Tracking my data proved that I’m actually kicking ass (even when it feels like I’m not)

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Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Megan Seling, Culture Editor at the alt-weekly newspaper The Nashville Scene. It’s a world of constant tight deadlines and moving pieces – exactly the type of environment where it’s easy to lose track of the time. We asked her to share some ways that RescueTime helps her make it through the day. You can follow Megan on Twitter at @mseling.

I don’t track my personal data well. Okay, scratch that — I don’t really track my personal data at all. I am a writer, and for a very long time I believed the only legitimate measure of my productivity (read: evidence I wasn’t a worthless human being) was based on the number of blog posts, articles, or cookbooks that I actually published.

That’s not true, of course. The time spent writing those words means something, too. But because so much of my career has been spent at a fast-paced weekly newspapers with even faster-paced blogs, I spent nearly my entire adult life believing the lie that the amount of time I spent on the blog post or article or interview didn’t matter and that there was only one measurement of true productivity: If my byline didn’t go up, my day was a waste. Using RescueTime over the last few years has absolutely changed my perspective on how I view my own productivity, though, and it has taught me to trust and appreciate the writing process.

When I first got RescueTime, there were days I wouldn’t publish a single word yet I’d have a productivity pulse in the 80s or 90s, thanks to hours spent banging my head into a keyboard. I was shocked. Wait, even though all I did was write, delete, write some more without any grand finale, my day wasn’t a complete waste? All those hours of typing, revising, and deciding ultimately to “sleep on it” was worth something? Lookatmego! It might’ve taken me a couple days (or weeks) to finish a story, but at least I had evidence that it was being worked on. (Related: I so regret not using RescueTime when I wrote a cookbook in 2011 because now that it’s all over I have no idea how I did it — all I remember is staring blankly at my Twitter timeline for hours on end while wishing the book would just write itself.)

But the productivity pulse can only account for so much. What about the days I had a low productivity pulse but felt busier than ever? What about the days I listened to the same record over and over and over again, trying to sort out exactly what about the guitar tone is so great (or annoying) so I could finish that album review that was three days late? What about all the meetings that were mostly just a bunch of smart people telling each other jokes for an hour until something sounded good enough to stick on paper? What about the days I was on assignment, hanging out in the kitchen with a punk rock pastry chef, learning her secrets and asking her about all the different kinds of sugar she uses for each dessert? Okay, now I’m just bragging. But really, with so much of my actual job being away from a computer, my productivity pulse wasn’t always a reliable representation of my work, either.

But now RescueTime is making it easier for me to recognize that work, too. They’ve always had the option to log time spent offline, but I never cared enough to actually do it — I never considered that time real work. The new Highlights feature has, once again, changed that. No matter how productive (or how unproductive) I am, the Highlights feature pops up on my screen a few times a day (I control how often) and it prompts me to log a few of the things I’ve gotten done so far.

Screenshot 2015-03-28 at 10.46.58 PM

December was all a blur, but thanks to Highlights I have evidence that I got things done amidst the craziness.

So right now, after every two hours of productive time, I get a pop up that alerts me of all the ass I’ve been kicking and then it reminds me to make a note of the other productive points in the day that may not have been picked up by Rescuetime. Like meetings, in-person interviews and reviewing things like movies and restaurants. It’s finally okay to not have a day that fits into a pretty little easily-defined productivity package. (This was especially helpful when I was doing a lot of freelance writing — being able to easily log offline work and log which work I got done on which assignment gave me hard evidence to better judge what kind of rate I should charge in order to make enough money without working 24/7.)

And, yes, how many things I publish any given day is still very important — Highlights can log those too, thanks to RescueTime’s integration with Zapier. Everytime my byline goes up, whether it’s a blog post or a story, it automatically gets listed among the other Highlights that show up in my weekly email.

I’m still not all that great at tracking my personal data — I’m the kind of person who will “forget” to wear their FitBit if I’m feeling especially lazy and don’t want to record an embarrassingly low number of steps that day — but even if I still can’t (or don’t want to) account for every second of the day, I now have indisputable evidence that it wasn’t a complete waste and I can stop being so hard on myself, even if I do still spend too much time on Twitter (some of it is for work, I swear!).

 

Full disclosure: I’m married to RescueTime’s Robby Macdonell (VP of Product Development) and I wrote this because he bribed me with pie. (Just kidding, of course, but he does make a really good key lime pie.)

 


Here are other examples of people using data to understand and optimize their days:

How I Used RescueTime to Baseline My Activity in 2014 and Set Goals for 2015
In an excellent, in-depth analysis, Author Jamie Todd Rubin looks back at how he spent his time in 2014 and uses it to create strategies to optimize his time moving forward.

The big mistake nearly every designer makes
Digital strategist Marie Poulin writes about building in “margin” into her schedule – critical time that’s held in reserve for the inevitable unplanned. Room to breathe, essentially. It’s easier said than done, and she takes a structured, analytical approach to fit it into her schedule.


Crazy things people have done in the name of productivity

Sometimes I get stuck in distracting loops that are so hard to break free from that it feels like the only option is to try something utterly crazy because well, nothing normal is working. These don’t always work (ok, ok, they RARELY work), but every now and then I’ll stumble across something that’s actually pretty effective and makes a big difference in how I spend my day. The other times, well… at least I sometimes end up with a ridiculous story to tell.

You never know until you try, right? So, in that spirit, here are a few of the most over-the-top productivity hacks I’ve ever heard of.

Hugo Gernsback’s “Isolator” helmet

Back in the 1920’s, writer and inventor Hugo Gernsback got fed up with the distractions of everyday life and how they disrupted his thinking. He realized, correctly, we are often our own worst enemy when it comes to focus, cautioning that “You are your own disturber practically 50 percent of the time”.

(hat tip to Aerogramme Writers for pointing this one out to us!)

So how to beat distraction? He came up with a gloriously absurd solution. The Isolator was a helmet that would, as completely as possible, remove any outside stimulus from the wearer’s perception. If you were wearing this thing, you would be in complete silence, and total darkness except for what was visible out of the two tiny eye holes designed to keep you focused on whatever it is you were working on. If that wasn’t enough, oxygen was pumped in through a tube to keep you alert and in the zone.

Gernsback also suggested using electric shocks to combat mid-afternoon drowsiness, delivered either directly to worker’s chairs, or sending current flowing through the air around them! I’m really glad he became better known for his science fiction than his workplace management ideas!

More about Hugo Gernsback and the Isolator

Honoré de Balzac’s extreme coffee consumption

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Honoré de Balzac’s Coffee Pot

Just go to any coffee shop and take a look around to see the role caffeine plays for the modern knowledge worker. But the coffee consumption French novelist and playwright Honoré de Balzac used to fuel his productivity was legendary. This guy LOVED his coffee. He would go on epic work benders, allegedly consuming up to 50 cups of coffee per day, two cups at a time, on an empty stomach. He wrote about the highs and lows of his relationship with coffee in the essay “The Pleasures and Pains of Coffee”, complete with details about his personal limits (“you will fall into horrible sweats, suffer feebleness of the nerves, and undergo episodes of severe drowsiness”), and the type of person that could handle such epic caffeination (“men of excessive vigor, men with thick black hair and skin covered with liver spots, men with big square hands and legs shaped like bowling pins.”)

Balzac also died relatively young, with ailments that many people attribute to his all-too-human body not being able to handle the super-human amounts of coffee he poured into it.

Dr. NakaMats’ near-drowning for inspiration

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The prolific Japanese inventor Yoshiro Nakamatsu, also known as Dr. NakaMats, has some peculiar methods for getting focused and generating flashes of inspiration. He spends time in his solid gold plated bathroom because the “gold blocks out radio waves and television that are harmful to the imagination”.  (Full disclosure: If I had a gold-plated bathroom, I’d probably come up with some radio-waves excuse to hang out in it, too.) But after that, he goes for a swim, staying underwater to starve his brain of oxygen because “the best ideas come 0.5 seconds before dying”. One obvious drawback here is that it may be hard to remember the great idea while scrambling back to the surface. Problem? Not a problem. Dr. NakaMats developed an underwater notepad that he can scribble his ideas down on while floating back up.

It’s really weird, and it certainly doesn’t seem safe, but it’s apparently working for him. He holds over three thousand patents and is the inventor of the floppy disk.

Read more about Dr. NakaMats here.

Demosthenes’ ridiculous haircut.

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The ancient greek orator Demosthenes wasn’t born as a gifted speaker. His first few speeches were apparently disastrous. He had to work at it, and to make sure he didn’t lose focus, he developed an effective commitment device. He would isolate himself in a study for months at a time, and shave half of his hair off. The haircut itself didn’t help his oratory, but it made him too ashamed to go out in public, forcing him to stay in and keep practicing.

There are plenty of other examples out there. Someone hiring a stranger to slap them when they look at Facebook? Check. A company paying a user a thousand dollars if they fail to update their website every single day? It happened. This guy has made a whole website cataloging his productivity experiments.

What is the craziest thing you’ve ever tried to force yourself to stay focused and get things done? Did it work? Did you at least get a good story out of it? Let us know in the comments.

pssst! If you’re looking for something a little less extreme, check out our tools to block distracting websites for times when you need to get focused.

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.


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

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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

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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!


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!


Weekly productivity links, the “unplugging” edition

offline: found on Pinterest

Several of the articles we’ve been reading this week have to do with disengaging from technology for the sake of your sanity / well-being / productivity. It’s a sentiment I think we all can relate to. Life would just be simpler if we could just press the pause button for a while. Here’s a few different articles sharing different experiences and perspectives on our need to unplug and find some calmness.

I’m still here: back online after a year without the internet 

Usually when we talk about disconnecting, it’s for short periods of time. Paul Miller of The Verge took a much more extreme approach. He cut himself off the internet for an entire year. Yes, a year. He writes a fascinating account of his journey, and how the assumptions he made at the start of the project didn’t always match up with the reality of it.

7 days without email: Taming the tyrant

On a much smaller scale, Kevin Purdy took a week off from email. Looks like he went through all the stages of withdrawal. Checking his phone for non-existent notifications, unconsciously opening browser tabs to check email without thinking about it, but ultimately coming to a point where he realized that most of his email didn’t require the constant attention he was giving it. The experience sounds reminiscent of when I first turned off all the notifications on my phone. The most interesting part for me is his retroactive day-by-day accounting of what actually landed in his inbox.

Brain, Interrupted

Here’s some science showing the benefits of disconnecting from incoming communications. In this study, people who were interrupted during a series of test made 20% more errors. But there was another stat that’s an even better argument for intentionally disconnecting. Test subjects who were not interrupted but were told they might be still scored 14% lower than the control group! It appears it’s not just email that’s distracting, it’s the anticipation of email.

Q&A: Linda Stone, former tech exec, on conscious computing 

Linda Stone researches attention and ways that people find a state of flow. In this Q&A she discusses attention management, some of the physical implications of prolonged computer use (“screen apnea”), and whether or not we should focus on “disconnecting” vs. “connecting to the right things”.

How about you?

Have you indulged the urge to take an email vacation, no-tech saturday, or disconnect from technology in any other way? What’s worked? What did you learn?

Have a happy and productive week!