I have a confession to make, and it’s not easy. I’ve been driving like a jerk. I just found out and I feel horrible about it.
I don’t speed. I don’t tailgate. I don’t run red lights. At least, not that I’m aware of. The problem is I’m distracted by my phone… a lot… and I didn’t realize just how bad it is until I analyzed some data about myself. I wanted to believe the data was wrong, but after triple-checking and turning the data over numerous ways, it was clear.
23% of the time I’m in my car I’m doing something on my phone.
How I figured it out.
RescueTime’s Android app gives me a record of the time I spend doing things on my phone, and I had recently been working on an integration with Automatic (a mobile app and device that plugs into a car’s diagnostic port and gives data about driving time). I was hoping to find some interesting stats showing how the time I spent driving compared to my time on the computer (“do I spend more time driving or doing software development?”, for example).
It occurred to me that I could also cross-reference the time I spent in the car with my other activities to see if there was any overlap. This would show me the time I spent doing things on my phone while my car was running. I knew that I occasionally check my phone while at a stoplight, and I sometimes make calls when I’m behind the wheel (hands-free through my car’s bluetooth, of course). But I figured that time was minimal, and looking at the data should validate that. At worst, I thought I’d see something that I could use to humblebrag about how, while I might not be perfect, I was certainly a hell of a lot better about it than the people I have a habit of judging mercilessly whenever they weave into my lane while obviously doing something on their phone (an unfortunately common thing in my neighborhood).
I was totally unprepared for the results I saw. It looked really bad. My immediate reaction was that my math was wrong, or that some bug that was over-reporting my time. But it certainly couldn’t be correct, could it? After some more analysis I was able to find a couple patterns that I could legitimately exclude (I tend to spend a minute or so futzing with my music app at the very beginning of trips looking for a song I want to listen to, for example). Maybe it wouldn’t end up being that bad.
After multiple passes through the numbers looking for false positives, I still ended up with 23% of my time for the month of April was distracted. Nearly a quarter of the time my car’s ignition is on, I’m doing something on my phone. There’s still SOME noise in there that’s impossible to untangle with the data I have (time spent at stop lights, trips where I’m actually a passenger in the car, etc), but the overall numbers are uncomfortably high.
It’s dangerous, and embarrassingly hypocritical
Bouncing back and forth between all those different activities puts me in a state where I’m paying less attention to everything, and when one of those activities is operating a moving vehicle, that can be really bad. Driving while texting is equivalent to driving after drinking four beers, and distracted driving is responsible for upwards of 25% of all accidents in the United States. As much as I don’t want to admit it, I’ve been putting people around me at risk, needlessly.
That realization stings extra because it’s something I already agreed was a problem… when other people do it. As a pedestrian, I’ve dodged my share of distracted drivers and I’m rarely shy about letting them know exactly how I feel about it. I’ve had numerous conversations with friends about how “drivers around here are just the worst! None of them can keep their dumb jerk eyes on the road!” Oof. I’m surprised by the disconnect. Why did it never occur to me that I’m doing the thing that I get mad at others for doing? Maybe it’s that checking my phone has become an unconscious habit and I’m not even aware of it, like this 2012 study discovered? Or perhaps I just assume the things I do on my phone are ok, because of course they’ll just take a couple of seconds and won’t add up to much. Obviously, there are some flaws with that thinking, as it only takes a couple of seconds for something to go terribly wrong. But the more glaring issue here is that it’s clearly rarely “just a couple seconds.”
So what now? How do I fix this?
It feels really bad to learn something like this, but there is a silver lining here. I was able to discover this about myself by looking at rows on a spreadsheet, rather than after crashing into something (or someone). I feel lucky, and hope it will be a wake up call. Now I can take action to change my behavior. Even better, I have metrics I can use to prove to myself I’ve changed. Here are a few things I’m doing to respond to it.
I turned off non-essential notifications on my phone
Push notifications are one of the most sure-fire ways to take me out of the moment and pull my attention elsewhere. I really don’t like them when I’m working, and do my best to silence them. But it’s easy for me to convince myself that I need them, or I’ll miss something important. Really though, there’s very little real benefit to 90% of the beeps and buzzes that come out of my phone. I’ve gone through all my apps and turned off all notifications except for things that are actually really important. This will also help me at work, when the notifications will pull me away when I’m trying to concentrate on something.
I’m trying to drive less
This might not be the most practical choice (especially since I moved to the suburbs a few months ago), but the easiest way to combat my fidgety nature while driving is simply to remove the car from the equation altogether. I’m trying to walk more (where having my head buried in my phone can still be dangerous, but much less so), or ride a bike, where my hands are occupied.
I’m talking to people about it
To be perfectly honest, I don’t really have much to compare my data to. I have no clue if I’m an extreme outlier here or not. Rather than keep it all in my head, I’m telling people about what I’ve learned, and hoping that I can get some better context around it. I’ve also built some reporting into RescueTime so others can look at similar data for themselves. I hope that with more people having a data-driven conversation, we can all start to come up with smarter ways of dealing with it.
If you’re interested in tracking this data about yourself, all you need is a RescueTime account (the free one will work just fine), an Android phone with the RescueTime app installed, and an Automatic Adapter (which costs $100, but you can get 20% off with this link).
Don’t judge me too harshly, ok? Please?
This was sort of a hard post to write (“Hey! Look at me! I’m awful!” posts generally are), but hopefully it helps people be a little more thoughtful about their time behind the wheel. If you have any thoughts or experiences with your own driving time, please feel free to share in the comments.
Today we’re launching a new integration with Automatic that will make it possible to track your driving time just like you would any other application or website. There are SO many interesting questions that can be answered here, like: “How does your commute relate to your time at work?”, “Do you tend to log most time in the car around rush hour?”, “If so, does shifting your time one way or the other help you spend less time in traffic?”
What is Automatic?
Automatic is a mobile app and small adapter that works by plugging into your car’s diagnostic port. It fits on nearly all newer cars and gives you information about gas milage, check engine notifications, and your driving efficiency. Read more about how it works over on the Automatic web site.
How Automatic works with RescueTime
After setting up Automatic and connecting it to your RescueTime account, all future trips will be logged in RescueTime as “Driving”. These will fit into your existing RescueTime reports just like any other application or website, and you can categorize them however you like. You will also unlock a special driving report that will give you details about when you drive, how it relates to the other time you log, and what other activities you might be logging while you are driving (be careful out there!).
Some of the things you can do with this integration:
- See the overall amount of time you spend driving per day, week, or month.
- Set an alert letting you know when you’ve been in a car for more than 2 hours in a day (reminding you to go for a walk to balance things out)
- See how much time you spend working vs. driving to work.
- See how much time you spend driving compared to other categories of activity. How do you feel about the balance?
- See activities that are logged while you are driving. If you have the RescueTime Android app installed, this will give you a valuable look into how distracted you may be while driving.
- If you are a RescueTime premium subscriber, you can categorize your individual trips, allowing you to separate out your commute from the rest of your driving time, for example.
For a real-world example, check out this post about some of the unsettling things I learned about my own driving and phone use habits.
How to link your accounts
Once you have Automatic set up in your car, visit our integration page and link your account. You can unlink it at any time if you decide you want to stop logging your driving time.
If you don’t currently have an Automatic car adapter, you can get one for a 20% discount here.
We’re really excited to open up this new data stream into our reports, and can’t wait to see what insights it generates. I hope you enjoy it! Please let us know what you think!
Middle of last year we rolled out a feature allowing alerts to start a FocusTime session. Not to brag much, but it is an awesome feature that you may want to try if you are a premium user. Sometimes those distracting activities are too tempting, “what just happened on …“, and the thought of focusing with, “let me start FocusTime” doesn’t really cross your mind, or if it does it may be followed by, “in just a moment.”
Here are some alert recipes that will trigger after set periods of Very Distracting time, allowing yourself a moment while keeping strict about your own productivity goals.
You can start with these or create your own custom alerts that can even be set on a time filter of set hours/days that you want to be productive so they don’t trigger when you desire the enjoyment from these distractions, say the weekend.
Ludum Dare is an event held three times a year, where thousands of developers come together to create games, by themselves or in small collaborative teams, in 48 hours. You did read that correctly, their games are created in 48 hours rather than the many months or years it would usually take.
I created a game small flash game, Precise Shot, during the 31st Ludum Dare event and with RescueTime data I was able to learn a few things about that weekend.
- Sleeping was the single most time consuming activity: 15 hours 29 minutes.
- Six hours of development efforts on the second day didn’t make it into the final game.
- 76 minutes spent on twitter, composing 41 tweets.
- The final hour was spent on the art, sounds and counting effects for the results screen.
Check out the results in more detail below: (click the image to make it larger)
What are some things you have learned since using RescueTime?
I love the word balance. It implies that you have enough of everything. You’re not wanting for anything, or drowning in anything. When we talk about work/life balance, it means you’re getting enough work done, but you’re also spending enough time resting, relaxing, and attending to your family, hobbies, and interests outside work.
For those of us whose work tends to blend into our lives it’s even more important to find this balance. For my co-founder Josh and I, we find ourselves working in some form or another every single day. Which means if we’re not working we tend to feel a nagging sensation that we should be, because it’s become our default state.
Not to mention the ever-growing mountain of side projects and volunteer activities we want to take on, and new skills we want to learn.
I’ve always been keen to fill up every day with learning and practising new skills, but I’ve never been great at making sure I get enough exercise. Maybe you have a particular area of work or life that gets neglected. My ongoing imbalance was the impetus for me to start tracking my activity and other areas of my life.
I started out with a simple activity tracker on my phone, and graduated to wearing a Fitbit all day, every day. I use apps like RescueTime to track what I do each day, and put as much of this data into Exist as I can.
Exist is designed to help you find meaning in the data you track. There are three big reasons it’s helpful for finding that balance between work and “life” activities: it uncovers hidden correlations and trends, it has built-in mood tracking, and it creates personalised goals based on your data.
Tracking data about my own activities causes me to ask myself questions like “Am I improving?” and “Have I been doing x more or less this month?”. Exist helps me answer these questions by surfacing insights into my data. For example, I recently had this insight on my dashboard:
Walking less this week
8,545 average steps, 1% decrease
Walking less isn’t something I want to make a habit of, but thankfully I only dropped by 1% in the past week. And knowing that my overall average steps is around 8,000 per day, I’m pretty happy with that average from last week.
I also noticed these sleep-related insights recently:
For some people, going to bed later and getting less sleep would be a bad thing but those sleep numbers are pretty good for me. I have a tendency to oversleep some days, just because I don’t have a set time I have to start work, and it tends to set my day up badly. Knowing this, I’m putting in a conscious effort to not stay in bed too long in the mornings, and these insights show that it’s working.
Seeing what my average is for each type of data can be illuminating, too. Exist breaks down averages by day of the week, as well as showing my overall average for each data point.
(Note: I used a Jawbone UP between my Fitbit Force breaking and the Fitbit Charge being released, which doesn’t track floors. I haven’t been wearing my Fitbit Charge long enough to increase my floors average yet)
It’s good to see, for instance, that my average mood is 4/5. It’s also pretty obvious, looking at this chart, that I tend to rate my mood higher on weekends.
I can also see that I tend to walk more on Fridays, and that my average steps is just over 8,000 per day.
My productivity tends to dip on weekends, and jumps up most on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. This makes sense, since Monday is our catch up day at Hello Code, so Tuesday is when I start to really get stuck into my work for the week.
I like knowing these averages, because it helps me calibrate my own goals. If you’ve ever used a fitness tracker or a pedometer app on your phone, you’ve probably been confronted with a suggested (or enforced) 10,000 steps per day goal. Although this might be suggested as a healthy amount of exercise for adults, it’s ridiculous to expect someone who walks 3,000 steps per day on average to suddenly jump up to 10,000.
8,000 steps per day has been my average for the past six months or so. I know this is the amount of exercise I get without trying too hard, so if I want to increase my activity levels I’ll know to start by aiming for around 8,500 steps.
Seeing the correlations between different data points is one of the most surprising and useful parts of Exist. Although correlation doesn’t imply causation (i.e. just because two things are related doesn’t mean one causes the other), correlations can still give us useful clues into our existing behaviour and how different things affect us.
I’m especially interested in what affects my productivity (tracked with RescueTime) – both negatively and positively. I’d like to learn from my correlations so I can set myself up for the best chance of being productive each day.
Here are some of my current productivity correlations:
This is a fairly obvious one. The more I’m exercising, the more time I’m spending away from my desk. If I had a treadmill desk I might be able to turn this correlation around…
I’m pleased to see that I have a better day when I’m productive. I’d be in a tricky position if being productive put me in a bad mood!
Although I don’t work at night, a warm overnight temperature usually means less sleep (or lower quality sleep), which doesn’t bode well for a productive day. It also means it’s likely that the next day will be warm, which makes me uncomfortable and less likely to get work done.
I can also see from my correlations what affects my mood, and when I’m more likely to exercise:
Lots of floors climbed could either be walking up and down hills (yuck) or staying home all day where I go up and down stairs a lot.
I don’t purposely go out walking in the rain, but I guess it just happens to catch me often.
Exist has built-in mood tracking that works via a simple email. Every night at 9pm you get an email you can reply to including a rating for your day from 1-5 (1 being terrible, 5 being perfect) and a note about what happened.
Mood tracking is a really simple way to make sure you reflect on what happens each day and how you feel. We’re adding mood tracking to our mobile apps (currently in beta testing) to make it even easier: each night at 9pm you’ll get a notification that will take you to a simple form with five numbered buttons and a box to type your note into.
Although I tend to dread the effort of thinking back over my day and choosing a rating for it, I’ve found mood tracking to be so useful that I’ve kept it up for over a year now. As I go about my day, I tend to be more mindful of how things affect me because I always have in mind that I’ll be rating my day later and making a note about what happened.
My favourite part of mood tracking is that in the nightly emails we’ve added a feature called “Looking back” that shows you the mood entry you made on this day one year ago, or a random old entry if you don’t have one from exactly a year ago. It’s fun to open the email wondering how I felt and what I was doing this time last year, and to reflect on the notes I left to myself.
This reflective feature also makes me more mindful each night of what I enter as my note. Knowing that I’m essentially leaving a note to my future self each day helps me think about what was most important about my day, and what I’d want to know about it on this day in the future.
I also love comparing my old mood notes with my partner Josh to see what he wrote on the same day. We’ll often find we both mentioned something fun we did together, or the weather or some big news that was happening at the time.
Using averages as goals
We dropped goals from Exist a few months ago. One of the problems we’ve always had personally when tracking our behaviour, especially exercise, is working to hit a particular goal every day and losing motivation to do so after a while.
These days we use averages as goals. It works like this: if today is Monday, we create your steps goal for today by finding the average of your steps for every Monday in the past 90 days. We do this for productivity goals, too. So if you’ve been working late on Friday nights in the past few weeks, your RescueTime data will reflect that and your productivity goal will be higher on Fridays.
And here’s why it’s awesome:
I don’t need to waste any time setting goals. Exist does it for me, and each goal is personalised to me.
This also means I’m competing against myself. Every goal is created from averages of my own data, so I’m only ever competing against “past me”, rather than aiming for a goal set by someone else.
And lastly, it’s always up-to-date. When I moved house recently my average steps per day dropped as my situation changed, and after a few weeks my averages started to reflect that. Because we only use averages based on the last 90 days of your data, your goals will always reflect what your activity has been like recently.
This affects each daily goal, as well. If you play in a sports team on Wednesday nights and get lots of steps those days, your Wednesday average will be higher than other days. Exist will create a goal for you, then, that will be higher on Wednesdays than it will on other days. This makes sure your goal is always as appropriate as it’s based on your existing behaviour.
I tend to get number fatigue really easily, so aiming for a set goal every day didn’t motivate me for long at all. One thing I really enjoy about having a new goal created for me each day is that I need to check Exist to see what my goal is. The simple act of checking my goal is a good reminder to be more active or productive.
With just RescueTime, mood tracking, and an activity tracking device or app, you can get a lot of useful data. Exist connects to other service like Twitter and last.fm as well, but just a few data points are enough to start seeing insights and correlations that will help you improve your work/life balance.
You can try it yourself with a 14-day free trial (note: we start you off with a set goal and switch to averages as goals once we’ve collected enough data).
Trello is the first task manager that’s really clicked with me. It’s a great, simple system for tracking things that need to get done across various stages of progress (by default “To Do”, “Doing”, “Done”). There are other apps that do similar things, but Trello just nails the experience. I love it. If you aren’t familiar with it, you should check it out.
Trello is great, until the very end when it isn’t.
The experience of going back and looking over what I’ve done is the one part of Trello that isn’t so great. Things get really cluttered unless I archive cards when I’m done with them, and then they just kinda disappear. While I can go back and review a list of the archived cards, it’s buried and basically just looking at a big unsorted pile. That’s OK. If I had to choose, I’d much rather have Trello focus on the process of getting me to the finish line than looking back.
But I still want to be able to look back.
Why is it a good idea to reflect on those completed cards?
One of the problems I’ve always had with to-do lists is the unsatisfying feeling they leave me with when I’m really busy. That’s when they should be the most gratifying, right? That act of marking things as “done” feels good for a minute, but then that feeling gets shoved aside as I look back at the ever-growing backlog behind it. Going back and reviewing accomplishments helps maintain a sense of progress, even if my to-do list never gets any shorter.
It also gives me an opportunity to ask myself if I’m devoting time to the correct things, or if there are other things I’d rather be getting done instead. It really helps draw the line between being productive and just being busy.
What can we do about it?
RescueTime has highlight event logging, and some of the highlight events I was manually entering were similar to the Trello cards I was completing. If I could just automatically log a note whenever I put a card in the “done” column, I’d save myself some manual effort. Luckily, Zapier makes this really easy. I was able to connect my Trello account with RescueTime, and log a highlight event whenever I completed a task in Trello. I had to fiddle with the filters a little bit to target just the “done” column, but once I figured that out it was fully automatic.
Now I’m tracking events on different boards for my work and personal to-dos. Reviewing my highlights helps me see what I’m getting done and how balanced I’m being. Am I spending too much effort on work at the expense of personal tasks I need to get done? Or is it the other way around? That used to be a really hard question for me to answer and now it’s so much more visible. It also keeps me more organized because I know that if I use Trello, I’ll save myself some typing later when manually updating my highlights list. The two systems compliment each other really well.
How to automatically log a RescueTime Highlight event when you complete a task in Trello
The quick and easy version (recommended):
Zapier can walk you through the whole setup process. This requires a Zapier account, obviously, but they’re awesome.
The step-by-step version:
You should use the guided zap version above. The detailed steps are listed here in case you have problems with the guided version, or just want to understand exactly what’s happening.
- Make sure you have a Trello board that you are using to manage your daily tasks
- Make sure you have RescueTime Premium (which you will need to log highlights)
- Make sure you have a Zapier.com account
- Log into Zapier.com and click “Make a Zap!”
- Choose Trello as the target app and “New Activity” as the trigger
- Choose RescueTime as the Action app and “Create a Highlight Log Entry” as the action
- Click continue and verify your accounts
- Under “filters”, choose the board you are using for your tasks
- Make sure the “List” filter is set to your “Done” column
- Set two custom filters, the first is “Data List Before Name” (Text) Does Not Contain “Done”
- Second custom filter: “Data List After Name” (Text) Exactly Matches “Done”
- Set the Highlight event params. Date should match up with the Trello “Date” field, “Description” should be “Data Card Name”, and “Highlight Type Label” should be set to something descriptive of the tasks on that Trello board. “To do”, “Personal Task”, “Work item” for example.
- Test the zap, you should immediately see your highlight event logged on your Highlights page in RescueTime.
- Name the zap and save it.
That’s it! I’ve found this to be a big help. Give it a shot a let me know what you think in the comments!
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.