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

coffee-shop-work

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

wh-rescuetime-humblebrag

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.

rescuetime_morning_alerts

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.


Getting the most out of RescueTime for your Quantified Self projects

I’m pretty sad that I’ll be missing the 2014 Quantified Self Europe Conference this weekend. From what I can tell of the lineup, it’s going to be a great conference that’s full of insights, sharing ideas, and learning about all the amazing ways that people are looking internally to understand themselves better. Seriously, if you’re there, I’m jealous. Have a fantastic time. If not, and you’ve never been to a quantified self event, consider checking out a nearby meetup.

Not to mention Amsterdam looks absolutely amazing.

I suspect many people will come away from the conference energized and inspired for some new tracking projects, so I wanted to offer up a few tips for how to effectively make use of the data in your RescueTime account. Of course, we try to make the default reports as informative as possible, but here are some power-user moves that should help you dig a little deeper.

A number of these are premium features, but if you are on the free plan and would like to try them out, you can click here to upgrade at a 25% discount until the end of May.

1. Export your data to a spreadsheet.

export to csv

Most of the reports can be exported to a .csv file  (premium version only). This lets you bring them into your spreadsheet program / database / visualization engine of choice to do some further analysis or compare with other data sets. I used this extensively for a project I did last year comparing my sleep and physical activity levels to my time spent in email and software development.

Just look for the green “Export / Share” button underneath the graphs on the reports.

2. Use time filters to compare your time in different periods

Time filters

One of the most straightforward explorations you can do is to see how your computer time looks like when you’re working vs. when you’re not. That’s pretty easy to do with time filters in RescueTime. You can restrict your time in a given period to specific days (“weekends” for example), or specific times of day (“After lunch”).

You can find the time filter controls on the date picker widget that is available on most reports. There are a few default time filters available for people on the free version of RescueTime. The premium version of RescueTime allows you to customize the filters and create new ones.

Some ideas to explore:

  • How do my weekends differ from my weekdays?
  • What types of activities do I spend more time on in the morning? what about the afternoon?

3. Use the RescueTime Data API

If you are comfortable with a scripting environment, you can request data from RescueTime programatically as JSON or CSV data. This can be great if you have already written another tool to consume data from another service.

The API is available to people on both the free and premium version of RescueTime, and will allow you to get the same data that you can find from most of the reports on the website.

Check out the API documentation to learn more.

4. If you are trying to use your data for behavior change, have a look at our integration with Beeminder.com

beeminder-chart

Beeminder is an interesting service. They allow you to state a goal that you’d like to stick to (“Less than 30 minutes a day on Reddit.com”, for example), and they will track your progress for you and give you daily updates on how you are doing. But if you fail to stick to your goals, you will “derail”, and getting back on track will cost you money. It’s a form of commitment device and it can be a really helpful incentive if you have a habit that you would really like to break.

You can read more about Beeminder and RescueTime here.

5. To find correlations between your RescueTime data and other sources, use Zenobase

time-on_computer_vs_steps

Zenobase.com is an analysis tool for personal time-series data. In other words, anything about you that can be expressed as data points that occurred at distinct points in time. I’m going to be honest, it has a learning curve, but once you get over it, you can do some really interesting things with it. You can do simple exploration of your data in ways that other services may not offer (for example, in RescueTime there’s not a way to see a histogram of the time you spend per day, normalized to the nearest hour). You can also mash up several data sets and look for correlations.

Use RescueTime alerts and Zapier to automatically log milestones about your time in an online spreadsheet

zapier-spreadsheet-1

RescueTime’s alerts are highly configurable and can let you know when you have spent more than a specified amount of time in a productivity level (example: “all productive time”), a category (example: “design and composition”), a specific application (example: “microsoft word”) or a website (example: “mail.google.com”).

These alerts are delivered by an email or popup on your desktop, but they can also be used to log when the threshold for that activity was reached. You can connect your RescueTime account with Zapier.com and whenever an alert is triggered, you can insert a row in a Google Spreadsheet, or mark down the timestamp as an event on a calendar. Zapier has interfaces for a lot of applications, so you aren’t limited to spreadsheets or calendars. There are many other places you can log your alert data as well.

Check out our integrations page to learn more.

Good luck with your tracking projects!

I hope these tips are helpful. If you’re looking for some more inspiration on things you can do by tracking your time, check out these talks from past Quantified Self events. If you come up with some interesting insights based on your RescueTime data, let us know. I’d love to hear about them!


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

reddit-alert

2. Automatically share time milestones as status reports

whats-happenin

3. Log alerts as datapoints for future Quantified Self analysis

calendar-track

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

Auto-tweet-help

 

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!


April updates: Compare mobile to desktop time, Alerts improvements, and auto-updates to the desktop app!

We’ve pushed out  a number of new things over the past week or so that we are pretty excited to share with you. Here is a brief rundown. We will have expanded posts about some of these features in the next few days.

New premium report – Compare your mobile, desktop, and offline time side-by-side.

If you are using our Android app, or you log a lot of offline time, you will have noticed that all that time gets combined with your desktop computer time in the reports. This is actually pretty convenient, because it allows you to see everything all at once. But it does tend to obscure some of the details about those different contexts. We just added a new report that will allow you to see your time coming from different inputs separately. (Personally I was a little shocked to see just how much time I spend looking at my phone each day.)

source-report

Updates to alerts

We made several improvements and additions to the RescueTime’s alerts system.

More automatic FocusTime choices. After much feedback, we added more options to the automatic FocusTime site-blocking. Now you can set a longer interval for distracting websites to be blocked after an alert is triggered, or you can choose to have websites blocked for the entire rest of the day (requires the latest version of the application).

focustime-alert-options

You can now create an alert for any individual website or application. You used to have to go through a pretty clunky process to create an alert for a specific website, now there is a link on the website or application’s report page to create an alert. This allows you to get extremely specific with the alerts you create.

create-alert-for-activity

Power user trick – Automatically launch a url when an alert is triggered. If you create an alert with a custom message, and you include a url enclosed with backticks in the message, the url will be opened automatically when the alert triggers. I have an alert for when I’ve been really productive that tells me:

Long day today! Take a break and look at puppies! `http://www.reddit.com/r/aww`

This automatically opens up the /r/aww subreddit, and gives me a nice little moment of decompression (Looking at cute animals is proven to boost your productivity. Science says so!)

pssssst! Speaking of doing interesting automated things with alerts, we’re working on a few integrations that we’re really excited about, but they won’t be ready for a few more days.

Desktop-application update improvements

We’ve overhauled the way the RescueTime application handles updates, and the new process is much smoother. New users are currently getting this functionality, and we’ll be pushing out an update automatically in the next couple of days, and after that any future updates should be much less obtrusive than they currently are.

You can get the new version of the app now from the RescueTime download page.

The input sources report and RescueTime alerts are only available to premium subscribers. If you are on the free plan, you can learn more about upgrading to RescueTime premium here.

I hope you like these new features. There’s a lot more on the way!


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.


Our Android app and Samsung’s repeatedly regressing bugs in Accessibility Services

Hello folks,

A number of you, especially international users, are affected by a very annoying bug in Samsung’s build of the Android OS. The unfortunate situation is that this a Samsung bug, and not something we have the ability to do much about. This Samsung bug variously causes these behaviors:

  • Installing RescueTime and enabling “website details” causes Text To Speech to be active. This one seems to be mostly solvable through ridiculously complicated systems settings changes.
  • Installing RescueTime (and enabling website details?) causes misbehavior of certain alternate keyboards, especially Swype. Doesn’t appear to be a solution to this yet.

 

Samsung has at certain times claimed to fix this bug, but it is as if they are using some stub code that contains the bug, and keep re-introducing it in different ways. The bug has to do (it seems) with Samsung incorrectly responding to other apps Accessibility settings, when they should not.

They seem to have introduced the bug in some revision 4.1, then sort-of fixed it in some iterations 4.2, then re-introduced it in other ways in 4.2.1, at this point it is hard to know which Samsung devices have the issue. Galaxy 3 seems to be the biggest offender.

Here is a comprehensive discussion of other app developers hoping to get Samsung to do something about it:

http://developer.samsung.com/forum/thread/samsung-devices-and-accessibility-services/77/204387

and another thread: https://code.google.com/p/android/issues/detail?id=23105

and another about keyboards: http://forum.xda-developers.com/showthread.php?t=1924208

For users with the TTS and Talkback problem: from what we hear from users if you go to your phone’s system Settings -> App -> All and disable BOTH Google TTS Engine AND Samsung TTS Engine, the spoken text problem should go away.

For users with the Swype and other keyboard problems, we are still looking at recommendations, and will update here. Some users may have success by simply switching the RescueTime Accessibility Service to OFF under system Settings -> Accessibility -> Services -> RescueTime (switch to OFF).

Our current plan of action is to add a feature that detects if you are on Samsung devices, and if you select web site details, give you a warning and a link to this post.

Thanks!