note: Highlights are a part of RescueTime Premium, to use them you will have to have a premium subscription.
We’re really excited about these new additions, and hope you find them as useful as we have. We would love to hear what you think in the comments. If you’d like to read more about these updates, check out the post about it over on the Zapier blog.
If you aren’t using RescueTime yet, getting started is easy. Just sign up and you’ll be logging time in less than five minutes.
A warning for productivity apps: Even the best of you will be rendered completely worthless by my horrible, horrible memory.
The hardest part of pretty much all to-do lists / project management tools is actually remembering to use them. It just doesn’t matter how good the app is, how much time it saves, or how much money it makes you if you can’t be bothered to open it up and do things with it.
I’m the worst about that, but lately I’ve found a fix. RescueTime can automatically open web pages right at the moment they’re needed. I’m letting a machine take over the job of staying organized from my flighty brain that’s just not very good at it.
It works – and it’s sort of magical.
Alerts within RescueTime can be set to open up an arbitrary url when triggered, and go off at very specific, contextually relevant times. If I’ve just spent two hours writing code, chances are I have something to cross off my to-do list.
Example: I actually keep my iDoneThis calendar updated now
I use iDoneThis to record a list of what I get done each day. They try to remind me to update my calendar with a daily email reminder, but for me it totally fails. I’m swamped with email and the last thing I want is something else that’s going to add to it. Instead, my iDoneThis calendar just automatically opens up when I’ve done five solid hours of productive work in a day (which usually happens around 4-5pm).
It’s great. My iDoneThis calendar actually stays up to date now. I don’t have to worry about looking for an email, and I don’t have to worry about messing with it on days when I have nothing to say. It’s just sitting right in front of me when I need it to.
Try it out
RescueTime alerts are part of RescueTime Premium (You can upgrade here if you’re on the free plan) If you want to give these alerts a try, here are a few to try out:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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…).
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.
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.
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.
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)
Company tweets, new blog posts, code deploys, and meeting notices
My frequent coffee runs and Tim’s lunch breaks (via 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)
Sometimes we use the alerts as a chance to poke fun at ourselves and share things we might not in a normal status meeting
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.
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?