Productivity Hack: try “location boxing” your activities to train your brain to switch gears


For the past week, I’ve been taking an hour or so at the coffee shop near my office to knock out most of my email and communications. Then when I get back to the office, I stay out of email as much as possible. The experiment has made me realize that shaking up my work environment can help me stay more focused and productive. It’s sort of like the concept of Timeboxing but with more of a physical twist. “Location boxing” seems appropriate.

Getting your head in the right place for a new activity is hard

There are four main types of thinking I need to do in a typical work week:

Design-thinking: Visual design and thinking about the user experience

Coding-thinking: Building new features, solving technical problems

Business-thinking: Internal communications, interviews, and helping out on some sales calls

Support-thinking: Bug fixes, and responding to questions from RescueTime users

It’s next to impossible to do any of those simultaneously and be effective. You have to get into the correct mindset for each one. Design and coding require substantial periods of “maker time“, while support, sales, and communications generally involve a lot of rapid-fire bouncing around from task to task.

Timeboxing is a great idea, but I’ve found it really hard to stick to. Maybe I’m a little too scatterbrained, but my meticulously planned out schedule can easily be derailed by things like email, which can swoop in unexpectedly and steal hours from my day. Plus it’s just hard for me to flip the mental switch between, say, customer support mode and design mode.

The answer? Restrict activities to a location

Taking advantage of my proximity to the ocean and working on a boat

Altering my physical environment seems to help me switch activities, for a couple reasons…

I can find the right place for the task at hand

I find coffee shops a little distracting when I need to really focus hard on a single task, but they’re great for a series of short, repetitive tasks. I get to enjoy a latte while I churn through emails that I’d otherwise pick at throughout the day. I don’t code or design very well without a second monitor, so that focuses me even further. My 13-inch laptop screen is pretty well suited for communications, and not a whole lot else.

The physical shift becomes a “switching ritual” that signals my brain that it’s time to start thinking differently.

There’s something about the change in surroundings that seems to make it easier to quiet down whatever gears are still spinning from the last activity and re-focus on a new task.

You can’t always move to another location

It’s not practical to go to a different physical location for each task. You’ll probably get the most benefit if you can identify a single activity that has a high potential for derailing the rest of your day and banish that to another location from your other work. Sometimes, though, you just can’t get away. Here are some other ideas for altering your environment:

  • Have different desk configurations. Try moving your monitor from one side of the desk to another as you shift tasks. Maybe a totally clear, uncluttered desk works better for certain activities, while a desk full of pictures and knick-knacks works better for others. The act of switching configurations might be just enough to jog your brain into a different mode. It’s sort of the “hyper-functionible workplace” version of this. For example, I have an adjustable-height desk, and I usually do my coding-thinking while standing, but designing while sitting.
  • If you work from a laptop, you can almost certainly find an unused space in your office that you can switch to without being too disruptive.
  • If you can’t change your environment, just get out of it for a while. Go for a walk, or do anything else to signal to your brain that it’s time to start acting differently.

Your turn:

Have you ever gotten any benefit from location boxing your activities? I’d love to hear how. Let me know in the comments.

Further reading:

Transitioning Projects, or searching for a state of flow.

Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule

Can we talk for a minute about why email sucks so much?


Consider the following scenario: You’ve been working hard all day, feeling like you’re being productive, and you look up at the clock and see that it’s 5pm. A strange feeling washes over you, as you realize you have no clue how it got so late, and you can’t make sense of where your day went. It’s just an unexplainable 8-hour blur.

That feeling sucks. It sucks so badly, in fact, that it’s one of the reasons we built RescueTime, so we could understand what was actually going on with our days.

Have you ever had a day like that? If so, I’ll let you in on a secret…

If you’re like most people who spend their days at the computer, those days probably have a lot to do with email.

Email has become the glue that ties our workdays together. We can communicate with pretty much anyone, anywhere, anytime. Interactions that used to require scheduling a face to face meeting or phone call can be handled asynchronously. All things considered, it’s pretty amazing. But, that ease of communication can create a deluge that can drag down your entire day if you’re not careful.

In the average 5-day work week, about a day and a half of it is spent on email

That’s right. Email takes up around 28% of the average desk worker’s day. This has borne out in several studies, and we’ve seen similar numbers across our user base. That’s just shy of two and a half hours in an eight hour day (or 11.2 hours per week) It may seem like a lot, but even that number doesn’t tell the whole story. There are many factors that cause email to take a huge toll on our productivity, even if you have the best spam filters. Being aware of these can help you avoid falling into some serious productivity traps.

Three reasons email sucks

One: Switching tasks all day comes at a price


For many people, email is always on. It’s a ubiquitous layer on top of any other work that’s happening. Either there is a browser tab open with Gmail, or Outlook is running in the background, just to make sure nothing important gets missed. It’s pretty easy to think “it’ll just take a minute to respond to this email, that’s not hurting my productivity that much.” Besides, if you aren’t responsive, aren’t you dragging down other people’s productivity who may be waiting to hear back from you?

First of all, all those quick responses throughout the day add up. We tend to be really bad at estimating the sum total of time that it takes.

But it gets worse… that one minute it takes to respond is just the starting point. You then have to get back to what you were working on, and that’s surprisingly harder than it seems. That “re-focusing time” has been the subject of numerous studies, and has been shown to last anywhere from one to twenty-three minutes. Even more troubling, there are many tasks that are simply never returned to after dealing with the interruption.

Part of the reason for this refocusing lag may be that the way we use email forces our brains to work differently. The randomness of email, and our desire to be responsive, causes our brains to switch to a state of high-alert, continually on the lookout for new input. Most of that activity takes place in a part of the brain called the amygdala, which is where our fight-or-flight response comes from. That’s different from how our brains tend to act when we’re in a state of flow or deep thought, with most of the activity occurring in the pre-frontal cortex. [source]

With that in mind, the cost of always-on communications starts to become more apparant.

Two: Email is always unfinished business

infinity-emailChances are, if you look at your job description, “managing your inbox” probably isn’t listed as one of your primary duties. But the problem with email is that it’s a never ending task. There are always new emails coming in, and when you respond to an email, it usually results in a response back. The cycle just keeps spinning. Since your inbox keeps filling up, it’s easy to let it occupy a permanent, growing space in your mind. As you work on other tasks (probably the ones that actually are on your job description), your inbox which may or may not be exploding with something important sticks around in your mental space, causing a huge distraction. I’ve often found myself mid-stream on a project, then unconsciously tabbing over to my email, sometimes several times a minute. It’s infuriating.

There’s a psychological explanation for this, called the Zeigarnik Effect, which summarized as:

“It seems to be human nature to finish what we start and, if it is not finished, we experience dissonance.”

Three: Email is a one-stop shop that’s full of distractions

wenger_giant_knifeI’ve heard email described as “a firehose that we have to drink from”, and it’s certainly ubiquitous. It’s become a hub for our entire work day. It’s a single place that we’ve organically grown to use for many different reasons. It’s for communicating with your colleagues. And your customers… And personal communications… And it’s your task list (“I’ll just leave this in my inbox so it’ll remind me to follow up”)… And it’s your knowledge base (“I’ll just email this to the group to spread the knowledge around”)… Sometimes it’s a file system (“I’ll need this file tonight at home, so I’ll just email it to myself”)… On top of all of that, it’s the default notification repository for pretty much any other system you might be using.

The number of use-cases you can shoehorn email into is impressive. There’s a certain elegance to it, too. It’s this single place that you can keep an eye on everything. The downside of that, is that every time you go into it, you have to contend with that “everything”, even if you’re only trying to focus on one specific thing.

Instead of a boutique shop, it’s a Wal-Mart.

So what to do about it?

Ok, ok, It’s real easy to opine about how much email is overwhelming and problematic. There are countless blog posts about it. I even spoke at a conference devoted to it last week. The trickier part is figuring out practical ways of dealing with it. In most cases, you generally can’t easily just stop using it. It would be really disruptive to your company, and unless you’re the CEO, you can’t really get away with being that weirdo that says “oh, don’t send me an email, I won’t read it.”

The bummer is, there’s not a single solution that works for everyone. That said, with a little trial and error, it’s easy to find some strategies that will work for you. Here are several ideas and resources to get you started.

Optimize your inbox to support good habits

If you use Gmail, here’s a way to set up your inbox that pretty much forces you out of the habit of letting things just pile up. If you read a message, it disappears unless you take action on it. I’ve been using this one for the past few weeks and it’s great.

Set up some metrics to monitor your inbox health

Here’s a look at how one knowledge worker visualized the state of his inbox to understand how it was getting out of control.

With RescueTime, you can see exactly how all that time adds up. Here’s a post explaining one of our communication reports that helps you understand your communications time.

If you want to get hardcore about it, use Beeminder to make a financial commitment to shrinking your inbox (and get some interesting stats along the way).

Turn off all your notifications

Many changes to your email use require cultivating a new habit, or getting used to a new piece of software. This tactic is great because it simply means turning a bunch of stuff off. Take 10 minutes to go through all your devices and turn off everything that beeps, buzzes, blinks, or bounces in your dock. I did this last year, and after a few days the difference it made was so great that I’ll never go back.

Shift your communications elsewhere

When I read Claire Burge’s recent article about funneling all her communications away from email to other systems, I was skeptical. I mean, pushing all your personal communications to Twitter or Facebook seems even worse, right? You’re moving your communications to a platform that has distraction baked directly into their business model! And isn’t having your business communications spread across five project management systems obviously much less efficient than having everything in a single place?

On the other hand, if you are going to Facebook to deal with personal communications, it doesn’t really matter that you’re getting distracted, because social interaction is the whole reason you went there in the first place. Similarly, when you go to Basecamp to interact with a customer, you’re in an environment that’s walled off from anything not related to that customer. Perhaps most interestingly, when you do this, you allow email to stop being this over-crowded place that constantly needs monitoring. Breaking it up into smaller silos, it forces you to treat communications as a set of distinct tasks, rather than a single monolith that won’t ever be finished, no matter how much effort you put in.

So try moving your personal communications to Facebook, or your work-related discussions to LinkedIn. If it’s practical, try to shift your project related discussions to a dedicated project management environment like Basecamp or Asana.

For more inspiration, here’s another account of a CEO’s journey into a world without e-mail.

Let the robots do the work for you

Boomerang gives you some power-user tools that let you offload some of the mental overhead of email. The company who makes it also makes Inbox Pause (which does exactly that, pauses your inbox until you’re ready for new messages), and the Email Game (a nifty little game which forces you to work through your inbox).

You can also use a service like or Sanebox to move all your bulk email to a single place, allowing you to focus on personalized communications while you’re in your inbox. AwayFind is another option, letting you set up smart notification alerts so you don’t have to worry about missing important emails.

That’s not an exhaustive list of tactics, but it’s a starting point. Here’s some further reading:

What do you think?

I’m curious what strategies you’ve found to cope with email overload. Have you found anything that seems to work particularly well? If so, let us know in the comments!

The End of Year Review: Set Yourself up for a Productive New Year by Reflecting on the Past

Productivity Reflection

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Sam Spurlin, a graduate student studying positive psychology. He coaches and writes about the art and science of personal development at You can follow him on Twitter at @samspurlin.

I’m a graduate student studying and researching psychology so any time I want to understand something better I turn to data. As long as you collect it honestly and in a methodologically sound manner, data don’t lie. Good science is built on good data and one of the most important experiments I’m involved with isn’t funded by any grants and doesn’t have a team of scientists working on it — it’s the ongoing study of the way I work and live.

Data-Driven Self-Improvement

Every year I try to take a look at the data that best describes my work habits over the past 12 months to better understand whether I’m doing what I’ve set out to do. I’m trying to find inefficiencies, misguided attention, and other gaps so I can make sure I’m doing my best work as much as possible. I happen to work for myself while going to school full-time, but regardless of the details of your work situation you probably want to be operating at peak capacity as much as possible. Conducting an End of Year Review is a great way to recalibrate as you move into the new year.

The first step of any End of Year Review is deciding what questions you want to answer. This is partially dependent on the data you have available but some possible examples include:

  • How am I using my time?
  • What do my actions say about my priorities?
  • Have I left important but non-urgent projects by the wayside?
  • How much time do I spend doing email?
  • What have I done in the past year that I want to make sure I never/always do again?

The answers to these (and I’m sure countless other) questions can provide very benficial information for how you’ll try to conduct yourself in 2013. The next step is to look at the data that will help you answer these questions accurately. While many people do End of Year Reviews that are nothing more than pure mental reflection on the past 365 days, I’m always skeptical of my ability to remember things accurately. One thing being a psychology student has taught me is to be intensely skeptical of my memory. We aren’t nearly as good at remembering things as we like to think. Go with the hard data whenever possible.

Sources of Data

Obviously, RescueTime is a great source of data if you’re interested in knowing how you spent time at your computer. This is the first place I start with any sort of review on my work habits. There’s nothing quite like the shock of seeing you spent over 24 hours on time wasting activities over the course of several weeks to serve as a serious wakeup call.

Other than RescueTime, other great sources of data include; your calendar, daily journal or log, digital pictures, financial information, saved text messages, archived information from task management software, personal writing of any kind, etc. All of these sources help you see where you spent time, attention, and energy.

As you look through your calendar you may remember the awesome conference you went to last February which reminds you to follow up with that promising business lead. Looking through a year of photos will make you realize you’ve accidentally distanced yourself from some people important in your life (work, personal, or both). You may look at a year’s worth of saved work files and realize the big project you told yourself you’d work on last year is still sitting forlornly in the “unfinished” file.

Using The Data

Once you have all this data and have done any analyzing you need to do to draw some conclusions (more time on work that matters, less time on Facebook, call Steve, more writing in the morning, less computer on the weekend, etc.) how do you move forward?

First, let me point out that a potentially great first step is to decide to spend a little bit more time and effort recording more data on yourself in 2013. The better the data you have, the more you can learn about what does or doesn’t work for you.

Assuming you’re happy with the data you collect, my favorite way to make changes is to focus on one major change for 30 days. For example, when I did my most recent End of Year Review I realized I was spending way too much time on mind-numbing websites. I decided that I’d severely limit the amount of time I allow myself to mindlessly surf for 30 days. At the end of that period I’ll re-assess how the past 30 days went and whether I want to a.) continue with the experiment, b.) modify the experiment, or c.) go back to the way I was before.

Obviously, you can make changes in your life without collecting data on yourself first. You could also “do science” without collecting data — but nobody would take you very seriously. Why not apply the same standards that ensure good science to the way you make changes in your own life?

New Year’s Resolution ideas for your workplace productivity

One reason New Year’s Resolutions are so hard is because they involve making time for a new activity in your daily routine. It’s difficult to find time to go to the gym or learn a new skill because you’ve already got a tight schedule. Since you’re likely already devoting at least 40 hours to work each week, why not take advantage of that time and make some resolutions to optimize your working time?

Here are a few ideas for New Year’s Resolutions that you might consider to boost your productivity:

Go on an email diet:

If you want to get more out of your day, one of the most straightforward things you can do is cut back on email. Unnecessary communications are one of the biggest time-wasters, and the saddest part is that many people feel powerless to do anything about it. There’s often constant pressure to keep managers and colleagues informed, and over-use of email, instant message, and other communication systems unfortunately becomes ingrained in many companies’ cultures. But, you can make some small tweaks to start taming the email monster.

Take a look at for some easy-to-remember rules that will help you reverse the email spiral.

Consider using a service like Sanebox or to clear some noise out of your inbox.

Take a look at some compelling health reasons for limiting your email intake.

Or, read an account of one CEO’s experiment with ditching email.

Switch to a standing desk:

More and more studies are confirming that sitting at your desk all day is really bad for your health.  An obvious solution, stop sitting. The problem is that most standing desks will set you back several hundred dollars. But many people have improvised and come up with some creative ways to hack together functional (and sometimes even pretty) standing desks. Will you be able to ditch the chair? Only one way to find out.

Take a look at this cheap, functional, and none-too-shabby-looking standing desk setup made from IKEA shelves.

There are many recaps of other people trying standing desk experiments. Read up on them for tips and things to watch out for.

Cut down on distractions:

Between email, Twitter, Facebook, and all the apps on your smartphone, you have about a million things vying for your attention each day. The problem is, each one of them takes you away from something you were already working on. Even if it’s just for a few seconds, switching back and getting into a state of flow can take several minutes. Even worse, over time all those bleeps and buzzes train you to always be on guard for new incoming information. Next time you are at a restaurant, do a quick scan and note how many people are looking at their phones, or have them on the table next to them so they can be ready for the next incoming notice.

Consider turning off all notifications. It will feel weird at first, but after a few days you’ll notice a pretty dramatic shift. I made the switch last year and I’ll never go back.

Or, consider taking steps to block out distracting web sites that you frequent. Here’s how some prominent authors block out distractionsHere’s a shell script to turn off websites you’d rather avoid. Or, you could always use RescueTime’s Get Focused! site blocking. ;)

What are your productivity-related New Year’s Resolution ideas?

p.s. If you’d like to keep track of your productivity for the new year, sign up for a RescueTime account today!

Workplace experiment: How does your sleep affect your productivity?

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Ben Wisbey, Managing Director of FitSense Australia. I came across his recent post about the relationship between his sleep and productivity, and thought it was really great example of how to do a meaningful personal analytics experiment. You can follow Ben on Twitter at @benwisbey.

As a health professional, I have an obvious interest in the relationship between lifestyle habits and their impact on health. As I specialise in the delivery of workplace health programs, this interest extends to the link between lifestyle, health and work productivity.

As I am someone who likes to track and monitor everything, I decided to use some of the data I capture on myself to conduct a basic case study. The goal was to see if there was any relationship between my sleep habits, activity throughout the day and work productivity.


Sleep - I used the FitBit Ultra to track my nightly sleep. It does this by measuring movement. While not completely accurate, it provides a good indication and as the same method was used for the period of my analysis it offered standardisation.

Activity - I also used the FitBit to monitor my steps and activity throughout the day. However, this analysis focussed on my activity during work hours and did not include my morning run. The reason being is that my run is daily and I was more interested in the incidental activity I undertake during the day.

Productivity – Being an office based worker, productivity is traditionally difficult to measure. However I have used RescueTime for quite some time to monitor what I am doing on my computer and rating my level of productivity. I used the daily efficiency rating in RescueTime as well as looking at both morning and afternoon efficiency independently.

I collected all this data over a two month period and analysed only work. I then analysed the data using SPSS to determine statistical relationships.

So what did I find?

The key findings that were statistically significant (at a 0.05 level) included:

An inverse correlation between how many times I awoke during the night and my productivity. This means that the more interrupted my sleep was, the less productive I was during the day. This relationship was also true for the number of hours worked, so the more times I woke during the night, the less hours of work during the day.

A correlation existed between the amount of sleep and productivity. I was more productive at work following a longer sleep.

Not surprisingly there was also a link between the length of my work days and my productivity. So the longer I worked, the less efficient I was. This is of concern for those longer work days (9 hours + in my case).

The relationship between sleep and morning and afternoon productivity was similar. This indicates that poor sleep impacted my whole day, not just the afternoon when the tiredness may have been exaggerated.

My productivity in the morning and afternoon was closely related. This indicates that you generally have good or bad days, as opposed to just an unproductive afternoon.

Interestingly, there was no strong relationships between daily activity and productivity. However, I am probably not the best subject in this case as I have minimal variation in my daily activity levels.

What does it mean?

While this was only a short term case study with one subject, it did highlight the importance of health and lifestyle factors on your work productivity. It is also worth noting that I am of good general health and fitness, so the impacts on productivity would likely be more dramatic for people of poorer health.

It was interesting that the number of times I woke up during the night had a greater impact on my productivity than the amount of sleep I had. However, this is to be expected given that the benefit of sleep is largely associated with those deeper sleep stages, and regular interruptions limit your ability to spend time in these stages, regardless of your sleep volume.

My average time spent sleeping each night was 7 hours and 14 minutes. However, I appeared to be most productive when I obtained around 7.5 hours, with a noticeable decline when I slept for less than 6 hours and 45 minutes. My least productive days were associated with only 6.5 hours of sleep.

Thanks to RescueTime and the FitBit, this small case study was quick and easy to conduct. It provided me with some individual benchmarks I want to achieve in order to maximise my productivity by focussing on good quality sleep.

Would you like to start trying your own workplace experiments? Sign up for a RescueTime account today.

Build it and they will come? Performant Search brings Flexible Reports Part 1: Key Word Filtering works!

Our job was to find a long term scalable solution to the problem of Searchable Time. This post discusses our search capability and some ways to use it, now that we have reliable and speedy access to this feature. There will be a follow up post presenting the technology chosen, for those interested.

RescueTime has three features that depend on what we are calling “search”, I will be presenting two of them here: using keywords and expressions as a reporting filter with the “Search” field, and the Custom Report module (the third is “hints” in projects time entry interface).

I’ve been putting “search” in quotes (though I’ll stop that affectation now) because what we’re doing here is a bit different than a traditional Google-style search. We’re giving you a way to see a view of your RescueTime history across any span of time you choose, pivoted on your perspective of interest, eg. Categories or Activity Details or Productivity, for any activity we find that matches your search request. A “Custom Report” is just a way to save a search query for repeated use. But what does this all mean?

If you take a moment and think about it, this filtering can be very powerful. If you pick a good set of keywords, and possibly some tweaking with logical expressions (more on that later), you can get a fascinating view across your history, regardless of category, productivity, or other classification that is focused in high resolution at particular project, client, or other meme that might appear in many different applications and websites. How much time did you spend dealing with “John”? or, what is my pattern of time spent in a console versus my text editor (“terminal iterm aquamacs sublime vim”)?

Consider your document names, or folder names, email addresses, chat identities, and websites as potential members of a search expression to build these reports. The search engine will also understand logical AND and NOT and nesting. The default relationship between words is OR.

Let’s consider another example: How much did the last mini-release cost us?

You’ve got a team working on a project codenamed “Piranha”. This name appears in code filenames and directories, or Eclipse project names. It appears, with a little discipline, in your email subjects. And your support ticketing and requirements tracking system. And your marketing material’s files and web pages. And your internal chat group. And your meetings entered via offline time tracker. You get the idea– we can give a total time cost of this project, with 0 (zero) data entry across your entire organization . Well, plus any time your team spent learning about piranhas on Wikipedia (pick smart project names for best results, use logical operators to help out, eg “piranha NOT wikipedia NOT vimeo). You can then save this as a Custom Report for ongoing metrics, and side by side comparison with other ongoing custom reports.

Thank you to all our customers for sticking with us and giving feedback during the iteration of this slightly magical tool. We think search is finally fully operational.

Create a weekly ritual to anchor your willpower and preserve your sanity

Working at a small startup can get pretty crazy. Awesome, but crazy. It’s way too easy to get pulled in a thousand different directions and end up feeling totally scattered and drained. Some would say that’s doing a startup right, but it can get downright exhausting. I felt this way recently, and I stumbled on a somewhat counterintuitive way to balance things out. I gave myself more to do. Specifically, I gave myself exactly one more thing to do. I created a weekly work ritual for myself. I started writing a “this week in productivity” blog post to add some extra content to the weekly email reports we send out to our users.

I wasn’t really trying to form a new habit, but that’s what happened, and it had some really great side-effects. Now it’s baked into my weekly routine and I wouldn’t want to give it up.

Calling it a “writing project” would be extremely generous. It’s little more than a collection of links to things that I’ve noticed throughout the week that relate to productivity. It’s blogging at it’s lowest common denominator. But it was still a challenge for me. When it comes to writing, blogging, emails, or any other meaningful typed communication I’m a complete train wreck. I fret over my word choices for hours. I over-use adjectives. I take five hundred words to say something that could just as easily be expressed in twenty. (see I’m doing it now!) Given my hectic schedule, taking some time to do something, every week, no matter what, was also a challenge.

But, once I started, some cool stuff started happening. I got a chance to step back from the chaos of my work, shut everything else off,  and focus on just one thing for a while. Having a chance to get creative with it made me quickly start feeling more comfortable with writing. From a pure entertainment perspective, it gave me a chance to catch up on a bunch of blogs and websites I didn’t have time for throughout the week. And there’s just something that feels empowering about having “my thing” to do every week.

I think everyone should find their “me time” activity at work. That one little ritual that lets you retreat from the whirlwind and do something for yourself, but in a way that actually makes sense to do at work. It doesn’t need to be anything spectacular or anything, just something that makes sense for you.

It should be personal: Don’t just take on something new just because it needs to get done anyway. Give some thought to it, and find a project that you’re going to find some personal value in.

It should be sustainable: Don’t bite off more than you can chew. If you take on too much, you’ll overload yourself and end up feeling worse.

You should take some time to reflect on it: Forming a new habit is an accomplishment. Make sure you step back and look at your progress every now and then, so you can see how it’s impacting you.