Living a quantified life is all about numbers. Regardless of our passions, hobbies or professions, we can generally find some metric by which to measure our performance. For a writer, (luckily?) the metric is crushingly obvious and never nearly as high as we’d like.
For writers, word count is king. While it’s nice to have such a clear and idyllic measuring stick to gauge our performance, watching a creeping tally of output is painful at best. Discussions about actually increasing word count often fail to generate anything more useful than wistful sighs.
Today, however, we’re going to try and change that. The goal for writers (and I think this also applies to many other computer-bound endeavors) is increasing performance at the keyboard. Fair enough. We can talk about that. However, we’re also going to look at stepping away from our keyboards to maximize writing time.
A couple months ago, my friend and fellow writer Karen Smith pointed me to a blog post that has really changed the way I approach my writing work. In her post “How I Went From Writing 2,000 Words a Day to 10,000 Words a Day,” author Rachel Aaron discusses the triangular metric she uses to maintain a high-volume word count. The three points on her pyramid are:
- Time – Track and evaluate performance and productivity
- Enthusiasm – Excitement for the task at hand
- Knowledge – Know what you’re going to be writing before you start working on it
I don’t intend to talk about enthusiasm in this post beyond acknowledging that working on things that excite you will probably result in increased output.
A quick second on Time
It’s worth noting that writers are blessed with fantastic tools that help us evaluate the “time” piece of the triad.
One of the cool things about RescueTime is that it has a different lesson to teach each of us. Sure, maybe Facebook and cat videos are the rockstars of the distraction world, but we’re all vulnerable to our own set of distractions. Similarly, we all have different highs and lows in our productivity cycles. Tools like RescueTime help us identify those patterns and take advantage of them to work at peak efficiency.
For instance, I know from my stats that I’m at my lowest productivity period from 4-8pm. It doesn’t matter if I’m chained to my laptop, I don’t get anything accomplished in the early evening. However, I start getting my wind back around 9pm, and then it’s off to the races. Thank goodness my employer doesn’t realize my most creative, high-productivity time occurs off the clock! I get to save those late-evening hours for my personal projects.
Should we choose to use them, we have good tools to help us quantify our time.
Knowing is half the battle
But… is time at the keyboard actually generating your highest word count? Aaron’s post does a fantastic job illustrating how uncertainty can stymie productivity. My own experience isn’t that dissimilar from hers. In her words:
“Here I was, desperate for time, floundering in a scene, and yet I was doing the hardest work of writing (figuring out exactly what needs to happen…) in the most time consuming way possible (i.e., in the middle of the writing itself).”
I don’t want to be doing anything in the most time consuming way possible. But Aaron’s depiction described me perfectly. Even when I have a general sense of what I want to be writing, I can spend a lot of time backtracking and rewriting my way back into a scene.
It’s so easy to get mired in a scene or a story where you don’t quite know what feeling you’re trying to illustrate or the point you’re need to make. It’s those times when you stare at your monitor, minute after minute with no real progress toward a solution. It’s those times when you wander down a rabbit hole, spewing unkeepable words while you’re trying to find a point.
Aaron’s suggested solution? Simply step away from the keyboard, pick up a pad and pen and scribble some notes.
Several months ago, I was in a position where I was vastly overcommitted to writing projects (based on my historical output). I found that even a couple quickly scribbled lines lent structure to my scenes, articles and posts. Three or four minutes of exploration on paper helped me to tie an entire piece to a theme. I wasn’t under any illusion that I’d be keeping my handwritten notes, so it was easy to commit concepts to paper without stressing about the words. Best of all, once I started typing, I had a way better idea of what I wanted to say.
I certainly feel like I write both more and faster when I first spend a few minutes with a pen and a pad, and my RescueTime stats appear to back that up. I spend more time in my word processor and less time tabbing out to “research” if I start with some notes. I am more likely to complete a project in a single setting if I’ve already jotted down my intro and possible conclusions.
Even if you’re not a serious outliner, try writing down a rough sketch of what you intend to accomplish for your next writing session. Let us know in the comments if a little time away from the keyboard has helped to maximizes your time spent typing. If you have any other tips that help you write more productively, please share those as well!
It’s good to have goals, and finding things that we want to do or accomplish is easy. Actually succeeding at our goals is the tricky part. Should we make our ambitions public? What tools, tips or tricks can help us to follow through on commitments when we make them? And which ones work the best?
These questions live at the heart of an increasing amount of research into the psychology of commitment and achievement. While there is encouraging information surfacing from recent studies, researchers are also challenging long-held beliefs. As we look for ways to be healthier, increase our on-the-job performance or live more fulfilling lives, it’s worth noting what tactics appear to support achievement as well as those that may only erect obstacles in our path.
Traditional knowledge would have us believe that we need to announce our intentions to the world. Only then, by way of social pressure and a healthy fear of public failure, will we have the necessary support structure to achieve our goals.
The iconic example of this type of affirmation-seeking announcement of intent is the ‘New Year’s Resolution.’ But that oft-maligned, annual self-promise isn’t the only characteristic declaration of it’s type. Publicly sharing goals is commonplace in athletics and in workplace reviews. We see something similar in traditional wedding vows, and – in fact – vows of all sorts. But do these public statements of intent work?
Maybe not so much, According to Newsweek and psychologist Peter Gollwitzer at the New York University (NYU). Gollwitzer and his team performed a series of experiments using law students as subjects. Presumably, a student pursing a career in law ought to be suitably motivated to succeed. There already exists some level of undergraduate past performance. Law school ain’t cheap, so there is likely some financial pressure to perform. As a whole, law professionals tend to do pretty well, so the reward structure – while distant – is certainly tangible and real.
What Gollwitzer did was present the students with a challenging, time-intensive task. Students interested in participating were instructed to work as hard as they could, but they were allowed to quit at any time. Certain students were randomly selected to discuss their intentions with the researchers beforehand. Then the researchers measured the actual work performed.
The results were stacked against students who went public. According to Newsweek, “only those who kept their hopes private actually did the hard work needed to achieve that goal.” But … we’re supposed to set goals, right? Why wouldn’t announcing them publicly put pressure on us to actually perform?
There’s a common psychological exam where test subjects are asked how closely they associate themselves with a person or item depicted in a photograph. The photos are all the same, except they are printed out at different sizes. Test subjects are asked to select the image size they feel most closely associated with. The law students were shown different sized pictures of a Supreme Court justice. When a small image is selected, the viewer feels distant or unrelated to the subject. The larger the image selected, the closer that person feels associated with the topic.
Gollwitzer asked his law students to write down three things they intended to do to future their law careers. Again, a selection of those students were asked to discuss their goals with the researchers. Then they were shown the Supreme Court justice pictures.
Unsurprisingly, the students who publically disclosed their intended plans for future work tended to select larger pictures. In their minds, they’d already accomplished the work they intended to do!
So, if publically announcing our goals makes us complacent, then what works? In behavioral economics, there’s a concept called a “commitment device.”
RescueTime recently partnered with Cornell researcher Richard Patterson to learn how online distractions like social media websites impact the performance of people participating in online study courses. The Washington Post did a great write-up on Patterson’s research and findings, and it’s well worth a read. In a nutshell, Patterson asked RescueTime to create a set of tools that students could use to increase their chances of completing a massive open online course (MOOC).
MOOCs are increasingly popular web-based classes that rely almost entirely on student self-management for completion. They are generally free to enroll in and there’s no penalty for dropping out, so there’s not really much pressure on students to complete the course of study. MOOCs might not be a perfect analog for the workplace. Still, they provide a nice platform for monitoring performance, and Patterson selected a Stanford University statistics MOOC to study over 650 students.
Patterson broke the students into four groups:
- Group 1: A control group that took the class as normal without the use of a RescueTime commitment device
- Group 2: Received a notification after each 30 period spent on distracting websites
- Group 3: Allowed students to block distracting websites for 15, 30, or 60 minute periods when logged into the online course
- Group 4: Allowed students to set timed, daily limits for how long they could use distracting websites before RescueTime blocked them
Completion rates for MOOCs are generally quite low. According to The Washington Post, some studies show completion rates less than 10 percent, so expectations were low for the control group.
Interestingly, the group that received notifications after each half hour on distracting sites was no more likely to complete the course than the control group. Frequent reminders don’t appear to be any better at improving performance than public announcement of goals.
Students in the third group, those who were allowed to voluntarily block distracting sites, showed a slight increase in performance.
The real game changer, however, was the tool that blocked distracting sites for those students in the fourth group. Remember that these students allowed themselves some latitude to wander and explore online. However, they set limits for themselves and trusted the software to keep them honest about it. This delayed enforcement seemed to pay off, and Patterson reported the group received higher grades, experienced a 24 percent increase in time spent working and was 40 percent more likely finish the course!
The big take away from Patterson’s MOOC study is that people, as a whole, are really terrible at policing ourselves in the moment. Whether responding to a reminder to get back on task or cutting ourselves off from distraction when we sit down to work, we’re are impressively good at putting off productive effort for whimsical distractions.
The cool thing about the commitment device that worked for Patterson’s subject group is that users still get all the blissful immediate gratification of procrastination. We can set limits on how much time we allow ourselves to indulge in online dalliances, but the enforcement of those limits is something in the future. There’s no immediate cost to it, and we’re more likely to volunteer to have those distractions taken away from us later.
RescueTime users can schedule alerts that can block distracting websites. Try out different tolerance levels for how long you’ll allow yourself to be distracted before your chronic distractions get locked out. Similarly, play around with how long those sites remained blocked.
Currently, I have a 30-minute focus time set up before RescueTime will let me digress away from work again. I’ve been running that alert all month and I know it’s already saved me on several occasions when the day could otherwise have slipped away from me.
Try it out, and let us know if you have tips or tricks that help keep you both driven and focused on accomplishing your goals.
We’re excited to be sponsoring the Quantified Self 2015 Conference & Expo, June 18-20 in San Francisco. If you haven’t been to a QS Conference before, they’re awesome (more on that below). This year, we’re doing a collaborative data tracking project that should be a lot of fun. Basically, we’re exploring the combined digital activities for people who have opted-in to a special QS 2015 group, looking for interesting statistics and visualizations showing how the group as a whole spends time at a conference like Quantified Self 2015. These reports will be displayed on a live updating display at our exhibitor table, and group members will receive a special report showing how their individual time contributed to the larger group.
If you’re attending the conference, we’d love for you to join the experiment! Sign up now.
You should consider attending if you are in the area. It’s an amazing gathering of passionate self-trackers from around the world who have come to share their stories about what has and hasn’t worked for them as they’ve tried to improve their lives through data. Check out the trailer for this year’s conference:
We’ve got free tickets to the Expo! (while supplies last!)
This year, the conference is changing up it’s usual format and turning the last day into a public exposition that will be a great way for people who are more casually interested in the Quantified Self to learn more. The Expo will be a day of “how-to’s” with packed sessions on how to track, learn, and reach personal goals using methods emerging from the Quantified Self movement.
We have a limited number of free passes to share with the first 50 people who register. Please follow this link: qs15.quantifiedself.com/expo to register and use code:
rescuetimefree. Just make sure you swing by our table and say hello!
Can’t make it to QS 2015? Here are some videos!
The conference videos usually go up a few weeks after they are filmed. In the meantime, here are some of our favorite talks from previous years.
David El Achkar on Tracking Time
David uses a homegrown, spreadsheet-based system for tracking his time. It’s intensive, but he is able to learn some really interesting things about himself.
Laurie Frick: Experiments in Self-tracking
Laurie is an amazing artist who’s work is based on her self-tracking experiments (she currently has a show at this gallery in NYC, if you happen to be on that side of the country). Here she is talking about her process and how her self-tracking experiments inform her art.
Paul LaFontaine: Heart Rate Variability and Flow
Paul examines his heart-rate variability to understand his work efficiency, especially getting into a state of flow, where he’s absolutely absorbed and focused on what he’s working on.
Steven Jonas: Memorizing My Daybook
Steven experimented with spaced repetition to boost his memory with some impressive results.
Robby Macdonnell: Tracking 8,300 Screen Hours
Finally, (and a bit of a shameless plug) here is a video of me talking about what I’ve learned from several years tracking my time with RescueTime.
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?