Systematically Turning Time and Effort Into Results


If you’ve found this column, we probably share a few things in common. Like me, you may be at your best with a great many irons in the proverbial fire. I bet you keep yourself busy and nurse a hunger for getting things done.

The past few months, my drive to tackle new projects has generated a daunting slate of work. I’ve been blessed with an attractive array of interesting projects, and that’s when I really need to ensure that my keyboard time is converted into an actual work product.

And that’s a good thing. Like I said, I’m at my best when busy.

But committing to aggressive schedules does create a challenge. I need to ensure that the minutes and hours I spend are productive. I need to ask myself two questions:

How do I know if I’m succeeding? And what can I do to set myself up for success?

Counting words and getting sh** done


Most activities lend themselves to some sort of quantifiable performance measurement. For writers, that metric is word count.

“I tend, by now, to think in terms of word counts not hours.” – Guy Gavriel Kay

“I’m writing a novel,” is a commendable, yet unimpressive statement if you’re only grinding out 150 words a day. Gee, that’s super swell. I’m really looking forward to reading the rough draft… in like, 3 years.

On the other hand, if you’re churning through 500 words an hour? Well now we’re talking!

Word count is a meaningful measuring stick for writers because it reflects results achieved rather than merely cataloguing effort expended.

Taking the pulse

RescueTime_-_Your_Monthly_dashboardRescueTime’s Productivity Pulse is similar in this regard. It is an accurate look back at how we’ve made use of our time at the keyboard. Just like tracking my word count, monitoring my Productivity Pulse is a useful and highly visual way to hold myself personally accountable for working efficiently. But we need a goal to work toward if we want to see our productivity increase over time, a goal and the tools necessary to achieve it.

“When asked, ‘How do you write?’ I invariably answer, ‘One word at a time,’” – Stephen King

A few weeks ago, I posted about using the Pomodoro technique to increase productivity by dedicating short sprints of time to specific tasks or distraction-free work. If words-per-hour is my measure of productivity, a series of sprints toward my daily word goal seems like a reasonable and efficient strategy for success.

But it’s SO easy to become derailed by “important” distractions like research and email, or social media indulgences that I know I’ll regret later.

That’s where Focus Time comes in.

I actually use the Pomodoro technique quite a bit, although I don’t use a physical timer or one of the many smartphone Pomodoro apps. Instead, I use the “Get Focused…” option that RescueTime put on my computers toolbar.

Not only does it time my work sprints, FocusTime blocks online distractions that might otherwise devalue my efforts.

For me, FocusTime is a strict upgrade to my old Pomodoro timer.

Reflect on the past, Focus on results

Tracking word count is by its very nature a look back in time. It is a reflective process and one that is beneficial only in that it illustrates past performance. It is not inherently useful in assuring current performance. And tracking it certainly won’t guarantee productivity in the future.

Like financial accounting, word count reports what has been accomplished in the past.

“Word count has value in that it measures actual effort.” – Chuck Wendig

It is valuable to know where we’ve come from, to have a baseline and to understand what we’ve been able to accomplish in the past. But what if we need to ensure a certain level of current performance? And what if we want to improve performance over time?

To continue the accounting metaphor, we need a budget. Some goals to aim for.

Whether it’s words per hour, lines of code or bullet points ruthlessly purged from a to-do list, we can set meaningful and manageable short-term goals, then continuously work towards improving them. Having a measurable task at hand (e.g. “Write 200 words in the next half hour”) can give us a new lens to look back on past performance, and help us find new ways to eliminate distractions.

“Just write. Many writers have a vague hope that elves will come in the night and finish any stories for you. They won’t.” – Neil Gaiman

When you decide to work, commit. Eliminate distractions and focus on the job. It won’t finish for you, so find the tools and tricks you need to be productive.

Sweep distractions free from your path, if even only for a time. And then focus on the next word, the next task, or the next bit of logic. When you truly need to produce measurable results, be single-minded and ruthlessly efficient with your time.

How to use the new RescueTime IFTTT channel to stay focused and productive

IFTTT (If This Then That)

Big news! We launched a channel on IFTTT this week, and it opens up a bunch of different possibilities for using your RescueTime data with your favorite apps and devices.

If you’re unfamiliar, IFTTT stands for: “If This Then That”, is pronounced like: “GIFT”, and is a service that lets you take actions in one app in response to actions in another. Since you spend so much of your time plugged into your digital devices, there are a LOT of actions you can take.

IFTTT channels have two parts.  The first are Triggers – things that happen in your app than can cause things to happen in others. Second are Actions – things that can respond to a Trigger in another app. The combination of a Trigger and an Action is called a Recipe.

The RescueTime IFTTT channel has four triggers…

…and two Actions.
... and two Actions.

You can connect our channel to any of the hundreds of other channels on IFTTT (although some of them make a lot more sense then others). IFTTT has channels for business apps, smartphones, social networks, even home automation devices.

The possibilities are nearly endless, but here are a few of the Recipes we really like:

Silence your phone while in a FocusTime session

IFTTT Recipe: Mute phone when a FocusTime session is started connects rescuetime to android-device

IFTTT Recipe: Unmute your phone when a FocusTime session finishes connects rescuetime to android-device

Use Google Calendar to start a FocusTime session…

IFTTT Recipe: Schedule FocusTime sessions in advance by marking off time on your calendar connects google-calendar to rescuetime

…or add a do-not-disturb note when FocusTime starts

IFTTT Recipe: Add a 'do-not-disturb' event to your calendar when a FocusTime session starts connects rescuetime to google-calendar

Set up a productivity light

IFTTT has several channels that will let you control a light (or a set of lights). You can use the Recipes below with the Phillips Hue, ORBneXt, and Blink(1) channels.

IFTTT Recipe: Turn on a 'do-not-disturb' light while in a FocusTime Session connects rescuetime to orbnext

IFTTT Recipe: Turn off your do-not-disturb light when a FocusTime session ends connects rescuetime to orbnext

IFTTT Recipe: Flash Blink(1) when a RescueTime alert is triggered connects rescuetime to blink-1

Adjust your thermostat while in a FocusTime session

If you want to give yourself some extra motivation, set your Nest thermostat to something really comfortable either while you are in a FocusTime session, or after you’ve completed a few hours of productive work.

IFTTT Recipe: Set the temperature to something really comfy when you are in a FocusTime session connects rescuetime to nest-thermostat

IFTTT Recipe: Reward yourself by turning the thermostat to something more comfortable after working for a while. connects rescuetime to nest-thermostat

Use alerts to post messages to Slack

You can use RescueTime alerts as an automated way to humblebrag (or publicly shame yourself) to your coworkers.

IFTTT Recipe: If a RescueTime alert is triggered, post a note about it in Slack connects rescuetime to slack

Get a phone call whenever an alert is triggered

This one is super effective for getting me to stop working when it’s late at night. I have an alert set up for “more than 30 minutes of productive time between midnight and 4am”. When my phone rings in the middle of the night, that momentary “who the hell is calling me at 1am?!?!” feeling is the BEST way to knock me out of the workaholic hole I’ve fallen into.
IFTTT Recipe: Call my phone when a RescueTime alert triggers. connects rescuetime to phone-call

Save daily summaries in a Google Sheet

This one is great if you just want to pull some specific data over time into a spreadsheet. It’s perfect for Quantified Self projects where you’re tracking one metric (say, hours of productive time) against another data source (like your daily exercise or sleep).
IFTTT Recipe: If new daily summary is available, log a row in a Google Sheets spreadsheet connects rescuetime to google-drive

We’re particularly excited about the FocusTime Triggers and Actions, which let you tailor your FocusTime experience in some really powerful ways. You can read more on that over here.

What recipes have you come up with? Share your favorites in the comments!

Introducing the new FocusTime


Today we’re launching an exciting new version of FocusTime to help people be less distracted at work.

We’ve added integrations that let your apps and devices take actions that support a positive work environment. This makes it easy to create the best conditions for focus, on demand and at the right times.

For example, when you are in a FocusTime session, you can:

  • Silence your phone, including notifications
  • Set your Slack presence to ‘away’
  • Post a do-not-disturb note to your calendar, group chat, or company social network
  • Block access to distracting websites

Everyone’s work situation is different so we’ve added integrations that connect to a lot of different services so you can find the right combination of actions that works for you.

New integrations that support your productivity

FocusTime is now connected to IFTTT (If This Then That), Zapier, and Slack. We expect to add more integrations in the future, but here’s an overview of where we are right now.

IFTTT (If This Then That)

IFTTT connects hundreds of apps and devices together. Combined with FocusTime, it can do some REALLY interesting things to set up a good environment for sustained focus. Their support for devices and home automation is particularly interesting, enabling things like silencing your Android phone, dimming your Philips Hue lights, even adjusting your Nest thermostat so you’re more comfortable while you’re focusing (which can be a nice bit of motivation on it’s own!)

I have an ORBneXt light sitting on my desk that glows blue when I’m in a FocusTime session. It’s a nice way to let other people know I’m in the zone, and it’s also a subtle reminder to me to stay on track.


Zapier is similar to IFTTT in that they both connect multiple services together, but Zapier has more of a focus on business applications. If you want to post a do-not-disturb note to your coworkers, Zapier has support for Slack, HipChat, Flowdock, Basecamp, Yammer, and many more.

I have a Zap set up connecting Trello and FocusTime that’s proven to be really useful for me. I manage the things I’m working on in Trello, but I have a special list for really high-priority tasks that are “On Fire!”, like critical bugs. Whenever a new card gets added to that list, a FocusTime session automatically kicks in so I can devote my full attention to the problem.


Seems like Slack is a common fixture in most offices these days. It’s really great at keeping people connected, but it can be a bit of a monster when you’re trying to focus. We added a Slack integration that will automatically set your presence to ‘away’ and optionally post a note in the channel of your choice letting people know you’re stepping away for some concentration, and when to expect you back.


Are work distractions really that big of a problem?


Multiple studies have shown that it can take between 15-30 minutes to fully return to a task after an interruption (that’s not counting tasks that are completely abandoned). The problem with even the most optimistic of those numbers is, most people get some kind of interruption roughly every 5 minutes This is a huge deal, because it basically means no one can get into a solid state of flow.

So essentially no one is working at their peak potential. Why aren’t more people up in arms about this? I’m not  sure, but I think it’s because after a while, that level of distraction starts to feel normal. And the alternative – simply unplugging – doesn’t feel very good. We’re conditioned to be ultra-responsive, and that’s become a general expectation in many offices. But the levels of interruption are clearly reaching unsustainable levels.

We’re connected to all these apps and devices that constantly spew information at us, but they have no awareness of whether or not we actually WANT that information at a given time. That seems like something that should be fixable, so that’s what we set out to do. My hope with FocusTime is that we give people a way to disconnect “just enough” so they can get back to more solid levels of focus.

What we’re launching today is a really good start, but there’s a lot to explore in the future, and I’m really excited to see what other ways we can find to turn down the noise, and get people prepped for focus.

I’d love it if you’d give the new integrations a try and let us know what works well for you, and what you find missing that you wished was included.

The little tomato that could – using Pomodoro Technique

Tomatoes Rule - source: Art & Invention Gallery

Tomatoes Rule – source: Art & Invention Gallery

Nobody loves a blank page. I think I’m probably better than the average bear about starting new things, but it’s tough to get rolling on a new project. Especially when the task is enormous and you know it’s going to take a long time.

And like a lot of creative-types, it’s easy for me to get down on myself. My productivity usually sucks when my confidence and self-esteem are low.

Sometimes I just need a little external pressure – some sort of structure – to get me moving. If I can get a small portion of my time encapsulated and dedicated to getting things accomplished, that usually gets me over the hump.

That’s when I want something like the Pomodoro Technique, a workflow that structures your time in 25 minute sprints on a dedicated task, followed by a 5 minute break, then starting the cycle over again with a new task.

Pomodoro isn’t something I use all the time. However, when my confidence is low or I’m feeling overwhelmed, I need the implied structure to get me moving.

What’s a tomato got to do with it?

The Pomodoro Technique is a productivity system created by developer and author Francesco Cirillo. He named the system after a tomato shaped kitchen timer that he used to keep himself focused and productive at college.

Lifehacker has a good primer on the system with links to a handful of Pomodoro mobile apps. Most of the apps have a variety of competing bells and whistles; so check those out to see what excites you. However, all you really need is the timer.

The timer is a simple tool used to carve out an interval of dedicated work time. A short 25-minute sprint of work that Cirillo called his “Pomodoros.” Following each sprint is a 5-minute break and then… back to the salt mines!

You can do anything for 25 minutes

As I said, I don’t use my Pomodoro timer all the time. Actually, I probably don’t use it as much as I should. Still, when I’m down on myself, it can be the kick-in-the-pants that I need to get moving.

When I’m facing a seemingly endless or insurmountable obstacle – say… the first draft of a new novel, perhaps? – my Pomodoro timer carves me off a consumable first-bite. Something manageable enough to get things rolling, but big enough to show some progress and boost my confidence.

If you happen to find it difficult to stay on task during the 25 minute sessions, FocusTime is a great compliment to the Pomodoro technique. You can block distracting websites for the exact time of your session, giving you extra insurance that you’ll stay focused.

Site blocking for a Pomodoro session using FocusTime

Putting it to work

A big part of staying productive is changing things up. There’s real value in moving between standing to sitting or leaving the office to work at a coffee shop for a couple hours.

“To improve is to change; to be perfect is to change often.” – Winston Churchill

Pomodoro is like that for me. It’s not something that I use or want all the time. However, if I’m struggling, that 25-minute timer on my phone can help me get the ball (tomato?) rolling.

Let us know in the comments if you use the Pomodoro Technique. Did it work for you? What else do you use to overcome the idle hands of low confidence? Or to take the that first intimidating leap into a daunting new challenge?

Fight, flight, freeze or flow – how our brains keep us from focusing

Brains are hard-wired for distraction

Brains are hard-wired for distraction

I’ve always been a night owl. Hands down, my favorite part of the day is the quiet hours between 10pm and 2am. It’s not that I don’t enjoy work or love spending time with my family, I do. But when the world quiets down, dishes are washed, lunches are packed and the family is down for the night, something changes for me.

I get more focused during these quiet times. I have better ideas. I create more. Produce more. And I’m generally happier with my late-night production than I am with work squeezed in between the meetings, conversations and errands that compete for my time during the day.

What’s different about these work sessions? Are they the product of conditioning and habit? Is increased productivity simply the result of a lower ambient noise level? Is my couch actually a magical aide to creativity?

As cool as a magic couch sounds, it’s more likely that my high-productivity evening hours are the product of “flow.”

In the zone

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Professor of Psychology and Management at Claremont Graduate University, first named the concept of “Flow“, which refers to a “mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity.”

Sounds great. Sign me up. I’d like to work like that all the time. So how do we get into a flow state?

Part of the answer may lie in understanding our primitive fight, flight or freeze instincts. When we’re in a flow state, our focus narrows. Attention to the task at hand crowds out awareness of our surroundings, self-awareness and the passage of time. To better understand flow and how to enter a flow state, it’s worth looking at the parts of the brain that prevent focus by promoting fear and awareness.

The amygdala

Flow states are difficult to describe. I think this is in part because the centers of the brain responsible for self-awareness are turned off during flow. We just aren’t paying attention when it’s happening.

Relatedly, the amygdala is designed to protect us from centuries of oh-god-it-has-claws types of danger. We are hardwired to look for threats before dedicating attention to anything else.

Most of us don’t need to worry about sudden attack by a predator. Still, we are exposed to plenty of fear-generating inputs every day. Whether by accident or design, these experiences compete for our attention. For creative types with an interest in improving personal performance, our job becomes figuring out how to filter these inputs.

The amygdala hijacks our focus

There may not be some toothy beast waiting to leap out and gobble us up, but the amygdala is still hard at work. Marketers, advertisers and the news media know this. In his book Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think, Peter Diamandis makes the observation:

“The old newspaper saw ‘If it bleeds, it leads’ works because the first stop that all incoming information encounters is an organ already primed to look for danger. We’re feeding a fiend. Bad news sells because the amygdala is always looking for something to fear.”

Our brain’s natural inclination to constantly scan for threats is a convenient tool for capturing our attention, but it sure can throw a wrench in things when we’re trying to do something that requires long, contemplative thought.

Can flow compete against instinct?

The implication that fight, flight or freeze instincts have on creativity, flow and a quantified life are far reaching. I’m glad these ideas are getting some attention, and I look forward to benefiting from the results of the research.

But I also think it helps me to understand why my evening work sessions are so precious to me. I get to control the inputs during those quiet hours when the house is asleep.

Sure, I could stream a news program or keep Twitter open in a browser window. Sometimes I do, and I generally don’t have anything new or exciting to show from those evenings.

But sometimes I don’t.

Those are the nights when the sounds of the world fall away. Time stretches in interesting ways and I could care less about the pace of its passage. I forget about my ambitions and fears. All that matters is my ideas and my project.

During the day, I use RescueTime’s “Get Focused…” feature to blank some of those competing distractions. That helps, as does being aware of how messaging is packaged to demand my instinctual attention. But still, achieving flow is a challenge.

Let me know in the comments if you have a time or place that powers up your creativity. If you have tips on how to kick start laser-focused work sessions, I’d love to hear them!

And finally, here’s a really interesting TED talk by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describing flow.

Boost your writing efficiency by stepping back from the keyboard


Writers – Up your word count with a little time away from the keyboard.

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.

There’s hope!

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!

Social Pressure vs. Commitment Devices – which helps more for making changes?

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.

Going public

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.

Publicly stating a risky goal worked out for Babe Ruth in the 1932 World Series.

Publicly stating a risky goal worked out for Babe Ruth in the 1932 World Series.

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.”

Commitment devices

One of the oldest (albeit fictional) examples of a commitment device, Odysseus tied himself to his ship's mast so he wouldn't be entranced by the siren's song.

One of the oldest (albeit fictional) examples of a commitment device, Odysseus tied himself to his ship’s mast so he wouldn’t be entranced by the siren’s song.

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.