We’re excited to welcome Belle B. Cooper to the RescueTime crew. She’ll be joining us part-time as a content marketer and copywriter. You’ll be seeing her around the blog and she’ll be helping us generally improve the conversations we have with the RescueTime community.
If Belle’s name sounds familiar, it’s because she’s done some really awesome things. She’s been published all over the place, and has written a ton about productivity, freelancing, and thriving in the modern workplace. She’s also one half of Hello Code, a startup that, among other things, makes an awesome Quantified Self app called Exist that finds correlations between the data in all your fitness and productivity apps. (hint hint, check out the Exist integration with RescueTime 😉).
We’ve been big fans of Belle’s writing for a while. In fact, as I was writing up the job description for this position, her name kept popping into my head as someone who would be a perfect fit. I reached out to her thinking there probably wasn’t much chance she’d be available, but might be able to refer someone. Turns out, the timing was just right, and we’re so happy to have her officially on board!
This is also a small milestone for us as a company, as Belle is the first person from outside the United States to join the team. Organizationally, it will be fun to figure out how that works. I’m really looking forward to learning how to work effectively across a 17-hour time difference. 😀
Focus is something I struggle with a lot. In my freelance writing work I have to spend hours at a time researching, writing, and editing. When I’m working on Exist, my company’s personal analytics app, I sometimes spend whole days writing blog posts, or working on our iOS app.
With so many different types of work on my schedule every week, I find it hard to stick to one task until it’s done. Too often I pick up my phone or start browsing Facebook without even thinking about it. Before I know it, I’m struggling to even remember what I was doing before.
I’m not the only one, either. A study from the University of California at Irvine found that the participants (who worked in the tech field) could only work on a project for 11 minutes before being distracted, on average. What’s worse is that it took them 25 minutes to regain their focus.
25 minutes for every distraction can quickly add up. For work like writing and software development, your best work can only be done in a state of deep focus, since you need to keep a lot of information in your head as you work. If you’re only doing 11 minutes of work every time you hit your stride, and taking another 25 minutes to get your focus back, you won’t have much to show for your efforts after a full day of work.
So what can we do to stop this vicious cycle from holding us back from productivity? According to science, there are quite a few actions we can take to improve our ability to focus for longer periods.
Take breaks more often, and get away from your computer
Looking at Facebook or checking your email isn’t a real break. Taking real breaks means leaving your computer, standing up, maybe even going outside or walking around your workspace. A real break takes your mind away from what you’re doing completely, giving it the ability to reset before you hit the desk again.
Research shows the kind of unfocused, free-form thinking we do during breaks helps the brain to recharge.
If you find it difficult to fit in real breaks, try scheduling ten-minute meetings with yourself throughout the day.
Spend more time near trees
Spending time in nature is great for your brain. When I say nature, I don’t mean the nearest city street. I mean somewhere green and leafy. And, in particular, somewhere with lots of trees.
While walking is a healthy activity, when we walk in busy areas like an urban street, our brains have to stay switched on to keep us safe. There’s a lot of stimuli demanding our attention in this kind of environment—advertising, stores announcing sales, other pedestrians, cars, bikes, and maybe even trams.
When we walk in a natural area like a park, the peaceful surroundings allow the brain to relax, which helps us recharge our ability to focus. But more importantly, make sure there are some trees around. Trees don’t just add to the natural vibe, they also do something special to the brain. Research has shown just seeing trees is enough to improve our health.
Spend time on a hobby you enjoy
If taking a walk outside isn’t your thing, or you’ve already tried it an need another option, finding a hobby you enjoy could do the trick.
Daniel Goleman says doing something that’s passive, but requires focus, is key. For instance, playing a song on piano or guitar that you already know well, or cooking a favourite meal could work. It needs to be an activity that keeps your attention, but doesn’t work your brain too hard beyond that.
The key is an immersive experience, one where attention can be total but largely passive. — Daniel Goleman
Goleman says this type of activity can give the brain a chance to recharge. By staying passively focused on what you’re doing, you’ll stop yourself from continuing to think about work. If you don’t already have a go-to hobby that fits the bill, you could try cycling, knitting, drawing, or even colouring in.
Move your desk
For those times when you can’t leave the office, or you need to push through without a break but you’re struggling to focus, this may be the most simple change you can make. Research has shown working in natural light can improve productivity and decrease how many sick days employees take.
Unfortunately, most of us work in offices with artificial lighting that can cause eye fatigue and make it harder to focus. If you can, try moving your desk closer to a window so you can get more natural light during the day.
Take a flow day
Author, university professor, and productivity expert Cal Newport says the idea of batching similar tasks together sounds useful, but rarely works. This process introduces more complexity, says Newport, and “most people will abandon a tactic as soon as it makes their life more difficult.”
Newport tried a day of batching tasks himself, to see how it affected his productivity and focus. He established firm rules and stuck to them for an entire work day. The rules stated all work had to be done in 30-minute blocks.
If he needed to do a small task that would only take a few minutes, he had to spend that entire 30-minute block doing small tasks. If he needed to check something in an email, he had to spend a full 30-minute block on processing and replying to emails.
Newport concluded after his experiment that the type of strict rules he used are necessary for batching tasks to work. But he also found these kind of rules “will absolutely make your day more difficult.”
There’s no avoiding the reality that there will be times when you have to take convoluted action to solve a problem that could so easily be handled with just a quick bounce over to your inbox.
This is a pain in the ass.
Despite the extra effort and frustration that came with the experiment, Newport found his day was more focused and more productive than normal:
Even though I dedicated 6 hours in one 10 hour work day to uninterrupted focus, another 1.5 hours to exercise and eating, and another 1 hour to a doctors appointment, I still managed to accomplish an impressive collection of logistical tasks both urgent and non-urgent.
Most importantly, Newport found he was able to find more of that elusive “flow state” than he usually would. “Flow” being that state of getting so caught up in what you’re doing that time passes without you realizing it. Newport found the 30-minute block rule helped him achieve this by making small distractions a non-option:
…the percentage of time spent in a flow state was as large as I’ve experienced in recent memory. I ended up spending 2.5 hours focused on my writing project and 3.5 hours focused on my research paper. That’s six hours, in one day, of focused work with zero interruptions; not even one quick glance at email.
Since the strict rules can add effort and complications to your day, it might be best to save this approach for those rare times when you really need to spend a whole day focused on one big project. Scheduling a “flow day” once a month or so may help you get more done than you thought was possible.
It might sound strange, but research shows chewing gum can boost mental performance. Gum has been shown to improve cognitive abilities more than caffeine, but the improvement seems to be short-lived. One study found gum-chewers only performed better than those not chewing for around 20 minutes, after which they stopped seeing any benefit.
Researchers have tested gum that includes sugar and is sugar-free, but glucose content doesn’t seem to have any affect on performance. The best suggestion of why this happens seems to be something called “mastication-induced arousal,” which just means that the act of chewing wakes us up and makes us focus.
If you’re not a fan of gum, you could try this trick from author Gretchen Rubin: chew on plastic stirrers or straws. Rubin says the act of chewing helps her focus while writing.
It’s taken me longer than I care to admit to finish this article, thanks to constant distractions. With this list handy, next time I’m struggling I’ll have a few options to try that may just improve how much I can get done in a day.
Working late at night is sort of great. There are no distractions, fewer obligations, it even feels sort of weird to send someone an email once it gets too late. It’s a fantastic time to focus.
But if I get carried away with it, I really end up paying for it the next day. The satisfaction of a late-night work binge is a lot less awesome when I’m dragging through work like a zombie. Sleep-debt is real and it hits me hard.
But I’ve found a great way to make sure I don’t let myself get completely consumed with work late at night.
I scare the hell out of myself with an automated phone call after I’ve done more than 30 minutes of productive work after midnight.
“Hi! RescueTime has a message for you: What the hell are you doing working so late! Go to bed!”
The phone call works because of the timing. Phone calls during the day, whatever, kind of annoying, actually. But a phone call in the middle of the night is really jarring, no matter what. It freaks me out. “What the hell? Who’s calling me? What’s wrong!? Oh yeah, It’s just me working too late.” Even though I snap back to reality and realize what it is pretty quickly, it’s just enough of a jolt to knock me out of the hole I’ve fallen down.
It’s scary, and that’s why it works. 😈
You can set the specific details to suit your needs. This is your rational self sending a message to your preoccupied future self, so adjust the message accordingly (My personal message is more aggressive than the one in the template 🙂 ).
Step Two – Option A: Use this Zap on Zapier
Hope that helps those of you with workaholic tendencies spook yourself into less long nights! Happy Halloween y’all!
Email is a fast and convenient way to communicate with coworkers and family. When email first became popular, it was because the recipient could respond to the email at their leisure rather than right away. More urgent matters could be managed with a telephone call.
However, checking and replying to email has replaced simple and quick calls to those same people. It has become the standard for urgency given the immediacy of delivery. Where once it helped to expedite work production at the office, it now consumes over a quarter of an average employee’s work week according to McKinsey Global Institute. Some companies are trying to reduce time spent reading emails by including email management in their time management workshops. Others have gone as far as axing company email altogether. And then there are those who either see no problem or have given up and accepted it as a necessary evil.
Email Overload and Addiction
Our internal data at SaneBox shows a twenty percent increase over the past few years of the amount of unimportant emails in the average user’s mailbox. Workers are copied on emails that do not require them to take action, the amount of promotional and cold sales emails continue to rise, and people are sending emails when they should be calling or saying nothing at all. Reading and deciding what to do with these emails is an incredible drain on workers’ productivity. The Danwood Group study published in 2015 reported that it takes approximately a minute to process the email interruption and return to the flow of work. This interruption dramatically decreases productivity.
Studies are being conducted around the globe relating to the amount of stress induced by email access. In the U.S., study participants wearing heart rate monitors were discovered to have reduced stress when given limited access to emails. This same study also showed that participant focus on tasks was higher in the group that had limited access to emails as opposed to those that had unlimited access. This shows an absolute correlation between unlimited access to emails and decreased physical health.
France recently passed a law that included a right to disconnect amendment. This portion of the new labor law was designed to help workers achieve a work-life balance and separation by urging companies to limit the amount of work done during off hours and at home. Workers worldwide are struggling to balance their private and professional lives because of technology, and now France has potentially set a precedent for other countries to follow.
But are policy changes the best course of action? And whether they are or not, what good will future regulations do to help us today?
Strategies to Help
For those in search of a more efficient, less stressful, and overall better email environment today, look no further than these strategies.
- Don’t get stuck doing email—use the Scan-Block-Ask system to keep yourself honest. Its steps include a) scanning for urgent items that need attention now, b) establishing scheduled blocks of time to tackle less urgent and less important email, and c) when you get sucked into your inbox, asking yourself if that’s the best use of your time l right now.
- Notify colleagues and clients that you value their communication but have to limit responding to emails to certain times of day. Stick with that time. By establishing and sticking to a schedule, you help others break the horrible habit of using email for urgent matters. In general, responses required within an hour should get a phone call or face-to-face visit; those requiring a response within a few hours can be addressed via text or instant message; and those needed within 12 to 24 hours can be emailed.
- Turn off mobile and desktop notifications to save yourself from continuous distractions. If you don’t know that you received an email, you can remain focused on the task at hand. If you hear that ding or see that push notification, your brain will be pulled in a different direction even if you don’t act on the new message at that time. Over the course of a day, these disruptions add up.
- Move your email app off of your phone’s home screen. As with notifications, simply seeing the app icon can distract you or incite you to check your email. Removing the visual cue, like removing junk food from the house when you are dieting, can prevent you from checking email out of boredom, habit, or mental weakness.
- Stop responding to every email. Not every message needs an answer and most do not need an answer right now. Some emails are sent to you for informational purposes only while many others are spam, bacn, or solicitations. Aside from saving time by writing fewer emails, sending fewer emails has the amazing added benefit of receiving fewer (and therefore reading fewer) emails.
- Adopt an email system with automated and intelligent filtering. This can be one that you create yourself by setting up rules within your client or can be an email program. When only important emails arrive in your inbox, you save an incredible amount of time and boost your clarity and focus.
- Keep yourself accountable by tracking and even preventing your time in email. We at SaneBox have been big fans of RescueTime for a while now for this reason. Anecdotally, it’s easy to feel that you are spending too much time in email, but seeing actual numbers and trends over time is impactful in a way that prompts better choices. Beyond the data, blocking distractions is paramount for times of weakness that occur when you need to get things done.
- Remember that it’s important to disconnect to recharge. Constantly being plugged in can have emotional, physical, and psychological consequences that compound over time. When you are stressed, distracted, and overwhelmed, your work-life happiness and output suffer. Take time for yourself, away from digital devices, to reset and recharge. Your sanity and your career will thank you for it.
Recognizing that you have an addiction to email is the biggest step in breaking the cycle. Adapting your work and off-work habits can help reduce your stress, increase your focus, and achieve a better work-life balance. Adopting an email management strategy also will help you save time.
There are many other ways to eliminate email addiction and increase your focus and productivity at work—which strategies are missing?
Remember when email used to help your productivity, not hurt it? SaneBox gets you back to those days again with intelligent filtering, one-click unsubscribe, follow-up reminders, and much more. Start your 14-day free trial today, then enjoy an additional $20 off for being a member of the RescueTime community. Clean up your inbox »
The RescueTime app on Zapier helps you connect your time to hundreds of applications, letting you make updates in other apps based on your time and logging important actions that happen outside of RescueTime. We recently added some new features that we’re really psyched about: offline time logging, actions and weekly report exporting.
If you’re unfamiliar with Zapier, it’s a service that makes it easy for non-developers to connect two (or more) different web applications together. It’s a great way to automate tedious parts of your work so you can focus on other things. You create Zaps, small workflows that chain two or more applications together to accomplish a task. It’s one of the tools we get the most mileage out of around the RescueTime offices. It’s a fantastic Swiss-army knife of a tool that just seems to get better the more I use it. Every week or so I stumble on something really valuable to automate.
Here’s how RescueTime works with Zapier
You can log offline time
You can connect any other app that exports events with a start / stop time – such as your calendar – and automatically log that time in RescueTime. Lots of people have requested this feature and we’re really thrilled with the number of services that Zapier makes this possible with. You can track workouts with RunKeeper or MapMyFitness, meetings with Google Calendar, or import time logged with Harvest or Toggl.
One thing to keep in mind: Calendars can be tricky, noisy messes, and if you aren’t careful, you can accidentally log inaccurate or useless time. Zapier’s advanced filters really shine here, though. You can use them to weed out the noise from your calendar and only log the activities you really want.
You can export weekly & daily summaries
Every week, a new summary is available with details about how you spent your time. You can use these summaries to construct your own custom email reports, log a note in Evernote, update a spreadsheet, or post a status to Slack or HipChat.
The logic you can add within a Zap comes in handy here. You can get really fancy with it if you want. For example: If a weekly summary comes in, you can check it to see how much productive time you logged, and if it’s an absurdly high number, you can post a message in Slack bragging about it, but silently do nothing if your time that week was less flattering. 🙂
Other apps can respond to your RescueTime alerts
RescueTime alerts keep you informed in real-time about how your day is shaping up. They can also trigger actions in other apps. You can brag to your co-workers on Slack when you’ve been super-productive (or to your friends on Facebook, for that matter), track your alert times in a Google Sheet, or update a goal on Beeminder. My personal favorite is the Zap I have that calls my phone when I’m working too late at night and tells me to knock it off.
You can automate your FocusTime sessions
Sometimes, really important stuff happens in other apps that you need to respond to with your full attention. Or there are times you just want to focus and not be disturbed. FocusTime and Zapier are your best friends in those moments. When Pingdom alerts you that your website is down, you can automatically start FocusTime so you won’t be distracted while looking for a fix. If you use Toggl for time tracking, you can automatically start FocusTime whenever you start a new timer so you can devote 100% of your concentration to getting the job done.
You can log data points from other apps as Actions
Actions in RescueTime are a new-ish feature*. They automatically collect data points from other applications so you can see what you’re accomplishing alongside the time you’re spending on different activities. Any trigger from another app can automatically log an action in RescueTime. You can log actions for blog posts in WordPress, completed cards in Trello, tasks completed in Todoist or Asana, or even checkins at coffee shops in Swarm.
*actions used to be a subset of Daily Highlights, but they’ve been upgraded and can now be categorized and scored just like time logs. You can still use Zapier to log daily highlights as well.
For more ideas on how to use the RescueTime integration, check out some of the popular RescueTime Zaps on Zapier.
With over four hundred billion cups of coffee consumed each year, caffeine is by far the world’s most widely-consumed psychoactive drug. For many of us, a hot cup of coffee proves to be a powerful and potent stimulant — a necessity to start the day. But caffeine’s effects vary significantly from person to person, and its actual effects on productivity remains unclear. Beyond anecdotal evidence, numerous studies show that, in small doses, caffeine provides an increase in energy and alertness, while improving reaction time and cognitive performance. But is coffee really making you more productive?
What does the research say?
The effects of caffeine on productivity have been a topic of considerable academic interest — researchers at Johns Hopkins University recently found that consuming small amount of caffeine can have a positive effect on long-term memory. In a double-blind trial, participants were given either a 200-milligram caffeine tablet or a placebo, and were asked to study a series of images. The next day, both groups were shown a new set of images, including pictures that were visually similar to the previous — the caffeine group was better able to identify these new images as “similar” rather than citing them as the “same.” In a paper published in Nature Neuroscience, the researchers wrote that this ability to recognize the difference between similar but not identical items — called “pattern separation” — suggests that the caffeine group benefited from greater memory retention.
However, other research suggests that many of the benefits of caffeine can be replicated by placebo. In another double-blind study at the University of East London, participants were randomly given either caffeinated or decaffeinated coffee — half were told they were regular coffee, and half that they were given decaf, also at random. Interestingly, the participants who were told that they received caffeinated coffee performed better on tests measuring reaction time, self-control, and reward motivation. The researchers concluded that the relationship between caffeine consumption, mood, and performance depends on many individual psychological variables — strangely, all participants in the study reported increased feelings of depression after drinking coffee, although this increase was slightly lower in the group that received caffeine.
Research also shows that caffeine also has a complex effect on creativity. Maria Konnikova observed in The New Yorker that “creative insights and imaginative solutions often occur when we stop working on a particular problem and let our mind move on to something unrelated.” As evidence, she pointed to a 2012 study in which participants performed better in creative thinking exercises (for example, devising novel and inventive uses for an everyday object like a newspaper) after they had allowed their mind to “wander” by switching between “undemanding,” low-intensity tasks. This suggests that caffeine may assist more in very simple, repetitive tasks like checking e-mails or filling out forms, and less in jobs that require high levels of insight and creative thinking.
And, for the same reasons caffeine increases alertness and wakefulness, it also has a tendency to cause anxiety, jitteriness, and sleeplessness. Scientists at Rice University studied the effects of caffeine on sleep — they observed that a typical cup of coffee decreased the average sleep time of study participants by an average of two hours; it also increased the amount of time it took to fall asleep by thirty percent. Coffee also had significant effects on quality of sleep: the number of sleep awakenings in the experiment subjects doubled. These conclusions has been reproduced in numerous studies, and suggest a significant risk of impairing your creativity and productivity if you don’t properly manage your caffeine intake.
Many people don’t know that the human body naturally “caffeinates” itself with the hormone cortisol at specific times of day, depending on your body’s natural circadian rhythm — typically early in the morning (between 8am and 9am), around lunch time (between 12pm and 1pm), and once again in the late afternoon (from 530pm to 630pm). If you are an avid coffee drinker, you may be impairing your body’s ability to produce cortisol — by drinking coffee when it’s not needed, i.e. when your body is attempting to naturally energize itself according to its hormonal cycles, you may build a faster tolerance to it.
Test it for yourself!
All the research shows a complex interaction between caffeine and bodily cycles — so instead of relying on the abstract conclusions of large-scale studies, how can you determine the specific effects caffeine has on your body? Caffeine’s effects depends on dosage, body type, weight, age, time of day, and many other factors; so it’s best to monitor all these variables by collecting your own data. First, you need to make sure you’re collecting accurate information: here are some tools we recommend.
RescueTime records how much time you spend using computer applications and browsing web sites. It allows you to keep track of how you are spending every minute of the day, and when and how you are wasting time, and it doesn’t require any effort to set up! It simply runs in the background and stays on top of your browsing habits for you.
Jawbone UP Coffee
Jawbone UP Coffee is a great app for tracking your coffee intake — it’s a simple tool for logging your coffee, tea, and energy drink consumption, to see how it changes overtime.
Sherbit is a personal dashboard that gives you access and control of your personal data in one place. The app syncs with over twenty-five applications including Facebook, Fitbit, Uber and Withings to gather and visualize data. From there, you can identify patterns in your daily habits and correlations across multiple services. For example, if you wanted to find out if you were less active on days you worked more, you could add steps counted by your Fitbit and productivity hours tracked by RescueTime. Download Sherbit from the the App Store here.
Here are some results from our own test:
By combining the data from Jawbone UP and RescueTime, I found a correlation between caffeine and productivity. You can see this by looking at the trend lines and flipping between the tabs at the top of the chart.
However, I found an even stronger correlation with my sleep and productivity — the more coffee I drank, the less sleep I got. This seem to be true for everyday other than JuIy 22nd and July 29th, but as I looked closer I realized that I had consumed coffee earlier in the morning on those days. This may seem like an obvious conclusion in retrospect, but being able to visualize the data made the effects of coffee on my life much more apparent to me. By reflecting on my data, I realized that there’s is a dual effect on the relationship between coffee and sleep: caffeine affects my quality of sleep and reduces the length of time I’m awake… however, when I don’t get much sleep the previous night, I tend to drink more coffee the next day, perpetuating the cycle. I also noticed that my quality of sleep decreases much more significantly when I drink coffee late in the afternoon — I realized that caffeine tends to work best early in the morning, when it will have a minimal effect on my sleep that night.
Have you found interesting correlations between different data sources? Let us know in the comments below.
We just made some exciting new updates to the RescueTime IFTTT channel. You can now use weekly summary reports in your Recipes and log offline time from other apps (like your Google Calendar).
IFTTT is a service that connects hundreds of applications via simple connections that let one application respond to actions in another. You can use the RescueTime IFTTT channel to connect to hundreds of apps to automatically log time, export data for reports, respond to alerts, and add daily highlights. You can even use it to control your FocusTime sessions!
Here are some of the things you can do:
Log Offline Time
This is something a lot of people have asked for. You can connect your Calendar (or any other app that exports events with a start / stop time) and automatically log offline time.
Export Weekly / Daily Summaries
Every day at midnight a new summary is available with details of your time. Use this to construct your own custom email reports, log time in a spreadsheet, or update a personal dashboard.
FocusTime just got a LOT more powerful. Mute your phone, or post a do-not-disturb note on your calendar. You can also control FocusTime from other apps. Like starting a FocusTime session when you park your car at the office in the morning.
Respond to Alerts
Whenever your RescueTime alerts are triggered, you can respond by taking an action in another app.
Log Daily Highlights / Action Datapoints
Daily Highlights and Actions help you keep track of your accomplishments. Any trigger from another app can automatically log a highlight or action in RescueTime.
Check out the RescueTime channel page on IFTTT.com to learn more. There are literally thousands of possibilities. Please let us know your favorites in the comments!