The scientific method for getting more done: How to use a personal productivity tracker to master your time

Are you more productive if you start work earlier in the morning? What about if you try working in hour-long sprints? Or block distractions during the afternoon slump?

When it comes to finding the routines and strategies that work for you, there are often more questions than answers.

But the most productive (and stress-free) people in the world all have one thing in common: They love to experiment. 

Especially now, as so many of us face new and uncertain working scenarios, it’s important to find the strategies that work for you. And that requires data.

A productivity tracker is a tool that observes how you’re spending your time, tracks your productivity, and gives you the data you need to make informed decisions about what productivity strategies work best for you.

If you’re tired of blindly following the latest trends and want to build a productivity system that works for you, here’s how you do it.  

The scientific method for becoming more productive

If you want to get scientific about your productivity, you need to first think like a scientist. 

Just like productivity experts, scientists love to experiment.

Yet, unlike you or me who wake up and decide to try some new “hack”, scientists run their experiments in a controlled environment. This way, they can track results and know exactly what happened and why

This process is called the Scientific Method and can be used to answer any question–even “What methods or techniques make me more productive?”

Let’s run through the steps of the scientific method and how you can use it to become more productive:

  • Question
  • Research
  • Hypothesis
  • Experiment (and track data)
  • Analyze results

It all starts with a question

What are you trying to answer? 

At a high-level, the question is “how do I get more done with the time I have?” But try to get more specific.

What productivity methods have you heard about and want to try? Starting work early? Time blocking your day? Betting prioritization? Check out our full Productivity at Work Guide to get inspiration. 

Next, you need to do some research

With a question in mind, build context about how and why you’re trying to answer it. This could mean reading relevant blog posts, listening to podcasts, or digging into the method in other ways. 

Construct a hypothesis

What do you think is going to happen when you try this strategy?

Phrase your hypothesis as:

“If [I try this productivity method], then [this result] will happen.” 

Try to set tangible results for your experiment as well.

For example:

“If I start working by 7 am, I will spend an hour more a day on productive work.” 

Test with an experiment and track your data

Set a time period and some rules for your experiment and stick to it. This is where you want to make sure your productivity tracker is installed and gathering data (like RescueTime). 

For our experiment example above, you’d commit to waking up earlier and being at work by 7 am each day for a week. 

Analyze the results

It’s time to see what happened. Did your hypothesis come true? Dig into the data in your productivity tracker and try to find patterns and trends. 

Lastly, adjust and either try again or form a new hypothesis

If your experiment worked, great! You’re now more productive and can start looking for other places to experiment.

If not, you still have data you can look into to find new places to experiment and start the process over with a new hypothesis. 

That’s the basic workflow of how to run a scientific experiment. Now, let’s look at how to apply that same process to your own day using a productivity tracker like RescueTime

How to use a productivity tracker to treat your time and energy like a scientist

Scientists have all sorts of equipment to help log data and understand what happens during their experiments. But for a productivity experiment, you’re really only looking at a few things: 

  1. Time. Not just how long you spend working but also how you work (i.e. long periods of focus vs. scattered and fragmented days). 
  2. Output. How much you get done and the quality of your work. This is a bit harder to judge, which is why you want to run these experiments over a longer period of time (a week minimum). 

The ultimate goal of productivity is to do more or better work (i.e. output) in less time. Every experiment you run is meant to help you get the most out of your time.

That’s where a productivity tracker like RescueTime becomes so useful. 

Sign up here to get started with RescueTime for free

RescueTime automatically tracks how you spend your time in apps, websites, and individual projects.

Your time is categorized and scored on a scale from very distracting to very productive.  

This gives you the most accurate and unbiased data about your time to judge these experiments on.

Once you’ve got your productivity tracker set up and gathering data, you can start experimenting. Here’s a 5-step process to make sure you’re using the same controlled environment as a scientist.

Step 1: Start gathering your baseline productivity data

Every experiment needs a baseline to analyze the results of your test. In other words, you need to know how productive you are now in order to see if your hypothesis does what you think it will.

Without a baseline, you’ll never truly know if a productivity experiment is working for you or not. 

Once you install RescueTime it will automatically start logging how you spend your time. But to make sure you’re getting the most accurate data possible, you’ll want to dig into and update the default categories. 

For example, I love cooking and often get distracted from work by recipe blogs. So, under the category of  Reference & Learning, I’m going to update Food to show up as distracting. 

You can customize the productivity scores of individual apps/sites to fit your work

You can also look at how you’re currently spending your time and update categories. For example, scroll through your Productivity Report and update or change the productivity score of any activity that shouldn’t be there.

Choose your productivity level and you’ll see all the activities currently categorized under it.

It takes a bit of effort to set up your productivity tracker. But once you do, you’ll have the data you need to start experimenting!

Step 2: Research productivity methods and techniques that have worked for other people

With a system in place to track productivity data, it’s time to start coming up with questions. In other words, what changes do you think will make you more productive? 

This is the fun part. You can literally choose anything you’ve read or heard about or even come up with your own ideas of what will make you more productive.

To get started, here’s a list of ten of the most common productivity-boosting ideas:

  1. Get up earlier (and build a proper morning routine)
  2. Time block your day
  3. Prioritize your workload and do your most important task first
  4. Follow your “productivity curve” and schedule your most important work when you’re naturally most focused
  5. Only check email twice a day
  6. Optimize your work environment for focus
  7. Get 8+ hours of sleep a night
  8. Switch to the 4-day workweek (or the 6-hour workday)
  9. Exercise first thing in the morning
  10. Go into do-not-disturb mode for the first 2 hours of the day

These are just a starting point. The key is to think about your personal working style and pick the productivity method that resonates most with you.

Note: This is where most people stop. They pick a method and haphazardly try to add it to their day. But without a clear plan (aka your hypothesis) and a way to track it, you’ll never be able to build off of the lessons you learn.  

Step 3: Use your baseline to construct a hypothesis and set a SMART goal

You’ve got a baseline for your productivity and an idea of an experiment to run but you’re not quite ready to get started. 

First, you need to formulate your hypothesis. This is different from the method you want to test in that it spells out exactly what you’ll do as well as what you think is going to happen. A great method for this is to use SMART goals

As you formulate your hypothesis make sure it is:

  • Specific: You know exactly what you’re testing and how it will work in the context of your day/week. 
  • Measurable: You have a meaningful and motivating way to track progress and measure your results using your productivity tracker.
  • Achievable: You can realistically keep up with the experiment for its duration.
  • Relevant: Your experiment is worthwhile, timely, and connected to your own skills and long-term goals. You’ll be motivated to work towards this goal. 
  • Time-bound: You know when you’re going to start and stop your experiment.

Using this method, your hypothesis might be:

“If I wake up at 7 am and focus on writing for the first 2 hours of every workday, I will complete at least 2 blog posts a week and see a 20% overall increase in time spent on writing (to a total of 3 hours a day).”  

This checks all the boxes.

It’s clear what you’re doing and how it fits in your day. You have a measurable and motivating goal. And metrics that can be tracked in your productivity tracker.

Pro Tip: If you’re trying to hit a time-based goal (for example, 3 hours or writing a day or less than an hour on email a day), you can set a RescueTime Goal to track it automatically. 

Step 4: Run your experiment (and try to keep everything else the same)

Now it’s time to run your experiment.

Commit to your plan for a week and try to keep everything else the same. This will give you the most accurate results and see the true impact of your experiment. 

Plus, as we’ve written before, behavior changes need to start small.

If you try to change everything all at once (get up early, block out focused time, work out every day, eat healthily, sleep 8+ hours, etc…) you’ll end up failing and doing nothing. 

Start small. Experiment more. And build on what you’ve learned. 

Step 5: Analyze your results in your productivity tracker and start the process over

By the end of your experiment, you’ll probably already know if it was a success or not. However, your productivity tracker is what will make sure you’re not being biased. 

Dig into your time data and look at how it changed over time. If you’re using RescueTime, you’ll also get a weekly report that shows how your productivity changed week-over-week.

The Weekly email gives you a quick overview of your productivity and how it’s changed.

But you can also dig further into those trends in your dashboard. 

Switch to your weekly dashboard and look at your overall time spent on productive work (or on the activities you were specifically trying to increase). You can switch between weeks to see differences. Or, if you’ve set up goals, look at how they’ve been trending.

Did that time change in a meaningful way? Were some days better than others? Did you start strong but falter later in the week?

The data doesn’t lie. Use it to tell you what worked and what didn’t. 

Experiment your way to peak productivity

As Bruce Lee famously said,

“Adapt what is useful, reject what is useless, and add what is specifically your own.”

It’s easy to have one good day. But consistently stringing them together takes a lot of work. The best productivity methods are ones that not only help you get more done but that you’ll keep up with in the long run. 

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Jory MacKay

Jory MacKay is a writer, content marketer, and editor of the RescueTime blog.

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