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
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.
Git Sleep – Restrict your code commits until you’ve gotten a good night’s sleep
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!
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!
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.
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)
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:
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 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 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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
What motivates people to do a good job? If you ask a lot of people, they’d say money, but that may not actually be the case. Dan Ariely explains some of his research exploring how people find meaning in their work, and some behaviors that can destroy motivation. This should be required viewing for all managers who want to keep their employees happy and motivated.
With all the communication tools today, remote teams can still stay in touch, but the added friction of distance can serve as a good buffer to distracting interruptions that are so easy when you’re sitting in the same room as your co-workers. Here’s a good look at how you can take advantage of the “slow time” communications to think things through and possibly even answer your questions for yourself.
Kaggle is a online community of data scientists that uses data-mining and predictive-modeling competitions to rank it’s members. Employers are starting to take that rank seriously. It’s another example of how reputation is playing an increasingly important role in our professional lives. Other examples of niche communities where reputation is starting to matter to employers include GitHub for software developers, and Dribbble or Behance for designers.
It’s a little unsettling to think about robots getting smarter and smarter and being able to do more things that once only humans could. But it’s clearly happening. What will the world look like once machines can do most jobs? Andrew McAfee points out several ways that it could actually end up being rather nice.
“Progress isn’t made by early risers. It’s made by lazy men trying to find easier ways to do something.” – Robert Heinlein, American science fiction writer
In the course of doing our day to day work, we have to spend lots of time doing repetitive tasks. Over time, the inefficiencies can become really obvious (not to mention annoying). Usually, we put up with it. But there are a bunch of good reasons not to. Many processes evolve organically, and you shouldn’t assume that there’s a rational reason for why you’re doing something the way you are. Sometimes a small change will make a big difference, and you, as the person having to put up with the painful tedium, are the perfect person to think of it.
One of the best pieces of professional advice I ever got was:
“Get good at looking for ways to get 80% of the work done in 10% of the time. Not to drive company efficiency, but to preserve your own sanity.”
That may sound like cultivating laziness, but it’s actually the opposite. There’s always going to be more to do, and that mindset that encourages you to be protective about your time, which is a really strong motivator to minimize the things that feel like a bad way to spend it.
So, learn to look for the simple and clever hacks in your day to day routines. Here are a few links to help inspire you.
This slideshow from Prachi Gupta at LinkedIn does a great job of illustrating why a hacker mentality is important, and showing how LinkedIn nurtures the habit on a company-wide level. They have monthly “Hackdays” where everyone in the company gets to work on anything they want. They even take the best hacks and give people months to work on making them a more solid, scaleable solution.
Among many gems in the presentation is this definition of what exactly is meant by the term “hack” in this context:
“A ‘hack’ is a quick and dirty solution to a real world problem. It’s never perfect or complete, but it’s almost always clever and insightful.”
This post focuses on the Japanese concept of Kaizen, or “change for the better”, and explores the sometimes blurry line between “lazy” and “efficient”. He makes the good point that laziness can get a bad reputation, and should be looked at as a more positive attribute. He also provides some great examples about how the person doing the day-to-day repetitive tasks is often the best person for innovating on the process.
Don’t get too carried away with the shortcuts, though! It’s great to find novel and clever solutions to problems that save you time, but be careful you’re not doing it at someone else’s expense. This explores where the line is and what happens when you cross it. In short, hack, but have a conscience about it.
Last week, we were having a discussion about how to break out of a rut, and several people mentioned that having the right music helped them get focused and productive. So I did some research, and it turns out noises of all kinds can have a big effect on your productivity. Auditory information can enhance your state of focus, or it can completely derail it. Here are a few links exploring the connection between what’s going in your ears and getting things done.
Hearing only one side of the conversation is way more distracting than the whole thing, according to a recent study. Your brain has to work harder because of a natural tendency to want to fill in the blanks of the conversation. Something you may want to keep in mind if you work in an office with other people who often make phone calls.
Not all background noise is distracting however. Sometimes, the bustle and commotion of a public space can be better for focusing than a quiet office, especially for creative activities. I personally use coffee shops as my email-office, but apparently you can get the same benefit by simply hearing the sounds of a busy cafe. Coffitivity let’s you experience the ambiance of a coffee shop from anywhere. You can even adjust the volume of the loop so you can play your own music on top of it, just like you would if you were there.
I’ve been trying coffitivity out while writing this post, and even though it feels a little bit silly, there’s something really comforting about the coffee shop soundtrack.
Sometimes, it’s not the music that helps boost your productivity, it’s the medium you use to listen to them. Wearing headphones, even without listening to music, can help you block out distractions. Even better, they can send a signal to those around you that you’re in the zone and aren’t to be disturbed.
Of course, you probably aren’t going to wear headphones solely as a fancy do-not-disturb sign. And you shouldn’t, as there are many benefits of listening to music. Melodious sounds cause a release of dopamine, giving our brains the same satisfying reward as eating a fancy treat or smelling a pleasant aroma. Research shows that listening to music while working will help you complete tasks faster, and come up with more creative solutions.
I’m a creature of habit. I listen to the same playlists over and over (mostly 90′s punk rock with some instrumental metal thrown in occasionally, if you’re curious). Apparently that might not be the most productive strategy. Unfamiliar genres may ultimately be better for maximizing focus, according to the folks at Focus@Will. They are a service that offers streaming of productivity-optimized music, with what appears to be a pretty impressive amount of science backing them up. I’m not sure how much I agree with them, though. I think the concept sounds really interesting, but I kept finding myself distracted by the fact that I’d rather be listening to something I’m more familiar with. Old habits die hard, I guess. I do enjoy unfamiliar music within a familiar genre, however. Music discovery services like Last.fm, Pandora, and Spotify are great for that.
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