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


“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.


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


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.


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.


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.


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 account
  4. Log into 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!

Zapier integration update: Daily summary reports and Automated highlight logging


A few months ago we added support for using RescueTime’s Alert notifications within Zapier, a service that helps people automate their favorite web apps.

We found that it was really, really useful, so we’ve added two additional triggers and an action to the RescueTime app on Zapier. These improvements will open up a bunch of new ways to use RescueTime with outside apps.

Daily summaries – daily rollup reports to use in your zaps.

Daily Summaries are a high level rollup of the the time you log in RescueTime each day. The summary includes the total time, time spent at different productivity levels, and time spent in each major category.
This lets you export high-level information about your days to other applications. With 20 different data points presented in a variety of formats (raw duration, percentage of overall time, formatted in hours / minutes / seconds), you can filter and customize the output to best fit the needs of your zap’s action.

This will make it easy to do things like:

  • Create a personalized daily email report showing only the metrics that really matter to you.
  • Create a notice when a certain percentage of your time is uncategorized. This notice could be delivered as an email, or an item added to your favorite to-do list such as Trello. Zapier supports over 300 different services, so there are a lot of possibilities here.
  • Create a percentage-based alert for any major category. This will let you keep an eye on how much time you spend on certain activities relative to the overall amount of time you have logged that day.

Note: Daily summaries are available to all RescueTime users, new reports become available each day at midnight in your local timezone.

Highlights – a running log of your accomplishments

RescueTime makes it easy to log notes about what you’ve accomplished each day. These are called Daily Highlights, and they can add important context to the application and website time that is logged automatically. Spend 6 hours coding one day? You can annotate that day so it’s more obvious what you got done during that time.


Highlights as displayed on the RescueTime weekly dashboard

You can now create zaps to automatically log highlight messages when meaningful actions happen in your other systems. This can make logging your status completely effortless. We’ve been using these a lot internally and it’s really made the quality of our weekly status meetings go up by about 1000%.

Some examples of things you can now do:

  • Log your GitHub commit messages as highlights. This one addition made the biggest difference for the developers on our team. Basically a part of our existing workflow – GitHub commits – was made more valuable by putting the data into a new place.
  • Keep a record of the meetings on your Google Calendar in your highlights list. Meetings can have a big impact on how you spend your time, so it makes sense to keep a record of them. It’s easy to import your Google Calendar events as daily highlights.
  • Log a highlight when new blog posts are published. If you work in media and need to keep a record of your posting progress, this makes it simple. This can be done in a zap via an RSS feed or by connecting your WordPress account to Zapier.
  • When a Trello card is dragged to the “done” column, log a highlight. This pretty much transformed how I use Trello. It was already a great way to manage what I needed to do, now it’s also a great reporting tool that shows me what I got done.
  • Log checkins on Foursquare as a highlight.  I really wanted to understand how my coffee intake affects my productivity, so I started logging any checkin to a coffee shop on Swarm as a highlight. Now I can see just how much of a caffeine addict I am. :)

Some people already have another application where they keep track of their accomplishments, so we also added the ability to broadcast highlights entered in RescueTime to other applications. For example, you may want to keep your ‘dones’ list in iDoneThis in sync with your RescueTime highlights. Or perhaps your team uses a tool like Yammer, and you may want to post a status message whenever you log a new highlight. For us, we send highlights to our “what’s happenin” room in HipChat.

Note: Highlights are a part of RescueTime Premium, to use them you will have to have a premium subscription.

We’re really excited about these new additions, and hope you find them as useful as we have. We would love to hear what you think in the comments. If you’d like to read more about these updates, check out the post about it over on the Zapier blog.

If you aren’t using RescueTime yet, getting started is easy. Just sign up and you’ll be logging time in less than five minutes.

Tip: Use RescueTime to sidestep your forgetfulness and remember to update your to-do list

A warning for productivity apps: Even the best of you will be rendered completely worthless by my horrible, horrible memory. :)

The hardest part of pretty much all to-do lists / project management tools is actually remembering to use them. It just doesn’t matter how good the app is, how much time it saves, or how much money it makes you if you can’t be bothered to open it up and do things with it.

I’m the worst about that, but lately I’ve found a fix. RescueTime can automatically open web pages right at the moment they’re needed. I’m letting a machine take over the job of staying organized from my flighty brain that’s just not very good at it.

It works – and it’s sort of magical.

Alerts within RescueTime can be set to open up an arbitrary url when triggered, and go off at very specific, contextually relevant times. If I’ve just spent two hours writing code, chances are I have something to cross off my to-do list.

Example: I actually keep my iDoneThis calendar updated now

I never have to think about updating  iDoneThis any more. It just shows up in front of me when the time is right.

I never have to think about updating iDoneThis any more. It just shows up in front of me when the time is right.

I use iDoneThis to record a list of what I get done each day. They try to remind me to update my calendar with a daily email reminder, but for me it totally fails. I’m swamped with email and the last thing I want is something else that’s going to add to it. Instead, my iDoneThis calendar just automatically opens up when I’ve done five solid hours of productive work in a day (which usually happens around 4-5pm).

It’s great. My iDoneThis calendar actually stays up to date now. I don’t have to worry about looking for an email, and I don’t have to worry about messing with it on days when I have nothing to say. It’s just sitting right in front of me when I need it to.

Try it out

RescueTime alerts are part of RescueTime Premium (You can upgrade here if you’re on the free plan) If you want to give these alerts a try, here are a few to try out:

Update your iDoneThis calendar after five hours of productive work. (you will need to update the URL to point to your own iDoneThis calendar)

Update your iDoneThis calendar after five hours of productive work. (you will need to update the URL to point to your own iDoneThis calendar)


Open when you first arrive at work in the morning. Remember to set the “when” dropdown to something that makes sense for your workdays.

Update Asana when you've been coding for more than two hours.

Update Asana when you’ve been coding for more than two hours.

If you’d like to learn more about RescueTime’s alerts (which are pretty awesome), check out this post, or learn more about RescueTime Premium.

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


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)


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


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


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)


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


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?