A little hack that made our remote team not feel so remote anymore

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I’m jealous of people who work in coffee shops.

Not because I dream of pulling espresso shots and doing pour-overs (although they’re delicious. I wish I had those skills!). The thing I’m jealous of is how easy it is to just know how things are going at any given moment when working in that environment. Especially when compared to a distributed workplace like ours, with me here in Nashville, and the rest of the team spread out across Seattle, Atlanta, and Miami.

It’s too easy to wind up in a bubble when physically isolated like that, and end up completely missing things like:

  • Roger being buried with support the morning after we pushed out a new feature.
  • The mid-week rush of new signups after we were mentioned in a news article.
  • Tim being head-down in focus mode on some new stuff for the RescueTime desktop app.
  • The general “we’re all in it together” vibe that comes from seeing everyone busting ass to make things work.

Information like this just flows freely in my local coffee shop (and I’d assume in most other brick and mortar businesses). It’s obvious how long the line of customers is, that Megan is buried under a ten-latte to-go order, or that Joe is just plain wiped out after a ten-hour day. And there’s the shared satisfaction of knowing that everyone did a good day’s work together. That’s not to say that I dislike remote workplaces. I think they’re great, actually. I’m just saying that feeling connected takes more work.

I’ve been thinking about this idea of connectedness for the past few months since I moved away from our main office. It’s tricky, because there is so much about a loosely-connected team that actually works really well, and trying too hard to replicate an “everyone in the same room” feeling would be forced and likely bad for our culture. Always-on video chat? Nope. Every-day status meetings? Blech. Taking on a whole new project management system to understand what everyone else is working on? Doesn’t fit how we work at all.

A few weeks ago, we tried an experiment and so far it’s working out really well. We use HipChat as our company chat tool, and it’s great for general back and forth, asking questions to the entire team, even taking a quick break and laughing about ridiculous pictures of cats. You can also post messages to it programmatically with their API, so we created a new chatroom just for things that would hopefully make some of the basic rhythms of the workday pop out a little more. We used Zapier to plug a bunch of different applications into HipChat, then let everyone on the team get creative with it. We gave very loose guidelines ( ”Add anything you feel like telling the rest of your team about your day. It has to be automated. Excessive use of emoticons and gifs is encouraged.”) With only a few hours of experimentation, we came up with an interesting feed that required no manual input, but let us get and give some really interesting information about our days.

Some examples (with admitted over-use of HipChat’s fantastic emoticons)

New signups and upgrades (via Zapier’s Gmail integration)

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Company tweets, new blog posts, code deploys, and meeting notices

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My frequent coffee runs and Tim’s lunch breaks (via Foursquare)

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Several of our self-defined status updates based on our RescueTime stats, where we share some details about how we’re spending our time (via the RescueTime Alerts API)

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Sometimes we use the alerts as a chance to poke fun at ourselves and share things we might not in a normal status meeting

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It’s done a surprisingly good job at filling in a missing piece of the remote-experience for us. I feel like I’m much more aware of everyone else on the team, how their days are going, but without requiring tedious status updates that would just slow us down. I feel more connected, and it’s really nice.

The full "What's Happenin'" feed

The full “What’s Happenin’” feed in all it’s messy chaotic glory

We intentionally kept the messages light on details. I’ve seen a lot of “Quantified Self in the Workplace” projects, and they seem like they can often turn into micro-managing minefields. I think we avoided this by making everything voluntary and giving each person on the team complete control over what messages they wanted to contribute to the feed. For example, some of the feed items came from the RescueTime API, where there is a LOT of detailed information that each team member privately has about themselves. But at a team level, we don’t need (or want, if I’m being honest here) that level of insight into people.

It would probably be idealistic to assume that something like this would be helpful or even welcome in every remote-workplace, but it’s worked out great for us, and seems to fill a gap that has led other companies to take some pretty drastic measures to deal with in the past.

I’m really interested in ways that companies are taking advantage of the data-rich environments of their remote workplaces, and using them to create more engaging, more fun, and ultimately more productive experiences for their employees. Have you seen other examples, or tried something that’s worked particularly well?


Build up productivity momentum early

Working from home is certainly a great experience, and simply put not for everyone.  I tend to feel cruddy when I get distracted and am not giving a full day of effort.   Last week I got stuck in a rut where I was more distracted than I demand of myself.  I started a massive open online course (MOOC) a few weeks back and started getting distracted by this and letting it leak into my desired professional time (roughly 8am to 5pm).  Lucky for me, I am able to see this in my daily reports and jumped on attempting to do something about it before it became a major issue.

Tending to wake up and start working between 8am and 9am, and wanting to start a little earlier like 7am, I took measures to push me into making the first hour or two the most productive I can make it.  Setting up a few alerts on my RescueTime account has helped drastically.  The first alert is triggered once I’ve spent approximately 1 to 2 minutes on the computer, it greets me with a “Good Morning” and encourages me to get something awesome done today.  It also automatically starts a 15 minute FocusTime session to get the gears spinning in the right direction.

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The next two alerts I set up as a goal to monitor how well I am doing over time.  They run on a filter from Monday to Friday between 7am and 10am.  They will trigger once I spend 1 hour of time on productive activities and a challenging 2 hours of time on productive activities.  So far since starting this I have been able to reach the 1 hour productive goal, but since I am still waking between 8am and 9am, I haven’t yet been able to hit the 2 hour productive goal but am looking forward to continuing to try.

What I have found, is that spending the first hour or two in a really productive state, it actually carries you throughout the rest of the day.  It acts like momentum, helping you plow through distractions like the stone above.


RescueTime alerts are now 280 times more awesome (thanks, Zapier!)

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You can now use your RescueTime Alerts to automate your favorite web applications, thanks to our new integration with Zapier.com.

Say what? Probably easiest to show some examples. Here are a few things we’ve been doing around the RescueTime offices that illustrate some of what you can do with this integration.

1. Deliver alerts differently than the standard popup messages or emails

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2. Automatically share time milestones as status reports

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3. Log alerts as datapoints for future Quantified Self analysis

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4. Poke fun at ourselves for going on workaholic binges while getting this integration done!

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Zapier allows more than 280 web applications to speak to each other

Zapier is a web service that makes it easy for non-developers to connect their web applications together, saving time and improving productivity. They connect with over 280 different services, including several of the most popular project management and communication services, such as Basecamp, Asana, Podio, Yammer, iDoneThis, and HipChat to name a few.

How does this work?

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When you connect your RescueTime account with Zapier, we will make a special feed of your alerts accessible to them. Then you can set up any of your alerts to trigger an action in Zapier. This can be used to log a block of time, send a status message, or add a note to a calendar. You can even send a humblebragging tweet about your horrible work-life imbalance. A more technical explanation can be found here.

How do I get started?

Alerts - and consequently the alerts API - are only available to RescueTime premium subscribers. But to make it easier to give them a try, we’re offering premium subscriptions at 25% off the normal price until May 31, 2014. Click here to upgrade so you can get started.

First, make sure you have some alerts set up, then head on over to Zapier.com and start creating zaps. If you need any help, check this help document or open a support ticket with us and we’ll be happy to help.

Let us know what you think, ok?

The great thing about Zapier is it puts you in control of your data without relying on us to do tedious one by one integrations. Play around with it. Have fun! Do amazing things! If you find something that’s really working for you, please let us know so we can share the knowledge!


Some tips for safe web browsing in a post-Heartbleed internet

Over the past week, we have noticed many people (friends, family members, etc…) asking for general advice on things they can do to protect themselves from the recently revealed Heartbleed vulnerability. While a lot of the major work needs to be done by owners of individual websites, there are some more general security steps that you can take to minimize your risk. Most are not that difficult to set up, so you might as well go ahead and do them, especially now that security is probably fresh in your brain due to all the Heartbleed coverage.

If you use Chrome, install the Chromebleed extension.

This browser extension will give you an alert when you are on a secure site that appears to be vulnerable to the Heartbleed bug. The good news, as many websites have patched their servers, you should see very few alerts. If you do see an alert. Get off that website and come back later when they have had a chance to patch their servers.

Change passwords on sites that have given the all-clear

It’s a good idea to change your passwords, but only for websites that have given the all-clear that they are no longer vulnerable to the bug. If a site hasn’t patched their servers and you update your personal information, it doesn’t do much good.

Use a password manager like LastPass

It’s really hard (damn near impossible) to remember a unique password for every website you visit. Most people use a single password for many websites. A password manager shifts that burden out of your brain and into a piece of software, allowing you to remain secure while only remembering a single password.

Use two-factor authentication wherever possible

Two-factor authentication minimizes the risk of a password breach by forcing you to provide an extra piece of information  when you log in. Usually this is a rotating security code that you read from an app, or an access code that will be sent to you via text message when you attempt to log in to a website. They are not very difficult to set up, and the security benefits are pretty great. If you haven’t started using two factor authentication on websites that offer it, you really should think about it.

Many sites support two factor authentication. Here are links to set up two factor authentication for Google accountsFacebook (look for “login approvals”), Twitter (look for the “login verification” options), Github, and Evernote. A much larger list of sites can be found here.

Review the applications you are connected to on major social media sites

It’s likely that over the years you have built up many sites that have used a connection to one of your social media accounts. It’s easy to forget about the random website that you connected with your Facebook account two years ago. You should review these applications and revoke any services that you are no longer using.

Here are links to see the connected applications for your Facebook, Twitter, and Google accounts.


I’m about to start working remotely, and it’s sort of freaking me out

In about two weeks, I’m moving from Seattle, WA to Nashville, TN. This is awesome for a number of reasons. Nashville has less depressing winters, some great friends and family live there, there’s an NHL team, and I’m really excited to reacquaint myself with the city I grew up in. (That said, I am going to really miss Seattle. This place is amazing). There’s just one part that makes me a little nervous: Working remotely. It freaks me out. It shouldn’t, but it does. Kind of a lot. Several people at RescueTime work remotely, and they make it work just fine, but I’m still uneasy.

You see, I’ve worked remotely once before, and I was terrible at it. I mean, I still got my work done and all, but I fell into just about every conceivable work-from-home trap in the process. It was several years ago, and I was living in Boston, working for a small web design company in Anchorage, AK. The four hour time difference meant my work day didn’t start until noon (which is awesome), but it meant I was working until about nine (opposite of awesome). I didn’t have to keep those hours, but between everyone else being on Alaska time and me not being a morning person at all, it was an easy pattern to fall into. Finishing work so late each day sort of wrecked my motivation to go out and do anything afterwords, so often times I would just keep working. That’s a really bad habit to fall into, and led to some pretty bad workaholic tendencies (also not so great for my social life :\). I was working out of my house, so the isolation started to get to me. For days at a time, I found myself with literally zero reasons to put on pants. In a way, that sounds luxurious, but it stops being fun real quick. After a while, I figured out ways to get a little bit more balanced, but it never really got to a spot where I could say I actually enjoyed it all that much.

So you can see why getting back into a remote work situation would be unsettling. But I’ve got some reasons to be optimistic this time around.

I’m not the only one in my company working remotely

The last time I worked remotely, I was the only one in the company not in the main office, and that caused a huge disconnect. I felt guilty being the odd man out, like I was burdening everyone with my weird schedule and the fact that I couldn’t be there for meetings. At RescueTime, more than half the team works remotely, so I don’t feel that same pressure. It’s already a part of our culture. And the folks I work with have been doing this for years, so I don’t have to figure it out all on my own.

Technology is way, way better now

Before, the main options I had for interacting with my coworkers were phone calls, email, and FTP. Now I have all sorts of options to stay connected. We sync files through Dropbox, share code with Git, and share all sorts of random knowledge tidbits with Evernote and Google Drive. On a more social level, Google Hangouts makes it so we can see each others faces (and screens) whenever we need to. And we use HipChat for group chat, which has been surprisingly effective at making everyone feel a little less spread out across the country. On the time management front, RescueTime helps me steer clear of some of the really bad habits I’m prone to by keeping me aware of how my days are shaping up.

There are other options for not working strictly from home

I know that working from home drives me crazy after a short while, so I have to get out and find somewhere else to work. This time around, I have two things working in my favor. Coffee shops are a great option now that I’ve developed a fancy coffee addiction (thanks a lot, Seattle!), and Nashville has an abundance of coworking spaces that I can go to give myself some structure (as well as some physical distance from home, so I can draw the line when I’m done for the day). I’ve spent a few days at CoLab Nashville, which has been great, and there are several others that look really good. I have a lot of options.

Nashville-to-Seattle is way different than Boston-to-Anchorage

It’s not as hard to go back. Flying to Alaska was always a huge, expensive undertaking, no way around it. (To be fair, a huge, expensive undertaking that also involved moose, bears, Northern Lights, and a bunch of other completely magical stuff.) Seattle is still far away, but I’m only crossing two time zones, not four. (No direct flights though, so that’s sort of a bummer.) I’m not really sure how necessary going back will end up being. Going back to the first point, the other people working remotely give me some new options for face to face time. There are two RescueTimers in Atlanta, and that’s only a few hours’ drive.

Remote work is actually a thing people think about now

In the time since I last worked remotely, the conversation has gotten a lot more interesting and sophisticated. In addition to all the tools I listed above, there’s just a better understanding of what the tradeoffs and pitfalls are. A lot of people have put effort into figuring this stuff out, so there’s a better roadmap. It also helps that I have a pretty clear idea of some things that simply don’t work for me (living and working in the same space, all the time, for example). This time around it feels like there is a lot less that I’ll have to sort out by pure trial and error. I’m about halfway through reading Remote, by 37signals, and it’s a really nice rollup of the dos, don’ts, and current thinking about remote work.

So I think it’s all going to work out ok. Still, got any tips?

While I’m optimistic, I still know myself and know the traps I’m apt to fall into. Does anyone have any good tips or strategies for remote work? If so, leave them in the comments, I’d love to hear 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

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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

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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.


Confession: I completely missed Information Overload Awareness Day

Oh, man. The irony of what I’m about to say…

This past Monday was Information Overload Awareness Day, and I totally missed it because an email about it went unopened in my inbox.

Information Overload Day 2013 - October 21, 2013

I usually do a pretty good job of keeping email under control, but it’s really gotten away from me over the past few weeks. It’s downright sad how out-of-sync I feel when I have upwards of 100 unread emails in my inbox. I feel more and more scattered by the mental weight of those un-dealt-with messages as they pile up. “Am I missing something important? Probably? But do I have time to deal with it right now? Probably not, especially if it’s something really important.”  Once that cycle starts spinning, it just gets worse and worse.

Even though it seems ever-so-slightly corny to holiday-ize the concept, I’m really glad there’s a serious conversation going on about information overload. It’s one of those things that (increasingly) affects our days so much, yet it feels like so many people simply write it off as an unfortunate fact of life.

The Internet Overload Research Group (IORG) brings together a really interesting mix of smart folks that are focused on the effects of information overload and possible solutions to the problems it can create. IORG members Joshua Lyman and Jared Goralnick hosted a really interesting webinar on Monday (which I did not watch live, due to the email being stuck in the aforementioned purgatory of my dumb ol’ inbox). The recording is really worth checking out if you find this stuff interesting.

The webinar features a panel discussion with Dimitri Leonov from SaneBox and Shawn Carolan from Handle, two companies which take different approaches for helping people cope with information overload. There is also a really interesting presentation by Professor Sheizaf Rafaeli of Unviersity of Haifa in Israel. He questions if multitasking is really as evil as some people make it out to be, and makes a really good case for the fact that, sometimes, it’s actually something to strive for (which runs fairly counter to a prevalent meme in the information overload world that multitasking is the root of all evil).

It’s a long video (just under an hour), but really interesting if you’re curious about the current thinking around information overload and multitasking.