Posted: March 2, 2013 Filed under: feature, Product News, Self Tracking
Have you ever wanted to keep a closer eye on the time you’re spending in a specific category or activity throughout the day? This week we rolled out a new beta feature that makes it easier.
If you have beta access enabled (see below for how to do this), you can turn any productivity, category, or activity report into a live-updating timer widget, simply by resizing the window small enough. You can then place this widget off to the side (or on a second monitor) and continue about your day. As you build up more time, the widget will update and show you your current status. You can create several widgets and position them however you want to create ad-hoc productivity dashboards.
Some things you can do with these widgets:
- Keep an eye on your time spent in email throughout the day
- Compare two metrics, like time spent on software development vs. time in meetings
- Turn your productivity score into a game, how high can you make it go?
Enable beta access: To try it out, you’ll need to make sure you’re in our beta channel by going to your account settings page and checking the “Beta features on” checkbox.
Once you’ve enabled beta features, just go to any report page and do the following:
The update frequency is the same as the rest of the RescueTime reports. If you’re a RescueTime Pro user, the widgets will update every 3 minutes. If you’re a free user, it’s every 30 minutes.
Isn’t this a really weird interaction model? Yes. It is. We’re eventually going to find another way to make it more discoverable. These widgets are a brand new way to interact with RescueTime, and we’re still playing around with several of the details. In that sense, the easter-egg treatment feels fairly appropriate.
All the standard beta feature disclaimers apply. It’s brand new. And there might be some bugs we haven’t caught yet. We’ll also probably change this up a bit over time as we get a better understanding of how people are using it.
We’d love your feedback!
What do you think of this new way of keeping an eye on your time? Does it help? What things are you using it to keep track of?
Posted: February 23, 2013 Filed under: Workplace Productivity
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
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.
Have you ever gotten any benefit from location boxing your activities? I’d love to hear how. Let me know in the comments.
Transitioning Projects, or searching for a state of flow.
Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule
Posted: February 21, 2013 Filed under: Product News
A really quick sunset, the kind you see in the tropics. REALLY quick. I’m thinking: tomorrow. This being the kind of sunset where no new data is accepted from these old client apps.
We have new plugins for both Firefox and Chrome that replace the old. They have been out for quite a while now, and the old one has been de-listed for a long time. Here’s where the new one is (links to extension galleries):
I imagine this affects no actual person, only zombie systems that are enjoying harassing our site, but if you are a person or sensitive “good” zombie currently using the old plugin, please switch to the new one.
IF you are an old plugin user, you can follow these steps and keep your old data:
1) Open the full dashboard on our site from the plugin: https://www.rescuetime.com/dashboard
2) Click “settings” top right and set an email address for yourself, and add the password
3) Delete the old plugin from your add ons/extensions list
4) Add the new one https://www.rescuetime.com/browser-plugin and register using that email address
Posted: February 16, 2013 Filed under: Lifehackin' Links, Workplace Productivity
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
Chances 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
I’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 Unroll.me 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!
Posted: February 9, 2013 Filed under: Product Roadmap
Understanding your time should easy and enjoyable. The two main ways people interact with RescueTime today are through the weekly summary emails and the dashboard. We recently put in a lot of work on improving the overall design and experience with our weekly emails, and now we’re turning our attention to the dashboard. The current dashboard is ok. It gives a decent overview of how you’re spending your time across several dimensions, and it’s certainly served us well for quite a while.
But we feel like it could be so much more. So, we’re thinking through some ways we could improve it, and we’d like your feedback.
Here are a few of the specific things we’d like to address:
Today the dashboard gives you a lot of facts – We’d like it to tell a story
The dashboard is pretty good at giving you a lot of trivia about yourself, but it falls down when it comes to providing context around those data points. We’d like to include more ways to highlight interesting changes, answer questions, and do a better job of pointing out interesting insights.
It doesn’t mobilize well
The overall presentation doesn’t lend itself to a small screen. We’re investigating some responsive design options that will allow the information to be more accessible across a range of screen sizes. Also, those Flash graphs that drive pretty much 90% of the content on the dashboard aren’t going to work on many mobile devices, so we’ll need to address that as well.
It isn’t a very satisfying experience for brand new users
One of the most troubling points of the overall user experience is the moment when someone first signs up, but hasn’t logged much time yet. We want the dashboard to do a better job of leading new users into the app and educating them about how to get the most from RescueTime.
It just feels a bit dated
The whole UI is in need of a dust-off. We want to give it a refresh and make the whole thing feel a bit more contemporary. Your data is telling you a pretty interesting story, and it deserves a beautiful presentation.
Some of the piles of concept sketches we’ve been doing
So, we’re exploring several new ways we could present your data to you. We’re not rushing it, and we want to be careful, as it’s the page on our site that you are likely to interact with the most. To make sure we cover all the right bases, we’d love to get some feedback from you during this process. We’d love it if you could answer some of the following questions in the comments:
- When you go to RescueTime.com, what’s the main thing you’re hoping to learn?
- Is there anything you find yourself digging for that you wish you didn’t have to?
- Are there things on the current dashboard that you find yourself just not caring about? If so, what are they?
- Do you have any other thoughts that you think might be helpful to us as we think through this process?
Thanks for your feedback! We plan on keeping everyone in the loop as we work through it.
Posted: February 2, 2013 Filed under: Lifehackin' Links
Next week, I’m speaking on a panel at Overloaded 2013 called “Can technology save us?”. We’re going to be discussing some of the ways technology can help to keep us from getting totally overwhelmed by our ever-expanding access to information. In preparing for the conference I’ve come across some interesting perspectives on how today’s abundance of information affects our lives. Here are some examples.
“Pictures tell a thousand data points” – source: visual.ly
Matt Cutts: What I learned from time away from the internet and email
Matt Cutts is an engineer at Google, and he’s been doing a series of 30-day personal experiments. In his latest one, he takes a step back from email, social media, and news. He learned that he was able to get more things done, and still didn’t miss out on important information. He also made the observation that he can make his communications ‘scale’ better by responding to emailed questions in a different medium, such as with a public video or a blog post.
Seven Productivity Myths, Debunked by Science (and Common Sense)
In this post, Lifehacker breaks down several often-repeated ideas related to time management and productivity. Several of them relate to information overload, how do deal with it, and the scary things it may (or may not) be doing to our brains.
Why You Should Work From A Coffee Shop, Even When You Have An Office
The office itself can be one of the biggest sources of information overload, and sometimes the best thing to do is just get away from it. Office environments, even with awesome co-workers, usually mean a fairly steady stream of interruptions. Ducking out to a coffee shop for a few hours a couple times a week can give you some time away from the usual work-related distractions. And it may be just enough of a shake-up to help you bust out of normal work routines, like constantly checking email, and actually get some real focused work done.
How Productivity Tools Can Waste Your Time
It’s no surprise that there are a huge number of services, tools and methodologies for dealing with distractions and staying focused. The amount of information we have to swim through on a daily basis requires us to have some kind of system, right? This article in the Wall Street Journal examines the fact that no productivity system is for everyone and looks at some of the things you should think about when looking to adopt a new approach.
There’s also an interesting discussion going on at Lifehacker about this subject.
Information Overload’s 2,300-Year-Old History
It’s pretty easy to think of information overload as an entirely modern phenomenon. I mean, how overloaded could you possibly get before the internet started shooting you in the face with a never-ending firehose of news, status updates, and pictures of kittens? Turns out, it’s been an issue, in one form or another, for a good long while. Here’s a look at information overload from a historical perspective.
2013 Annual Letter from Bill Gates
With all the talk about how information overload is this big, complicated problem that needs to be fixed, it’s important to remember that information has opened the door to some pretty amazing things. Each year, Bill Gates publishes an annual letter, where he discusses his thoughts on issues the world should focus on for the coming year. This year, he’s focused on information. He makes a strong case for using measurement tools to make real, lasting, positive changes on many global issues. He provides some great examples of how having more information generally leads to better outcomes. He’s focused on large, world-changing issues, but I think some of the principles he talks about work equally well on a smaller scale, as shown by the QuantifiedSelf movement.
Posted: January 26, 2013 Filed under: Lifehackin' Links, Self Tracking
These days, there’s an mobile app or device for just about anything you might want to track about yourself. RescueTime can track your time on the computer. Fitbit lets you track how many steps you’re taking. Foursquare will track the places you’ve been. The list goes on and on.
Tracking that information can help you get in shape or stay productive, but it also can just look really, really cool. Data tells a story, and is fantastic subject matter for fine art and graphic design projects.
From The 2010/2011 Feltron Biennial Report
Nicholas Feltron is probably one of the most well-known designers doing projects like this. His gorgeous personal annual reports showcasing his obsessive-compulsive personal tracking have been making the rounds in design circles for years. They even inspired Facebook to create the Timeline.
Laurie Frick: Walking, week 42
Another artist doing some amazing work is Laurie Frick. She takes more of a fine-art approach to her Quantified Self explorations, which explore mood, temperature, weight, sleep patterns, heart-rate, and location data in a variety of media. Unlike the very polished corporate graphic design quality of Feltron’s personal reports, it’s not immediately apparent that Frick’s pieces are based on data. To me, that adds to their appeal. They work on their own as abstract pieces, but the underlying story told by the data makes them even more interesting.
Here’s a video of her discussing her process.
I’m noticing more and more examples of this type of data-driven approach to creative projects. Here’s an interactive annual report by Jehiah Czebotar showcasing several personal data points. And here’s a series based on GPS tracks. And yet another based on the location of the mouse over a period of hours or days.
So how can you use data in your creative projects? Flowingdata.com has several tutorials that are a great introduction to several of the technologies that you can use to create visualizations.
Six beautiful things you can do with your data, right now
In many cases, developing the creative and technical skill sets for your own projects isn’t necessary. Here are six services that will let you create a variety of great-looking visual pieces, just by plugging in your own data.
Notch makes dynamic infographics based on your fitness data. You can connect it with your Fitbit, Runkeeper, or BodyMedia account. Once you’re connected, you can generate and share a number of beautiful visuals based on your activity levels. Here’s one of mine.
I’ve been tracking my music listening habits with Last.fm for the past several years. It’s great, because the data lets Last.fm personalize my radio stations. But I can also make a really awesome chart of my listening history using LastGraph. Just enter your Last.fm username and give it a few seconds to index your history. Then head over to the “posters” tab and you can generate a “stream graph” of your listening history for a given time period.
This image was created while writing this post.
IOGraph is a nifty little application that records your mouse position over time. Let it run for a while and watch a picture of your computer time build up. It makes for some pretty fantastic abstract compositions.
It’s fun, and you don’t have to have a pre-existing data set to play with. I created the image above while writing this post.
Meshu takes geographic information about you and uses it to make customized jewelry. For example, you can enter every city you’ve ever lived in, or connect it with your Foursquare account, and then it will generate a custom design for you based on the connections between those locations. The finished product is abstract, and won’t be recognizable as a map to others. In other words, a really good conversation piece.
So you may not already have a pile of data laying around covering your fitness, sleep, music, or location histories. But you probably use social media, and the infographics directory visual.ly has a bunch of different designs you can plug your social data into.
Vizify lets you pull data from a bunch of different sources to create a series of graphics telling your life story. Works great as a resume, or just a way to let people quickly learn more about you.
I’m curious, are there any other services you’ve found that do interesting things with your personal data?