Can you build a tool to get into flow? We need your feedback on 3 new experimental RescueTime features

Focus is a lot like sleep. The more you try to make it happen, the harder it gets. Instead, it seems like the only time we really recognize that we were deeply focused is once we’re not anymore!

As a company that helps people focus on their most meaningful work, this is something we think about a lot. 

If you’re a RescueTime user, you already get deep insights into your time so you can optimize your day for focus and productivity. But while we do a good job at showing you when you were focused in the past, active and immediate feedback on your attention in the moment has been a crucial missing piece of focus. 

We’ve built three experimental tools we think will help. 

Before we dive in… Because of the real-time nature of these experiments, they only work for people on a RescueTime Premium plan–which updates every three minutes instead of every thirty minutes on the free plan.

Not a RescueTime Premium user? Sign up for a free 14-day trial of RescueTime Premium

The Problem: There’s no way to get clear feedback about how focused you are at any given time

According to psychologist Mihaly Csíkszentmihály who first identified and described the Flow state, getting into a state of deep focus requires three specific criteria:

  • A clear set of goals
  • A balance between the perceived challenge of the task and your abilities
  • Immediate feedback on what you’re doing

That last point–getting active, immediate feedback on focus–is hard. Especially when you’re working on tasks like writing, design, or software development.

Unlike the skier rushing down a hard run who is constantly adapting to the terrain, you can’t do the same as you write a piece of code. So what feedback can you get?

The experiments: Three ways to track your focus level right now

To start, let’s think of a scenario we’ve all experienced: You’re working hard on a project, maybe even close to getting into a state of flow, when all of a sudden you feel that familiar tug to check email or Twitter. And just like that, all that hard work you put into getting motivated and focused is gone. 

Now, let’s imagine that same scenario except this time, just as you’re about to get distracted, you’re presented with a quick, visual reminder that you’re in a state of focus. It’s not enough to distract you but rather a tiny “nudge” to stave off distractions when your motivation wanes. 

Because RescueTime tracks your activity across your digital devices, we can infer near-real-time levels of focus and show you these “nudges” when you need it most. 

We call this “presence”—in other words how focused are you on the task you’re currently working on? Are you deeply focused on coding? Or are you multitasking with your email or social media? 

It’s a big idea that we think could be incredibly helpful for strengthening focus and boosting productivity. Here are a few ways we’ve been trying it out.

Experiment 1: Day Timers show your “focus level” on specific tasks or categories

RescueTime Day Timers show you how much time you’ve spent in specific apps or categories. However, we’re now experimenting with showing your current level of focus in your Timer window as well. 

Open Day Timer

When your Day Timer is open, RescueTime will look at the past 15 minutes and calculate the percentage of that time that’s been spent focused on your current task. If you leave this window open, you’ll get regular visual reminders of how your focus on that task is being impacted.

How to try it:

  • Browse to any report for an activity or category that you’d like to focus on
  • Click the ‘Day Timer’ button below the chart
  • Place the timer window in a convenient place on your screen where you can see it, but still focus on your work

Experiment 2: VS Code integration shows how focused you are on coding right in the app

This one is specifically for software engineers.

Day Timers are good for general focus. However, they take up a lot of screen real estate and we can see how some people wouldn’t like the idea of another thing vying for your attention. 

As a more discrete alternative, we built a simple extension for Visual Studio Code that shows your total software development time as well as how focused you currently are on the app on a scale of 1–5.

How to try it:

Experiment 3: Slack integration protects your focus by putting you in DND mode when you’re focused

We recently launched a new Slack integration that auto-updates your Slack status based on what you’re currently focused on. As part of that, we also let you auto-enable Slack’s do-not-disturb mode once you’re focused on meaningful work.

Here’s an example. Let’s say your most important work is writing. When the RescueTime for Slack integration sees that you’re focused on a writing app, it can automatically trigger DND mode in Slack for the remainder of the time you’re focused.

RescueTime for Slack integration - toggle DND

This gives you the chance to truly focus and get into a state of flow without worrying about a teammate accidentally interrupting you.

How to try it:

Here’s where we need your help

Focus feedback is a hard thing to nail. And while we feel these experiments are helping, we’re not totally sure they give the nudge we need. 

Specifically, we’d love to get your feedback on a few things:

  1. On a high-level, does this approach to real-time feedback feel like something you’d use? Why or why not? 
  2. Do you think it’s too distracting to have a constant visual representation of your focus level? 
  3. Are there other examples of apps or tools showing your focus level that you’ve used and enjoyed?

What do you think about this approach to focus feedback? Let us know in the comments below.

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Robby Macdonell

CEO at RescueTime

8 comments

  1. I love the idea behind the Slack integration; however, I use Microsoft Teams. An extension for Teams would be much appreciated!

    1. An integration with Teams is definitely something we’ve been looking into but haven’t put into the pipeline yet. We’ll keep you updated as we find out more!

  2. I think this would be an extremely useful feature that sets you apart. Please look into foci ai wearable. I think a potential integration with foci’s tech would be groundbreaking! Granted their tech is a little buggy at this point of time, once the tech is perfected to a aggreable threshold, it would work wonders with rescuetime.

  3. Regarding the framing problem: “There’s no way to get clear feedback about how focused you are at any given time”, I’ll make another suggestion here that I’ve made repeatedly over the years:

    Make a notification area/menu bar icon for the RescueTime application that reports a real-time productivity pulse. It’d be right there next to the clock, we’d see it every time we look at the clock, or if some notification goes off.

    At the moment I’m using a Rainmeter skin which pulls recent (30min?) productivity via the API: https://github.com/lmiceli/RainTime

    IMHO this is a more flexible option than a widget browser window, but not as ideal as a tray icon.

    1. This is a good idea, and through this process, we’ve heard a lot of similar feedback. We’re taking a close look at it.

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