With over four hundred billion cups of coffee consumed each year, caffeine is by far the world’s most widely-consumed psychoactive drug. For many of us, a hot cup of coffee proves to be a powerful and potent stimulant — a necessity to start the day. But caffeine’s effects vary significantly from person to person, and its actual effects on productivity remains unclear. Beyond anecdotal evidence, numerous studies show that, in small doses, caffeine provides an increase in energy and alertness, while improving reaction time and cognitive performance. But is coffee really making you more productive?
What does the research say?
The effects of caffeine on productivity have been a topic of considerable academic interest — researchers at Johns Hopkins University recently found that consuming small amount of caffeine can have a positive effect on long-term memory. In a double-blind trial, participants were given either a 200-milligram caffeine tablet or a placebo, and were asked to study a series of images. The next day, both groups were shown a new set of images, including pictures that were visually similar to the previous — the caffeine group was better able to identify these new images as “similar” rather than citing them as the “same.” In a paper published in Nature Neuroscience, the researchers wrote that this ability to recognize the difference between similar but not identical items — called “pattern separation” — suggests that the caffeine group benefited from greater memory retention.
However, other research suggests that many of the benefits of caffeine can be replicated by placebo. In another double-blind study at the University of East London, participants were randomly given either caffeinated or decaffeinated coffee — half were told they were regular coffee, and half that they were given decaf, also at random. Interestingly, the participants who were told that they received caffeinated coffee performed better on tests measuring reaction time, self-control, and reward motivation. The researchers concluded that the relationship between caffeine consumption, mood, and performance depends on many individual psychological variables — strangely, all participants in the study reported increased feelings of depression after drinking coffee, although this increase was slightly lower in the group that received caffeine.
Research also shows that caffeine also has a complex effect on creativity. Maria Konnikova observed in The New Yorker that “creative insights and imaginative solutions often occur when we stop working on a particular problem and let our mind move on to something unrelated.” As evidence, she pointed to a 2012 study in which participants performed better in creative thinking exercises (for example, devising novel and inventive uses for an everyday object like a newspaper) after they had allowed their mind to “wander” by switching between “undemanding,” low-intensity tasks. This suggests that caffeine may assist more in very simple, repetitive tasks like checking e-mails or filling out forms, and less in jobs that require high levels of insight and creative thinking.
And, for the same reasons caffeine increases alertness and wakefulness, it also has a tendency to cause anxiety, jitteriness, and sleeplessness. Scientists at Rice University studied the effects of caffeine on sleep — they observed that a typical cup of coffee decreased the average sleep time of study participants by an average of two hours; it also increased the amount of time it took to fall asleep by thirty percent. Coffee also had significant effects on quality of sleep: the number of sleep awakenings in the experiment subjects doubled. These conclusions has been reproduced in numerous studies, and suggest a significant risk of impairing your creativity and productivity if you don’t properly manage your caffeine intake.
Many people don’t know that the human body naturally “caffeinates” itself with the hormone cortisol at specific times of day, depending on your body’s natural circadian rhythm — typically early in the morning (between 8am and 9am), around lunch time (between 12pm and 1pm), and once again in the late afternoon (from 530pm to 630pm). If you are an avid coffee drinker, you may be impairing your body’s ability to produce cortisol — by drinking coffee when it’s not needed, i.e. when your body is attempting to naturally energize itself according to its hormonal cycles, you may build a faster tolerance to it.
Test it for yourself!
All the research shows a complex interaction between caffeine and bodily cycles — so instead of relying on the abstract conclusions of large-scale studies, how can you determine the specific effects caffeine has on your body? Caffeine’s effects depends on dosage, body type, weight, age, time of day, and many other factors; so it’s best to monitor all these variables by collecting your own data. First, you need to make sure you’re collecting accurate information: here are some tools we recommend.
RescueTime records how much time you spend using computer applications and browsing web sites. It allows you to keep track of how you are spending every minute of the day, and when and how you are wasting time, and it doesn’t require any effort to set up! It simply runs in the background and stays on top of your browsing habits for you.
Jawbone UP Coffee
Jawbone UP Coffee is a great app for tracking your coffee intake — it’s a simple tool for logging your coffee, tea, and energy drink consumption, to see how it changes overtime.
Sherbit is a personal dashboard that gives you access and control of your personal data in one place. The app syncs with over twenty-five applications including Facebook, Fitbit, Uber and Withings to gather and visualize data. From there, you can identify patterns in your daily habits and correlations across multiple services. For example, if you wanted to find out if you were less active on days you worked more, you could add steps counted by your Fitbit and productivity hours tracked by RescueTime. Download Sherbit from the the App Store here.
Here are some results from our own test:
By combining the data from Jawbone UP and RescueTime, I found a correlation between caffeine and productivity. You can see this by looking at the trend lines and flipping between the tabs at the top of the chart.
However, I found an even stronger correlation with my sleep and productivity — the more coffee I drank, the less sleep I got. This seem to be true for everyday other than JuIy 22nd and July 29th, but as I looked closer I realized that I had consumed coffee earlier in the morning on those days. This may seem like an obvious conclusion in retrospect, but being able to visualize the data made the effects of coffee on my life much more apparent to me. By reflecting on my data, I realized that there’s is a dual effect on the relationship between coffee and sleep: caffeine affects my quality of sleep and reduces the length of time I’m awake… however, when I don’t get much sleep the previous night, I tend to drink more coffee the next day, perpetuating the cycle. I also noticed that my quality of sleep decreases much more significantly when I drink coffee late in the afternoon — I realized that caffeine tends to work best early in the morning, when it will have a minimal effect on my sleep that night.
Have you found interesting correlations between different data sources? Let us know in the comments below.
Before reading any further, take a look at the clock. Jot down the time. I know, it’s a weird way to start a blog post, but it will make sense in a bit, I promise.
How much time do you spend reading news articles or blog posts? If you’re like most people, you spend at least a few minutes per day catching up on current events or what your favorite blogs are writing about. One way to check is to look at your RescueTime report for News and Opinion – last month I spent over thirteen hours on it. It may or may not take up huge amounts of time for you, but wouldn’t it be nice to get some of that time back for other things? What if you could read twice as fast and still retain the same amount of information? Seems great, but I’m not sure I want it quite enough to invest the effort in learning to speed read.
That’s why I was really intrigued to see a presentation at last month’s Quantified Self 2015 European Conference. Kyrill Potapov gave a fascinating talk about his experience with Spritz, a new technology that promises to make it easy to dramatically increase your normal reading speed. That’s normally a marketing claim I’d be skeptical of, but one of the great things about Quantified Self talks is that they generally come packed with data.
Kyrill doesn’t work for Spritz – he’s a secondary school teacher in London – but he was interested enough in increasing his reading efficiency that he sought out the tool and tracked his progress as he used it. And the results were dramatic. He was able to increase his average reading speed by nearly 100%, up to over 400 words per minute. The best part was, it didn’t seem like it took all that much effort on his part. No special training, no exercises, just start reading using the app.
The method Spritz uses is called Rapid Serial Visual Presentation (RSVP) and it works by reducing the amount of distance your eye has to travel while reading. Instead of scanning back and forth across lines of text, the words are presented in a rapid continuous stream one at a time. There is technically more to it than that, but that’s the main thing you will notice when you try it. As far as I can tell, this makes reading faster in two ways. First, you shave off the fractions of a second your eye usually spends moving from word to word – or line to line. Second, as words are only displayed once, you are forced to pay attention or you will miss out. It’s a different experience than reading normal text, but not an unpleasant one. In fact, the need to pay attention was so apparent that I found it easier to tune out outside distractions.
There are several apps that use the Spritz technology, so in theory it should be easy to start using it. In practice it was a little harder than I wanted it to be. Many apps involved copying and pasting large blocks of text into a text field, which is more cumbersome than I will probably use and felt like little more than a fun demonstration. That said, there is a Chrome extension called Readline that seems to work really well. When I’m on a page I want to read quickly, I just highlight the text, right click and select “start Readline”.
I’m currently reading at about 400 words per minute, and I feel like I retain most of what I read. There are a few places it completely falls apart – like reading a long news article that has ads mingling with the content. But so long as I’m careful about which text I select, it seems like it really helps. There is some debate about whether or not Spritz enables anything more than skimming, but when I’m reading news or blog posts I’m usually not extraordinarily invested in the content in the first place. In fact, in a context like that where I’m likely skimming anyway, Spritz actually makes me absorb more by forcing me through the whole post linearly.
So if you are looking for an easy hack that can save a few minutes each day, give Spritz a try, and let us know in the comments what you think of it.
Oh, one more thing. Remember when I asked you to look at the clock at the start of the post? Check the time now. How many minutes did it take you to get here? This post is about 800 words, so if you were reading with Spritz set at 400 wpm, this post would take you 2 minutes. 🙂
National Novel Writing Month is just days away, and RescueTime is proud to sponsor this amazing event. For the uninitiated, NaNoWriMo is a worldwide program supporting aspiring writers on their quests to become novelists.
How? By equipping them to write a 50,000-word novel in 30 days.
Whether you’re a first-timer or a grizzled, word-slinging veteran, NaNoWriMo is a marathon test of a writer’s dedication and endurance. And just like you wouldn’t run a marathon without a personal strategy for success, NaNoWriMo participants that show up on November 1st with a plan will have the best shot at crossing the finish line with a 50,000-word rough draft.
In this post, we’re going to focus on the math behind clobbering your 50k goal. It’s worth noting, however, that outlining your novel, character essays and world building can all factor in to your plan of attack. Regardless of your upfront effort, come November 1, the only thing that matters is hitting the 50k mark before the clock ticks down to midnight on the 30th.
Every damn day
Professional authors are notorious for offering one recurring piece of advice to young writers, “Write every day.”
In practice, writing every day may not be an option for many people. Yet at its core this common counsel is an admonishment for new writers to make a habit of committing words to the page on some sort of regular, scheduled basis.
Maybe you believe that new habits can be formed in 21 days, a figure commonly – and perhaps mistakenly – attributed to 1960s surgeon Maxwell Maltz. Or perhaps you buy into more recent research from the University College London that claims 66 days are required to form a habit. Either way, writing every day can make the unfamiliar and daunting prospect of weaving fiction from the aether become common and comfortable.
Many writers approach NaNoWriMo with a write-every-day strategy. This means 1,670 words from brain to fingers and out onto the page every day for 30 days. This method grants the lowest possible daily word count, and also helps jumpstart your habit-forming countdown to becoming a habitual writer.
Note that if you can only write on weekdays, the daily word requirement jumps to 2,380 words per day. And if you can only write on weekend days, well… good luck and make sure you have ice for your wrists!
One way to stack the odds (or words?) in your favor is to capitalize on early enthusiasm and any advanced groundwork you’ve prepared in anticipation of NaNoWriMo. Many WriMos use the surge of November 1st excitement to fuel an ambitious DORG – that is, a Day One Ridiculous Goal.
I’ve been writing professionally for most of my adult life. I’ve been seriously pursuing my fiction work for over half a decade. I’ve written multiple novels, sell thousands of non-fiction words every month and have published both novellas and short stories. Even still, my greatest ever single-day word count is 10,112 words and it damn near killed me.
It was a ridiculous goal. In fact, it was a challenge made to all attendees at a writing retreat and each one of us that broke the 10k mark received a homemade pie of our choosing. Mine was a peanut butter chocolate silk, and the pie damn near killed me, too!
Ermahgerd it was good, but I wouldn’t have earned it without setting the goal and making a personal commitment to achieve it. Even though 10,000 words a day is not a pace that I can or care to sustain, I know that, for me, it’s doable. And it’s a legitimate way to kick start a new project.
One good thing about NaNoWriMo this year is that November 1st is on a Sunday and not a regular work or school day. If you can arrange to have the day all to yourself, or with a writing partner or group, maybe a setting a DORG will work for you.
Consider for a moment the impact that a 10,000-word day one will have on your daily word requirement for the rest of the month. It drops that daily obligation to 1,380.
Don’t think you have a 10k day in you? You can still drop that daily word requirement by nearly 120 words with a 5k DORG.
Slow and steady can certainly win the race. Still, if you feel like challenging yourself and capitalizing on early enthusiasm, set a day one goal and make it ridiculous.
What happens when things get hard?
Life happens. Experienced WriMos will tell you that statistically, “life” will probably happen to you somewhere near the start of Week 3.
It could be work that threatens your NaNoWriMo performance. Maybe it’s a sick kid. Hell, it could be family drama at Thanksgiving dinner. Whatever the cause might be, there may come a time when your NaNo-plan starts to unravel.
What can you do to keep a setback from derailing the entire month?
For starters, you can write ahead of schedule if you suspect you might get derailed. In the vein of “the best defense is a good offense,” consider banking some heavy writing days early in the month. This can give you a cushion should the wheels come off the tracks mid-month.
If building an early cushion is not an option and you find yourself behind, take heart. You still have options. They may be the nail-biting, breathless kind of options, but options nonetheless.
Your first is to simply up your daily word count. Your NaNoWriMo profile will help you track your progress and update your daily requirements to finish on time. Alternatively, you can chip away at the word deficit with some early morning or weekend sprint sessions.
Either way, playing catch-up is probably going to be more difficult than sticking to a plan. Think ahead and plan out the month now. If you have a plan that’s worked well in the past, please share it in the comments. Also, if you think you’re onto a killer strategy and want some feedback, clue us in now and let us know how it’s going as the month progresses.
Good luck, WriMos! And if you haven’t yet, take advantage of our NaNoWriMo promo and get RescueTime premium free for the entire month of Nomember.
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.