Stop beating yourself up about “all that time” you waste on Facebook, it’s probably less than you think


When I tell people about RescueTime and what it does, one of the most common things I hear is:

“Oh wow! I don’t even want to think about how much time I waste on Facebook!”

When people have actually been using RescueTime for a little while, I often hear something different:

“Ya know? I really thought I spent more time on Facebook than that!”

Two things jump out at me when I hear this. First, many people think they spend more time on Facebook than they actually do. Second, they seem to feel guilty about it.  The first observation makes the second one sort of sad. I don’t want anyone to feel bad about themselves, and certainly not for something that’s not really even true!

That’s why I LOVE telling people about the following study.

Rey Junco, a professor of library science at Perdue University, recently investigated how students’ estimates of their time on Facebook differed from the actual time they spent on the site. Since many studies that focus on social media usage rely on self-reported data, this is a pretty important thing for researchers to understand. He asked test subjects to report how much time they spend each day on Facebook, then used RescueTime to monitor their actual time on Facebook. The results were very surprising.

“students significantly overestimated the amount of time they spent on Facebook. They reported spending an average of 149 minutes per day on Facebook which was significantly higher than the 26 minutes per day they actually spent on the site (t(41) = 8.068, p < .001).”

When I first read these results, I did a double take. Subjects were overestimating their Facebook time by 473%. Four Hundred Seventy Three Percent?!?! It seems almost unbelievable. In his blog post, Rey covers some factors that could have affected the data, but it seems like the gulf between the estimate and the actual time on Facebook is real.

It’s interesting to contrast that overestimation with something else I’ve noticed. Many people fairly drastically underestimate the amount of time they spend in email. According to a study from last year by the McKinsey Global Institute, up to 28% of the average desk worker’s week (or around 13 hours) is devoted to managing email. While it’s necessary for work, it’s often a distraction, due to its tendency to pop up every few minutes on someone’s screen while they’re trying to focus on other work. People are usually not that great at accurately adding all this time up, and that’s not even taking into account the refocusing time that comes when trying to get back to the original task that the email interrupted.

I wonder if there isn’t some sort of guilty pleasure factor at work there? For whatever reason, do people’s negative judgements about their time on Facebook (or Twitter, or Reddit, etc…) cause whatever time they DO spend to be over-inflated in their minds? On the other hand, email doesn’t have this problem, because very few people think about email in those terms. That’s just a theory of mine, which is partly based on my own experience, but I’ve seen a lot of anecdotes that back it up. If it’s actually true, it’s sort of a bummer. It means people have a general tendency to beat themselves up over things that feel too much like an indulgence.

To me, this is a great illustration of the awesomeness of RescueTime. Having an accurate, real record of how your time is spent can totally change your perspective. When you’re sitting at a computer all day, it’s too easy for it all to just blur together. With a real understanding of how little time I actually spend on sites like Facebook or Hacker News, I’ve been able to let go of any negative judgements I had about them.

All work and no play (and no rest) makes me super unproductive

Last month, I spent some time digging around with two big personal datasets of mine – my RescueTime logs and the information about my physical activity and sleep that I’ve collected with my FitBit. After comparing over 8.5 million steps and 5,000 hours of my sleep with around 7,000 hours of my RescueTime data, I noticed that my physical activity seems to have a generally positive effect on how I spend my time on the computer. Or it’s the other way around, I’m not quite sure. But there definitely seems to be a link between the two.

Daily step count vs. meaningful work


The first thing I looked at was the number of steps I’ve taken each day for the past two years. I compared it to the amount of time I spent on the computer, and what activities I was doing while on the computer. On days when I take more steps, I tend to spend a greater percentage of my time on the computer writing code. For me, software development is an activity that I feel is pretty meaningful, and I’d rather spend more time on it than, say, meetings or email. I’d also like to be more active, so it’s really great to see that days where I walk around more don’t seem to hurt my work productivity.

It’s not really clear to me which one of those things influences the other. Could be that more physical activity makes it somehow easier for me to focus? Or it might be the other way around. A solid day’s work makes it more likely that I’ll be motivated to get out and get some exercise.  Or, there could be some unknown factor that’s influencing both of them. It’s still interesting, nonetheless.

Also interesting, it seems like I shouldn’t get too crazy with it. On days when I get more than 12,000 steps in a day, the percentage of software development time goes back down.

Sleep vs. Time on the computer


I also found that I seem to be more focused on days when I get more sleep. Focus is a hard thing to measure, and this isn’t a perfect metric, but I looked at the amount of time I spend writing code (something I’d like to be doing more of) vs. the amount of time I spend on email (something I generally try to minimize). When I get less than six hours of sleep, things are pretty much even. As I get more sleep, the percentage of time in email goes down, and the time spend on software development goes up.

What does this mean?

The really cool bit about these observations is they suggest that it’s not only possible to balance good amounts of physical activity with a productive workday – they may actually reinforce each other. Another RescueTime user saw similar effects on his sleep last year. He summarized the results in this guest post.

To get these two datasets together, I used the RescueTime API and John McLaughlin’s fantastic FitBit-to-Google Docs script that I found on the Quantified Self website.

Have you ever found an interesting link like this between your physical activity and some other metric? I’d love to hear about it.

How Quantified Should the Self Be?

I recently came across an Austrian article that raises some interesting questions about the use of technology in “measuring” our lives ([in German]).  The scope of this technology continues to increase and there are more opportunities for its insertion into our lives than ever before.

Here are some examples of the latest technology:

- an armband that measures physical activity, including steps taken, distance walked, and calories burnt; length and quality of sleep; and with auxiliary links to mobile devices and a scale, meal planning and weight management (

- work productivity software that measures active computer use and trends very precisely ( [That’s us]

- a strap-on device for posture and movement monitoring and correction (

- a fork that measures eating habits and mechanics (

- an all purpose physical activity device for multiple kinds of exercise (

- a scale that provides body anaylysis by measuring weight, BMI, body fat, and heart rate (and also local air quality to boot) (

- a diabetes app testing blood sugar (

- comprehensive health management software (

Those who embrace this technology often self-identify as members of the “Quantified Self movement,” which is characterized by the search for informative feedback from devices such as those listed above.  Some see in the wealth of available data a “digital reflection” of their lives – this is felt to be empowering, allowing individuals to achieve a greater degree of self-awareness and to take proactive steps to optimize efficiency, health, and happiness based on adjustment of recognized patterns.  Sometimes the motivation for self-monitoring is a desire for improvement, sometimes for identifying and solving problems.

There are potential negative consequences to the adoption of this new technology and the hyper-analytical mindset and lifestyle that can result.  Having such a wealth of data at one’s fingertips, and a feeling of overarching responsibility for this data, can lead a person to believe that they are accountable and culpable for everything that happens in their lives.  There is also a danger of misinterpreting data – a person can mistakenly identify correlations among metrics and activities where there are none, or miss important ones that do exist.  This misinformation can then be used to make lifestyle decisions with potentially harmful consequences.  There are also issues with ownership of this data, its security, and its potential uses by others.

This raises a number of questions for debate:

1.  Are there specific uses of self-measurement technology that you find seriously problematic?

2.  Do we need some degree of education about understanding certain data to draw out the positive benefits of self-analysis and avoid pitfalls?  If so, what would this education involve?

3.  What type or types of measurement are the most important in the search for self-improvement?

Does self-tracking help (or hinder) creativity?

The Quantified Self movement, in all it’s various shapes and sizes, is giving us the opportunity for an unprecedented view of ourselves. Examining ourselves through a lens of data holds the promise for better health, increased productivity, even greater happiness.

But what does self-tracking do to your creativity?

Now, it could be argued that all this careful measurement and instrumentation is really just a misguided way to optimize all spontaneity out of life. Albert Einstein said “Everything that can be counted does not necessarily count; everything that counts cannot necessarily be counted.” There’s absolutely truth to that. Today’s knowledge workers need to be creative. It’s probably the most important skill to have, especially as more process-oriented work is increasingly automated. The problem, from a self-tracking standpoint, is that creativity is subjective, and damn near impossible to express in a structured way. Some people are certainly trying, but I think it will be a long time (if ever) before any broadly agreed upon metric is established.

I think that’s just fine. Self tracking can still do amazing things for your creativity.

New problems, new solutions

“self-tracking paints an interesting picture in the negative space around our creative output.”
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Just as we’re faced with problems we didn’t have 20 years ago (when you could work for more than three minutes before being interrupted by email), we need to discover new coping strategies. A data-based approach makes a lot of sense.

Sure, it’s true, quantifying creativity is problematic. But do you know what’s not problematic? Quantifying emails, meetings, workflows, and all the other process-oriented stuff that takes up increasing amounts of our day. All of that is easily measurable, and self-tracking paints a pretty interesting picture in the negative space around our creative output. One of the observations we hear over and over from RescueTime users is “wow, I spend WAY more time in email than I thought!” Multiple studies have shown that the average desk worker spends about 30% of their time in email. It doesn’t feel that way because it’s generally spread out across the day in small chunks.

Switching back and forth on tasks takes a toll on our cognitive performance, and some research suggests that heavy multi-tasking diminishes our ability to recognize a breakthrough idea. Humans are nearly universally bad at multi-tasking, but it’s increasingly difficult to escape. But we can at least keep track of it, and that can bring an awareness that allows us to take steps to minimize it.

Different strokes for different folks

It’s easy to imagine creativity as this innate quality that manifests in spontaneous bursts of genius, but if you look at creative minds throughout history, you’ll see a very sophisticated creative process that’s been refined over time. It’s part of mastering your chosen craft. But what works for one person may not work for others. Hemingway only wrote in the morning, and had a very specific flow from handwritten pages to the typewriter. Picasso on the other hand, worked late into the night and slept in. Self-tracking can enhance this process, allowing individuals to methodically tweak their behaviors to find the ideal state of flow. Is the time you wake up more or less important than the total amount of sleep you got the night before? What about the quality of your sleep rather than the duration? Or is the really important thing the strong cup of coffee you drink before work? These are questions you can answer with self-tracking.

Let’s admit that maybe some of that creative output can be measured, and that’s really awesome

Even though there’s really no way your creative genius will be fully expressed by some numbers sitting in a spreadsheet (unless you are a mathematician, I suppose), most any creative endeavor has output that can be be revealing when tracked. Hemingway kept a daily log of his word-count “so as not to kid myself”. He used this to keep track of his progress, but also to reward himself. After a particularly productive day of writing, he could spend the next day fishing, guilt-free.

Motivation is key to creativity, and consistently measuring output is a fantastic way to stay engaged, especially with creative projects that require long slogs of work before seeing a finished outcome. It’s the digital equivalent of turning around after an exhausting uphill hike and beholding the beautiful view you’ve trudged into. Services like iDoneThis make this as easy as giving a short reply to a daily email. Another example is National Novel Writer’s Month, where daily word count is celebrated as a way of keeping authors pumped up about writing their novels.

Your turn. Do you think self-tracking impacts your creativity?

Obviously, we’re a little bit biased here at RescueTime. We think the greater awareness that comes from self-tracking has a huge benefit on one’s creativity. But I’m curious what you think? Do you agree? Or is it too clinical of a lens for such a organic thing? Or, is it simply navel-gazing, and a distraction in and of itself?

Further reading: The Myth Of Multitasking

99u: The 5 Most Dangerous Creativity Killers

Courting a Muse In a Data-Driven Workplace My Attempt at Tracking Creativity

RescueTime Blog: 5 habits of highly motivated novelists

Beautiful quantified art from surfing and skateboard data

Quantified art generated by surfing!

Quantified art generated by surfing!

A few weeks ago we looked at several beautiful things you can do with your personal self-tracking data. Here’s another great example. Vincent Boyce is an artist, surfer and skateboarder. He’s created a system of sensors that records the kinetic data from his surf and skate sessions, then translates it into beautiful abstract compositions. The results are fantastic, even though the visualization totally obscures any information in the data. As someone who spent the better part of his childhood on a skateboard, I’m totally jealous and really interested to see what other types of visualizations he comes up with.  You can see the full gallery here.

Here he is explaining the project at a recent NYC Quantified Self meetup.

For some more visualizations of board sports data, check out the Skataviz and AntiMap projects.

New beta feature: Turn any RescueTime report into a live-updating widget

Quick Look widgets

Have you ever wanted to keep a closer eye on the time you’re spending in a specific category or activity throughout the day? This week we rolled out a new beta feature that makes it easier.

If you have beta access enabled (see below for how to do this), you can turn any productivity, category, or activity report into a live-updating timer widget, simply by resizing the window small enough. You can then place this widget off to the side (or on a second monitor) and continue about your day. As you build up more time, the widget will update and show you your current status. You can create several widgets and position them however you want to create ad-hoc productivity dashboards.

Some things you can do with these widgets:

  • Keep an eye on your time spent in email throughout the day
  • Compare two metrics, like time spent on software development vs. time in meetings
  • Turn your productivity score into a game, how high can you make it go?

Enable beta access: To try it out, you’ll need to make sure you’re in our beta channel by going to your account settings page and checking the “Beta features on” checkbox.

Once you’ve enabled beta features, just go to any report page and do the following:

make quick look widget

The update frequency is the same as the rest of the RescueTime reports. If you’re a RescueTime Pro user, the widgets will update every 3 minutes. If you’re a free user, it’s every 30 minutes.

Isn’t this a really weird interaction model? Yes. It is. We’re eventually going to find another way to make it more discoverable. These widgets are a brand new way to interact with RescueTime, and we’re still playing around with several of the details. In that sense, the easter-egg treatment feels fairly appropriate.

All the standard beta feature disclaimers apply. It’s brand new. And there might be some bugs we haven’t caught yet. We’ll also probably change this up a bit over time as we get a better understanding of how people are using it.

We’d love your feedback!

What do you think of this new way of keeping an eye on your time? Does it help? What things are you using it to keep track of?

Doing beautiful things with self-tracking data

These days, there’s an mobile app or device for just about anything you might want to track about yourself. RescueTime can track your time on the computer. Fitbit lets you track how many steps you’re taking. Foursquare will track the places you’ve been. The list goes on and on.

Tracking that information can help you get in shape or stay productive, but it also can just look really, really cool. Data tells a story, and is fantastic subject matter for fine art and graphic design projects.

From The 2010/2011 Feltron Biennial Report

From The 2010/2011 Feltron Biennial Report

Nicholas Feltron is probably one of the most well-known designers doing projects like this. His gorgeous personal annual reports showcasing his obsessive-compulsive personal tracking have been making the rounds in design circles for years. They even inspired Facebook to create the Timeline.

Laurie Frick: Walking, week 42

Laurie Frick: Walking, week 42

Another artist doing some amazing work is Laurie Frick. She takes more of a fine-art approach to her Quantified Self explorations, which explore mood, temperature, weight, sleep patterns, heart-rate, and location data in a variety of media. Unlike the very polished corporate graphic design quality of Feltron’s personal reports, it’s not immediately apparent that Frick’s pieces are based on data. To me, that adds to their appeal. They work on their own as abstract pieces, but the underlying story told by the data makes them even more interesting.

Here’s a video of her discussing her process.

I’m noticing more and more examples of this type of data-driven approach to creative projects. Here’s an interactive annual report by Jehiah Czebotar showcasing several personal data points. And here’s a series based on GPS tracks. And yet another based on the location of the mouse over a period of hours or days.

So how can you use data in your creative projects? has several tutorials that are a great introduction to several of the technologies that you can use to create visualizations.

Six beautiful things you can do with your data, right now

In many cases, developing the creative and technical skill sets for your own projects isn’t necessary. Here are six services that will let you create a variety of great-looking visual pieces, just by plugging in your own data.

Notch: a way to visualize your health


Notch makes dynamic infographics based on your fitness data. You can connect it with your Fitbit, Runkeeper, or BodyMedia account. Once you’re connected, you can generate and share a number of beautiful visuals based on your activity levels.  Here’s one of mine.

LastGraph: Create a poster of your music listening history


I’ve been tracking my music listening habits with for the past several years. It’s great, because the data lets personalize my radio stations. But I can also make a really awesome chart of my listening history using LastGraph. Just enter your username and give it a few seconds to index your history. Then head over to the “posters” tab and you can generate a “stream graph” of your listening history for a given time period.

IOGraph: Abstract art from your cursor movements

This image was created while writing this post.

This image was created while writing this post.

IOGraph is a nifty little application that records your mouse position over time. Let it run for a while and watch a picture of your computer time build up. It makes for some pretty fantastic abstract compositions.

It’s fun, and you don’t have to have a pre-existing data set to play with. I created the image above while writing this post.

Meshu: 3D-printed jewelry from your geographic history

Meshu - Gallery

Meshu takes geographic information about you and uses it to make customized jewelry. For example, you can enter every city you’ve ever lived in, or connect it with your Foursquare account, and then it will generate a custom design for you based on the connections between those locations. The finished product is abstract, and won’t be recognizable as a map to others. In other words, a really good conversation piece.

Visually Create: custom infographics from your social media info


So you may not already have a pile of data laying around covering your fitness, sleep, music, or location histories. But you probably use social media, and the infographics directory has a bunch of different designs you can plug your social data into.

Vizify: Make a personal mini-site based on your data


Vizify lets you pull data from a bunch of different sources to create a series of graphics telling your life story. Works great as a resume, or just a way to let people quickly learn more about you.

I’m curious, are there any other services you’ve found that do interesting things with your personal data?