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

tips-for-writers

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:

writingmetric

  • 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.


Standing desks increase productivity (but you have to do it right)

sitting-smoking

“Sitting is the new smoking.”

It’s an increasingly common and playfully snarky phrase coined by Dr. James Levine, director of the Mayo Clinic-Arizona State University Obesity Solutions Initiative. For anyone who’s slogged through a long, sloop-shouldered day at a desk, the dangers of sitting are intuitively easy to believe. Standing desks are becoming an iconic symbol of personal wellness in the workplace. However, it’s worth understanding the pros and cons of life on foot before throwing out the office chair.

Why stand?

Levine and like-minded researchers are inspiring a growing revolution of students and workers to stand up and shake free from the dangerous shackles of our chairs. In a 2014 interview with the L.A. Times, Levine addressed many of the dangers associated with sitting, ending with a statement that we are quite literally “sitting ourselves to death” with our modern, sedentary lifestyle.

Health concerns aren’t the only driving factor behind the move to standing desks, however. A recent study of school-aged children shows that standing students are both more attentive and more engaged in the classroom. Researchers at Texas A&M gave groups of students standing desks for a year. The results showed that students at standing desks were 12 percent more engaged than their seated counterparts. If you’re looking to eliminate distractions and increase productivity, wringing an extra 7 minutes out of each hour sounds like a pretty good place to start!

So … now my feet hurt

It might seem like any suitably tall counter or tabletop can replace traditional desks. Do we just throw out our chairs and soldier on without them? That’s a possibility and will probably work for some, but we’re seeing that a more balanced, less all-in approach might be warranted.

Standing still is not a cure-all replacement for sitting still. Our bodies are complex physical structures capable of and designed for a dynamic range of movement. The sedentary aspect of standing or sitting for too long creates stresses on the body that accumulate over time. Those physical strains can result in fatigue, and – if not managed properly – potential injury.

Additionally, not all activities are particularly well suited for standing. A February article from the U.S. News and World Report looks at situations where the move to a standing desk provided frustration rather than increased productivity. Certain fine motor skill tasks are more difficult to perform when not seated. In these situations, a standing desk might still be a good idea, but maybe only for breaks or associated support tasks like email and phone calls. For some high-concentration or physically precise jobs, the chair may simply remain a necessary evil.

Which desk is the right desk?

Standing desks can be easy and affordable to make, but if the Cadillac approach is more your style, there are fancy motorized options with programmable settings, notifications, and even fitness data tracking(Around the RescueTime offices we’ve used everything from a $1000+ GeekDesk to a pile of creatively stacked computer boxes.)

Treadmill or walking desks are also becoming increasingly common and commercial options are available. However, as with standing desks, budget options are also completely legitimate. For reference, here’s the total overall investment in my own walking desk:

$50 treadmill from Craigslist, $9 in beer for the buddy that helped me move it, $16 for a  pre-fab shelf from the local DYI store.

$50 treadmill from Craigslist, $9 in beer for the buddy that helped me move it, $16 for a pre-fab shelf from the local DYI store.

Voilà! A walking workstation for less that a hundred bucks.

Despite the potential benefits and relative ease of making the switch, it’s probably a good idea to figure out if a standing desk is right for you before committing big bucks and lots of office floor space to a pricey option. Here are some ways RescueTime can help:

  1. Measure your productivity during work for one week sitting and one week standing, and see if there is a noticeable difference. If you end up being more productive with a hacked together standing desk setup, it probably makes sense to invest in a more permanent setup.
  2. Set a RescueTime alert to prompt movement between sitting and standing, or to step away to stretch for a few minutes after each hour of work. This may help you to avoid investing in an adjustable desk only to have it languish in a sitting position all the time.

Have you had a good or bad experience with a standing desk? Please share your tips in the comments!


Tip: Use RescueTime alerts to block distracting websites when you need to focus!

Middle of last year we rolled out a feature allowing alerts to start a FocusTime session.  Not to brag much, but it is an awesome feature that you may want to try if you are a premium user.  Sometimes those distracting activities are too tempting, “what just happened on …“, and the thought of focusing with, “let me start FocusTime” doesn’t really cross your mind, or if it does it may be followed by, “in just a moment.”

Here are some alert recipes that will trigger after set periods of Very Distracting time, allowing yourself a moment while keeping strict about your own productivity goals.

Alert Recipe: Triggers 30 minute FocusTime session first thing of the day

Alert Recipe: 10 distracted minutes triggers a 15 minute FocusTime session

Alert Recipe: 20 distracted minutes triggers a 30 minute FocusTime session

Alert Recipe: 1 hour of distracted time triggers FocusTime session until midnight

You can start with these or create your own custom alerts that can even be set on a time filter of set hours/days that you want to be productive so they don’t trigger when you desire the enjoyment from these distractions, say the weekend.


Keep track of your Git commits using RescueTime Highlight Events

I spend a significant chunk of my work day writing code. Some of that is building new features, some of it is fixing bugs, and still more of it is going back to refactor something I sloppily threw together earlier. I’m doing a lot of different things, and it’s often hard to remember them all.

Luckily, Git forces me to leave a log message about what I’ve changed with each commit. It’s a good audit trail. If anything ever goes wrong, we can usually roll back through the Git commit logs and easily figure out the likely culprit.

But commit messages represent something more than just a way to make code rollbacks easier. They’re also a pretty useful document of how I spent my time. Reviewing the contents of git log is pretty clunky, so we just added a way to easily import your git commit messages into RescueTime Premium as highlight events.

commit-highlights-example

Adding commit logs to my Highlights stream helps me understand my software development time better. Was I working on the right things? Did the amount of time I spent coding that day really make sense compared to what I actually checked in? When I get really busy, work becomes a blur, so it’s nice to have an easy list to review at the end of the week and remind me that, yes, I actually did accomplish some stuff. :)

They’re also really useful alongside the rest of my highlight events, so I can see how all my activities are lining up and if I’m neglecting anything. I use different labels to group commits for different projects, so I can see how often I’m committing code for the RescueTime web site, the browser extension, or any of our other projects.

How to log your own Git commits as RescueTime Highlights:

  1. Make sure you have RescueTime Premium. You will need it to post highlights.
  2. Go to our Git integration page and generate a post-commit hook file. You can customize the highlight label (‘code commit’ vs. ‘website project commit’, vs. etc…), and choose whether or not to ignore commit messages less than 20 characters. I do this so I can skip over commit messages like “oops, typo”.
  3. Save the generated file in your Git project’s .git/hooks directory
  4. Give the file executable permissions (chmod +x post-commit)
My commit history on my RescueTime dashboard

My commit history on my RescueTime dashboard

That’s it! All future commits will automatically be logged as highlight events in RescueTime and will show up on your dashboard and the weekly email reports. It’s just one more way you can save yourself some typing and still keep a rich record of your accomplishments.

What do you think?


How I use Trello, Zapier and RescueTime to keep track of what I’ve been doing

iceburg-todo-list

This post covers how (and why) to use Zapier and RescueTime to create a persistent record of your completed Trello cards. If you’d like to jump directly to the setup instructions, skip to the end.

Trello is the first task manager that’s really clicked with me. It’s a great, simple system for tracking things that need to get done across various stages of progress (by default “To Do”, “Doing”, “Done”). There are other apps that do similar things, but Trello just nails the experience. I love it. If you aren’t familiar with it, you should check it out.

Trello is great, until the very end when it isn’t.

The experience of going back and looking over what I’ve done is the one part of Trello that isn’t so great. Things get really cluttered unless I archive cards when I’m done with them, and then they just kinda disappear. While I can go back and review a list of the archived cards, it’s buried and basically just looking at a big unsorted pile. That’s OK. If I had to choose, I’d much rather have Trello focus on the process of getting me to the finish line than looking back.

But I still want to be able to look back.

Why is it a good idea to reflect on those completed cards?

One of the problems I’ve always had with to-do lists is the unsatisfying feeling they leave me with when I’m really busy. That’s when they should be the most gratifying, right? That act of marking things as “done” feels good for a minute, but then that feeling gets shoved aside as I look back at the ever-growing backlog behind it.  Going back and reviewing accomplishments helps maintain a sense of progress, even if my to-do list never gets any shorter.

It also gives me an opportunity to ask myself if I’m devoting time to the correct things, or if there are other things I’d rather be getting done instead. It really helps draw the line between being productive and just being busy.

What can we do about it?

RescueTime has highlight event logging, and some of the highlight events I was manually entering were similar to the Trello cards I was completing. If I could just automatically log a note whenever I put a card in the “done” column, I’d save myself some manual effort. Luckily, Zapier makes this really easy. I was able to connect my Trello account with RescueTime, and log a highlight event whenever I completed a task in Trello. I had to fiddle with the filters a little bit to target just the “done” column, but once I figured that out it was fully automatic.

trello-rescuetime-highlights

Now I’m tracking events on different boards for my work and personal to-dos. Reviewing my highlights helps me see what I’m getting done and how balanced I’m being. Am I spending too much effort on work at the expense of personal tasks I need to get done? Or is it the other way around? That used to be a really hard question for me to answer and now it’s so much more visible. It also keeps me more organized because I know that if I use Trello, I’ll save myself some typing later when manually updating my highlights list. The two systems compliment each other really well.

gmail-summary-highlights

How to automatically log a RescueTime Highlight event when you complete a task in Trello

The quick and easy version (recommended):
Zapier can walk you through the whole setup process. This requires a Zapier account, obviously, but they’re awesome.

guided-zap

The step-by-step version:
You should use the guided zap version above. The detailed steps are listed here in case you have problems with the guided version, or just want to understand exactly what’s happening.

  1. Make sure you have a Trello board that you are using to manage your daily tasks
  2. Make sure you have RescueTime Premium (which you will need to log highlights)
  3. Make sure you have a Zapier.com account
  4. Log into Zapier.com and click “Make a Zap!”
  5. Choose Trello as the target app and “New Activity” as the trigger
  6. Choose RescueTime as the Action app and “Create a Highlight Log Entry” as the action
  7. Click continue and verify your accounts
  8. Under “filters”, choose the board you are using for your tasks
  9. Make sure the “List” filter is set to your “Done” column
  10. Set two custom filters, the first is “Data List Before Name” (Text) Does Not Contain “Done”
  11. Second custom filter: “Data List After Name” (Text) Exactly Matches “Done”
  12. Set the Highlight event params. Date should match up with the Trello “Date” field, “Description” should be “Data Card Name”, and “Highlight Type Label” should be set to something descriptive of the tasks on that Trello board. “To do”, “Personal Task”, “Work item” for example.
  13. Test the zap, you should immediately see your highlight event logged on your Highlights page in RescueTime.
  14. Name the zap and save it.

That’s it! I’ve found this to be a big help. Give it a shot a let me know what you think in the comments!