Offload motivation to a machine and let it force you to keep good habits – it will only hurt a little!

work-life-balance-bot

Tweaking a routine to be more balanced / less distracted / more productive / etc is hard. Motivation only goes so far, and there are so many temptations and easy excuses to fall off track. Wouldn’t it be nice to outsource motivation? Here are three projects you can use to automate your efforts to form good habits. *, **

* Except you can’t actually use them. These projects are all proof-of-concept at this point.

** Some of these might be really terrible. What do you think?

Pavlov Poke – Get an electric shock when you spend too much time on Facebook

Pavlov Poke

Two MIT students found that they spend WAY too much time on Facebook, so they decided shock therapy was the way to go for kicking the habit. They rigged up a keyboard with conductive metal strips attached to a shock circuit. When you spend too much time on Facebook (or any other website of your choosing)… ZAP! The idea is that you’re subjecting yourself to Pavlovian conditioning, and after getting shocked a few times, you’ll gradually wean yourself away from the site you’re spending too much time on.

All that said, this study suggests this project might not be as necessary as you think.

Git Sleep – Restrict your code commits until you’ve gotten a good night’s sleep

gitsleep

Sleep deprivation sucks, and it affects a lot of people (over 35% of adults according to the CDC). The impairments from chronic loss of sleep can cause all sorts of problems at work. If you’re a programmer, you’d be smart to not check in any code you wrote on 3 hours of sleep. That’s where Git Sleep comes in. It syncs up with a Jawbone UP wristband that monitors your sleep (as well as your physical activity when you’re awake). Every time you try to commit code, it checks to see how much sleep you had in the past 24 hours. If it’s too little, it blocks your commit until you have gotten more sleep. If you ever want to make progress on anything at work, you’ll need to be well rested, so avoid those all-nighters!

In all seriousness, I think this one sounds pretty damn cool, especially after doing some of my own analysis on my sleep and work patterns.

GitFit – Each code check-in will cost you 500 calories

Exercise is important. So is taking breaks. If you’re sitting on your ass all day writing code, you’re eventually going to burn out. GitFit just won the “Best health hack” at the HackMIT hackathon last month. Details are a little sparse on their web site, but from what I can gather, you connect with your FitBit or Jawbone Up, then your code commits will go through a check to see how many calories you’ve burned since your last commit. If you haven’t burned enough, you’ll need to go run around the block for a while. Sounds very similar to the GitSleep concept, but that’s okay – you’ll be well rested so you should have a bunch of extra energy to burn off. #WinWin!

Update: Woah! Looks like the Moscow subway had a similar idea? Instead of paying money for your train ticket, you can pay with 30 squats instead.

These are all only projects at this point, not polished services. But they all explore an interesting idea, that you can use data to enforce a balance between your digital and physical life. There will be even more opportunities as more things become trackable.

Have you heard of any other projects, services, or mad-science experiments that fuse data together in interesting ways? I’d love to hear about them in the comments!


Stop beating yourself up about “all that time” you waste on Facebook, it’s probably less than you think

bigredclock-1

When I tell people about RescueTime and what it does, one of the most common things I hear is:

“Oh wow! I don’t even want to think about how much time I waste on Facebook!”

When people have actually been using RescueTime for a little while, I often hear something different:

“Ya know? I really thought I spent more time on Facebook than that!”

Two things jump out at me when I hear this. First, many people think they spend more time on Facebook than they actually do. Second, they seem to feel guilty about it.  The first observation makes the second one sort of sad. I don’t want anyone to feel bad about themselves, and certainly not for something that’s not really even true!

That’s why I LOVE telling people about the following study.

Rey Junco, a professor of library science at Perdue University, recently investigated how students’ estimates of their time on Facebook differed from the actual time they spent on the site. Since many studies that focus on social media usage rely on self-reported data, this is a pretty important thing for researchers to understand. He asked test subjects to report how much time they spend each day on Facebook, then used RescueTime to monitor their actual time on Facebook. The results were very surprising.

“students significantly overestimated the amount of time they spent on Facebook. They reported spending an average of 149 minutes per day on Facebook which was significantly higher than the 26 minutes per day they actually spent on the site (t(41) = 8.068, p < .001).”

When I first read these results, I did a double take. Subjects were overestimating their Facebook time by 473%. Four Hundred Seventy Three Percent?!?! It seems almost unbelievable. In his blog post, Rey covers some factors that could have affected the data, but it seems like the gulf between the estimate and the actual time on Facebook is real.

It’s interesting to contrast that overestimation with something else I’ve noticed. Many people fairly drastically underestimate the amount of time they spend in email. According to a study from last year by the McKinsey Global Institute, up to 28% of the average desk worker’s week (or around 13 hours) is devoted to managing email. While it’s necessary for work, it’s often a distraction, due to its tendency to pop up every few minutes on someone’s screen while they’re trying to focus on other work. People are usually not that great at accurately adding all this time up, and that’s not even taking into account the refocusing time that comes when trying to get back to the original task that the email interrupted.

I wonder if there isn’t some sort of guilty pleasure factor at work there? For whatever reason, do people’s negative judgements about their time on Facebook (or Twitter, or Reddit, etc…) cause whatever time they DO spend to be over-inflated in their minds? On the other hand, email doesn’t have this problem, because very few people think about email in those terms. That’s just a theory of mine, which is partly based on my own experience, but I’ve seen a lot of anecdotes that back it up. If it’s actually true, it’s sort of a bummer. It means people have a general tendency to beat themselves up over things that feel too much like an indulgence.

To me, this is a great illustration of the awesomeness of RescueTime. Having an accurate, real record of how your time is spent can totally change your perspective. When you’re sitting at a computer all day, it’s too easy for it all to just blur together. With a real understanding of how little time I actually spend on sites like Facebook or Hacker News, I’ve been able to let go of any negative judgements I had 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

steps-vs-coding

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

sleep-vs-computer-time

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.


Are you ready for National Novel Writing Month?

It’s almost November, which means it’s almost time for another National Novel Writing Month! For those who don’t know, National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) is a month-long writing binge with the goal of completing a 50,000 word novel by 11:59pm on November 30. That’s an average of 1,667 words per day! It’s an amazing challenge for anyone who has ever kicked around the idea of doing long-form writing.

Last year, we worked with a group of aspiring novelists who were also using RescueTime, and we were able to learn some interesting things. Check it out: (click the image to enlarge)

Lessons learned from RescueTime's NaNoWriMo 2012 experiment

We’re running this experiment again this year. If you would like to use RescueTime to track your time working on your novel for NaNoWriMo 2013, click here.

Here are some other tools that can make your 50,000 word journey easier:

750 words

As far as domain names go, 750words.com can’t get much more self-explanatory. It’s a site that wants you to write 750 words, every day. While that’s less than half the daily word count you’ll need to complete NaNoWriMo, it’s the writing every day part that’s important. Also, the site gives you some pretty analytics about your writing efforts.

Write or Die

Write or Die gives you a kick in the pants to keep you motivated. The idea is, you should be afraid of NOT writing, so they give you negative consequences when you don’t write enough. I love the fact that they have a “Kamikaze mode” where the words you have written will start deleting themselves unless you keep writing.

Beeminder

Beeminder lets you make a bet with yourself that you’ll accomplish a goal, then track your progress as you work towards it. If you stray too far from your path, it’ll cost you money. They can track your daily word count, giving you a great way to stay focused during the parts of your novel where you might otherwise give up.

Written? Kitten!

Written Kitten is simple text box with a single, brilliant feature. Every hundred words you type, you get to see a new picture of a kitten. I could say something about the science behind cute animals making you more productive, but who needs it? Cats are adorable, why wouldn’t you want to keep typing to see more of them?

Feeling inspired yet? Go get ‘em!


Introducing the New RescueTime

If you are an individual RescueTime user you have probably noticed that your RescueTime Dashboard looks a bit different!

I am very excited to introduce to you the combined product of many years of user feedback and many months of development efforts – the New RescueTime.  This is a quick blog post to go over the highlights of what you are about to experience with RescueTime in hopes that the transition from old to new is quick and easy and you can enjoy the site improvements as soon as possible.

This new version of RescueTime has given us the opportunity to use feedback we’ve received over the last few years to provide a better experience for our existing users.   It will also make it easier for new users to become acquainted with the RescueTime product.  With these changes we have undergone a huge technical upgrade replacing aging components and bringing our entire stack to modern and in some places bleeding edge technologies.

A lot of the changes you see were driven by the meteoric rise of mobile device use we’ve seen in the last few years.  The RescueTime dashboard and reports will now work just as well on phones and tablets as they do on desktops and laptops.

dashboard

New Feature Highlights

We have packed over 30 new features into this latest version of RescueTime and we will have a follow-on blog post [future link here] that goes over them in more detail, but I’m too excited not to mention at least a few of them!

  • A completely rethought dashboard, based around common use cases
  • A ‘spotlights’ section giving you a better sense of your daily patterns and things that have changed over time
  • An ‘insights’ section that highlights notable information about the current day / week / month
  • An Achievements block showing your lifetime total time logged, top productive day, and some other really cool information, especially for our long time users
  • Reports have a new “daily patterns” view that shows you what time of day you tend to spend more time on particular activities, categories, or productivity levels
  • Reports have a “changes over time” view that shows you how the current time period compares to the several days/weeks/months prior
  • You can now set goals for applications (previously you could only set goals for productivity or categories).
  • You can now compile a list of “highlights” about a given day.  It’s a great way to remember what you accomplished
  • New “What work did I get done?” view that shows you a filtered view to jog your memory about the productive work you spent time doing.

Old Features Missing

With all of the changes that were made, there were a few features that have been removed or are not yet ready for release.  If there is something gone that you need, “Don’t Panic!” - you can still access the old site for a period of time, see the end of this blog post.

  • The Projects feature as it was originally developed is no longer available in the new version of RescueTime.  Our plans are to develop a much better replacement, but I can’t give you any time frames as to when that will be yet.
  • Custom Reports AKA Saved Searches are not yet available in the new version.  We will have saved search capabilities released soon.
  • The Document and Details report is not available in the new version.  You can still access all of your document details by first going to the Application & Websites report and clicking on specific applications to view the available documents.
  • The Customizable Dashboard is no longer available in the new version.  (Our new dashboard is perfect!  So why would you want to customize it!? ;) ) Seriously, though, the customization features were a lot of technical overhead that really didn’t get a whole lot of use, so we decided to go with a more structured approach.
  • The Comparisons Report is no longer available as as single report. We’ve taken some of the things we learned from that report and applied them across the site. We will be adding even more new ways to view your data soon.

What does all this mean?

For the time being, the new version of RescueTime is only available to our individual users (both free and premium).  If you are part of a Team account, a Research Project, or actively use the Projects feature, you will be automatically redirected back to the older version of RescueTime.  The data is seamlessly shared between the two versions of RescueTime and will be for at least the next month or two.

If you are currently viewing the new version of RescueTime and want to switch back to the old version, you can do so by clicking the “old version” link at the top of the RescueTime Dashboard.

If you are an individual user and are currently viewing the old version of RescueTime, you can switch to the new version by going to the “settings” link on the old RescueTime Dashboard and selecting the “Click here to switch to the new interface” link on your Account Settings page.

Team users don’t despair, we’ve got some nice shiny new love coming your way soon.

We hope you love the new version of RescueTime as much as we do.  We’re going to have a few bumps over the next couple of days, but we’ve got all hands on deck and will be addressing issues as they arise.  I encourage you to take a bit of time to wander around the new site, take a tour of the new features and then come back and give us some feedback!


How Quantified Should the Self Be?

I recently came across an Austrian article that raises some interesting questions about the use of technology in “measuring” our lives (http://www.format.at/articles/1328/940/362012/die-vermessung-ich[in German]).  The scope of this technology continues to increase and there are more opportunities for its insertion into our lives than ever before.

Here are some examples of the latest technology:

- an armband that measures physical activity, including steps taken, distance walked, and calories burnt; length and quality of sleep; and with auxiliary links to mobile devices and a scale, meal planning and weight management (http://www.fitbit.com/)

- work productivity software that measures active computer use and trends very precisely (http://www.rescuetime.com/) [That's us]

- a strap-on device for posture and movement monitoring and correction (http://www.lumoback.com/)

- a fork that measures eating habits and mechanics (http://www.hapilabs.com/)

- an all purpose physical activity device for multiple kinds of exercise (http://www.runtastic.com/)

- a scale that provides body anaylysis by measuring weight, BMI, body fat, and heart rate (and also local air quality to boot) (http://www.withings.com/scales)

- a diabetes app testing blood sugar (http://mysugr.com/)

- comprehensive health management software (https://www.dacadoo.com/)

Those who embrace this technology often self-identify as members of the “Quantified Self movement,” which is characterized by the search for informative feedback from devices such as those listed above.  Some see in the wealth of available data a “digital reflection” of their lives – this is felt to be empowering, allowing individuals to achieve a greater degree of self-awareness and to take proactive steps to optimize efficiency, health, and happiness based on adjustment of recognized patterns.  Sometimes the motivation for self-monitoring is a desire for improvement, sometimes for identifying and solving problems.

There are potential negative consequences to the adoption of this new technology and the hyper-analytical mindset and lifestyle that can result.  Having such a wealth of data at one’s fingertips, and a feeling of overarching responsibility for this data, can lead a person to believe that they are accountable and culpable for everything that happens in their lives.  There is also a danger of misinterpreting data – a person can mistakenly identify correlations among metrics and activities where there are none, or miss important ones that do exist.  This misinformation can then be used to make lifestyle decisions with potentially harmful consequences.  There are also issues with ownership of this data, its security, and its potential uses by others.

This raises a number of questions for debate:

1.  Are there specific uses of self-measurement technology that you find seriously problematic?

2.  Do we need some degree of education about understanding certain data to draw out the positive benefits of self-analysis and avoid pitfalls?  If so, what would this education involve?

3.  What type or types of measurement are the most important in the search for self-improvement?