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Your habit app is killing your habits!

Your habit app is killing your habits!

Thank you to Kathy Stawarz and Ian Renfree at UCLIC for carrying out research to inform this post.


It’s only January and already you’ve failed your New Year’s resolutions. Perhaps you even took the next step and downloaded a flashy habit tracking app. Chances are, you were hoping for a roadmap for your journey to a better you, but ended up more lost and frustrated than ever. Let’s have a look at a few common features of habit apps and how to get around their limitations.

a) Reminder notification

They don’t work. One of three things is going to happen:

  1. The notification gets lost amidst all the other stuff going on on your phone
  2. You’re be mid-conversation or mid-task and just ignore it
  3. You get used to the notification, Pavlov’s dog style, and then you get a new phone or stop using the app and it’s bye bye habit

The solution?

Rather than setting a reminder as a specific time, use a space or an activity as a cue. For example, I’ll meditate once I’ve brushed my teeth or I’ll call an old friend once I’ve gone through my emails. I’ll do a separate post on how to automate this. Otherwise, you could have a physical object in your house that begins your habit – e.g. a whiteboard in the kitchen or a meditation cushion you can see when you sit down on your bed zxpjnxz. NFC tags or smart buttons can also be useful here.

You can add more complex cues through smart lights like the ORBneXt – combining time and location cues. For example, it could turn blue when it’s time to meditate and it could do this at 7pm every night or only when you’ve done an hour of work (through RescueTime). Don’t put the cue in your work space or you’ll just run into the same problems.

b) Your list of resolutions

Most habit apps invite you to input five or more habits. Fans of the movie Airplane! And anyone familiar with ego depletion knows this is a bad idea. The idea behind ego depletion is that we have a certain amount of willpower to spend in our day and if we’re running a mile after work, we’re a lot less likely to resist that doughnut or Facebook binge when we get home. Starting more than one resolution might mean that they all fail when one fails.

If you focus on one key habit, you might find that others come along for the ride without your conscious intervention. For example, only you have a daily gym habit, you’ll naturally prefer healthier food and find that you have the willpower to focus better when on your laptop.

My favourite app for tracking a habit is Pledge. It has a big simple display and also makes great use of streaks. If you tell yourself you can’t break the chain (I’ve meditated 56 days in a row. I’m allowed to skip one day but not two), this seems to motivate repetition.

c) Reward and punishment

Thanks to Pavlok, you can now electrocute yourself every time you misbehave. Or why not fine yourself with Beeminder whenever your habits get off track? These are innovative and engaging ways to get you thinking about your habits but they’re unlikely to work in the long term.

  1. Once you become reliant on the punishment/ reward, if the conditions change, you’ll become like a kid in a class where the teacher’s just gone out the room.
  2. The theory here is that it has to be automated: a digital teacher/parent. An algorithm isn’t going to be able to accurately track if you are indeed doing what you intended as you intended it. The false positives will make you quit.
  3. You’ll be reinforcing the outcome, not the habit. After a while, you’ll just get bored and cheat. I pay 10 p every time I open the cookie jar? Well, there is just this one cookie still in the packet…

Make your rewards and punishments obviously lame. If you consciously know that there’s no way you’re actually doing this for the reward, you’re more likely to use the reward as a cue to reflect rather than a passive reinforcer. If you’re a total reward junkie, try to link the reward to the activity e.g. every time I finish meditating I can go and have a nice long shower; every time I’ve read an essay, I can read my trashy vampire novel.

My favourite app for motivating me to stick to my habit is Habitica (This is probably one of my all-time favourite apps and I will do a separate post about it). I stick to just one habit, then break it down into to-dos on a daily basis where appropriate. My avatar loses life if I don’t stick to my habit and there are many other retro game features that give Habitica the perfect balance between extrinsic reward and intrinsic reflection.

The good news is that you can turn anything into a habit eventually. The bad news is that the 21/30 days number is a myth. Kathy Stawarz suggests some complex habits take half a year to encode. An app can help to offload some of that willpower an thinking and could even make the work fun and social.

So give your resolutions another go!

Let me know if you’ve tried a habit app that actually works.

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Some thoughts on the art of apps for change

Some thoughts on the art of apps for change


To begin, I’d like to take up the call from Amid Ayobi‘s paper and expand the path of phenomenological investigation in HCI (Human-Computer Interaction), by examining its foundations.

It is the mark of popular art that its artistry remain out of conscious focus, bringing us closer to ‘pure experience’. None of us want to see the stitching on Gandalf’s beard. The problem with aspiring to pure experience of the artwork is that this interaction is necessarily passive and the experience, no matter how intense, quickly fades. I cried the first time I saw “Love Actually”; the thirty-seventh time? Not so much.

The trade-off is that by forever obscuring its artistry, the artwork also obscures the mechanism by which we may make repairs or discover new affordances in our interaction. Every Christmas tear-jerker is doomed to the same fate in the long run (except for the small fraction of us who hack new affordances despite what the artist intended, for instance doing a shot every time Hugh Grant’s character looks embarrassed).

On the other end of the spectrum we have metafiction, and a whole other tradition of art that draws attention to itself and often involves the viewer. A Bertol Brecht play or a Gertrude Stein poem connects less deeply with my sense of the world, but it affords a wider range of experiences, which likely change with every interaction. ‘Finnegan’s Wake’ may well feel like a new book every time I dip into it, but nobody gets lost in its pages on their beach holiday.

Along the spectrum we have work like ‘Mother and Child (Divided)’ by Damien Hirst and ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman’ by John Fowles: work which both entertains us and alerts us to its presence, provoking thought (assuming we are interacting in a certain context and with certain knowledge, as I’ll discuss).

‘Entertainment’ is too narrow a label for this force, just as the common label of ‘difficulty’ is too narrow a label for the opposing force. Rather than talking about how ‘difficult’ or ‘entertaining’ a thing is, I will borrow from Heidegger the terms ‘readiness’ and ‘ obstinacy’.

I know I’ve been using ‘tool’ and ‘art work’ interchangeably. With apologies to Oscar Wilde, I don’t think this is a significant distinction to make here. We may think of an art work as a tool for bringing about some emotion in us or inspiring some insight. Just in case you’ve just flown into a rage, let me refer to both as ‘artefacts’ and be done with it.

In his scathing polemic about personal informatics, ‘To Save Everything Click Here’, Evgeny Morozov argues that personal data is a curse rather than something that can improve our lives because developers and HCI researchers are focused on (in my formulation) maximising readiness, at the expense of personal exploration and social values. He champions DiSalvo’s concept of ‘adversarial design’ as a radical measure to reverse the trend. A light switch that only works some of the time could lead us to make ‘political’ insights about our energy usage.

I agree with the thrust of Morozov’s argument but there is nothing radical about his proposal. Anna Cox and Ian Renfree have briefly surveyed a rich variety of ways in which designers and researchers are already using ‘Design Frictions'(a popular media term for obstinate features) to enhance user experience. For instance, there is the research that if you pause to take a photo of your food before you eat it, it helps you to reach your diet goals. Then there are artefacts like the ‘Chatterbox’ installation, which got the staff in a workplace to reflect on their online communication by collecting the text of their work emails and assembling the words and phrases into new sentences. Cox and Renfree’s own research details how the obstacle of an extra screen to go through could improve self-reflection in contexts like online shopping. Similarly, the app RescueTime gives you fifteen seconds to confirm that you absolutely do want to visit that distracting website.

In short, HCI is ready to adopt the readiness-obstinacy spectrum as a design consideration.

However, as I hinted earlier, obstinacy on its own won’t necessarily enhance the user experience. From my bus I can see a print of Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ hanging on the wall of a travel agent. It’s doubtful that customers are drawn to reflect on the nature of warfare on seeing the print. This is a problem. Another (inverse) problem comes from Morozov’s critique.

Though I disagree with Morozov’s diagnosis as to the scale and depth of the problem, his criticism is still worth considering. We sometimes just accept and even fetishize our artefacts instead of using them to make insights (Ian Renfree talks about the dangers of this dependency). Kate Crawford gives the example of misusing bathroom scales: ‘self-measurement becomes the substitute for diet’.

In his paper on ‘lived informatics’, John Rooksby chronicles the dynamic ways in which we hack artefacts to fit them into our lives. Rooksby showed that far from being turned into automatons in the way suggested by Morozov, most users of self-tracking technology use them for reflection within a much broader context of personal meanings and values e.g. communicating with family or preparing for a marathon. But there is a mystery in Rooksby’s research: why do even some experienced users stop using the technology? This too is a problem and I’d argue that much of this is owing to the ‘Love Actually’ effect described earlier.

I think my readiness – obstinacy spectrum, together with a traditional phenomenological focus on knowledge and context, could illuminate all three of these UX problems. I have represented context and knowledge together since contexts are external knowledge sources e.g. a museum vs knowledge of a historical period.



  1. The holiday planner who sees ‘Guernica’ interacts with an obstinate artefact but may not have the knowledge to experience it as intended. This could be changed if the print was in a Spanish Civil War museum or if the customer was a modern art enthusiast.


  1. The dieter who fetishizes weighing himself instead of changing his diet has a fair amount of knowledge but the bathroom scales are not obstinate enough to spur insight.


  1. The expert who stops using the artefact may feel like it has given her everything it’s going to give her: like its readiness is too high.


My hypothesis then is this: user experience can be optimized if users with little knowledge interact with an artefact with high readiness and then experience increasing levels of obstinacy as their knowledge increases: for example, finding new features unlocked. This can be seen on tools like Habitica (which evolves from a simple to-do list app to an RPG with quests, pets and special abilities).

Let me finish with a brief discussion of some of the things that are wrong with my graph.

a) There is no context-independent experience. It is not possible to have no knowledge or complete knowledge.

b) It’s not clear what kind of knowledge is called for: its sources are incalculable and its acquisition is unlikely to be linear.

c) Though the x axis on my graph refers to the artefact and the y axis to the user, this distinction is quite superficial. Andy Clark and Dave Chalmers point out that the “internal/external” dichotomy is often unnecessary when it comes to phenomenology. For instance, why should an address I look up in my long-term memory be considered distinct from an address in an address book: the function and outcome are the same; both, they argue, are extensions of my mind. In any successful sustained interaction the user will likely internalize functions and information from the artefact as well as offloading them onto the artefact.

Am I missing something?

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Whose data is it?

Whose data is it?

These days just about anything – from your toothbrush to your toilet seat – can generate data about you. This new information revolution is already being touted as a force that will transform education. We can turn Data from the troll under the bridge to a magical helper, serving brand new insights about your students. But as with any blog post that begins with “these days”, things might be quite a bit more complicated than they first appear.

I completely agree that ‘new data’ can transform schools, but only if schools transform how they think about data. Let’s start with a question:

Whose data is it?

You only need so many performance management meetings to convince you that your class’s data is your data. Why shouldn’t you take ownership? You’ll be the one held to account and most of your students probably don’t even care about the data.

Yes, this is the reality, but things get a bit more complicated when we consider the broad range of data students can generate about themselves. Should we take ownership of our students’ heart rate data? Their cognitive ability profiles? Their mood? Sleep? Productivity?

I am certainly not arguing that we should stop collecting this data. All of these metrics could provide valuable insights that enhance an individual’s lifestyle and learning. I’m arguing that we need to look at this another way. Data can be something our students do, rather than something we do for our students: I’m arguing for a model that is bottom-up before it is top-down.

The sociologist Deborah Lupton outlines five distinct ways of handling personal data:

  1. Private: For one’s own purposes only
  2. Communal: Shared with other self-tracking peers
  3. Pushed: Encouraged by others
  4. Imposed: Foisted upon people
  5. Exploited: Repurposed for the use of others

Chances are, your school is somewhere in the 4s and 5s (and if it isn’t, let us know about it). At best, you’re using data as the edifice within which students earn validation, and at worst, you’re using it as a stick to beat them with. And then maybe there’s all the data you keep secret from the students: the data you use to create focus groups, assign support, decide on setting or get tactical about which students will give the school the best results.

I’m not here to point fingers, but I would suggest that some of these practices are not appropriate for “new data”.

I hope to show in my research that once data stops being seen as the troll that termly wakes from beneath the bridge of whatever bulky data software you’re asked to use, it can take on new forms and become something that students willingly engage with.

Once data is

  1. Generated and owned by the student
  2. Clearly presented and frequently seen
  3. Responsive to concrete student behaviour rather than abstract criteria

It can become meaningful and motivating, without our complete top-down control. What’s more, if these interactions can also allow for peer sharing (and I’ll offer some suggestions in future posts) then the effect could indeed be revolutionary.

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Teachers, stop rewarding your students!

Teachers, stop rewarding your students!

You’re not going to like this but you need to hear it. The kids you teach don’t benefit from the institutional bribery you are facilitating.

The Educational Endowment Foundation (UK’s biggest funder of educational research) released a recent study on motivation across more than sixty UK schools. The Year 11 students were split into two groups and a control group.

Group 1 got the offer of £80 but had money deducted from this incentive if they failed to meet targets.

Group 2 got a voucher they could use to go on a trip if they met their targets.

The study found that neither group saw any significant improvement in their attainment as a result of the programme. What do the authors of the study suggest? Bigger incentives!

In fact all past studies by the EEF have so far failed to find an effective incentive. Strange, isn’t it? Someone should really look into that.

They have!

Over the last thirty years researchers in Behavioral Economics, Cognitive Science and related fields have overwhelmingly found that people just don’t behave like the rational predictable mice we used to put in mazes in days of yore.

Researchers separate rewards into “intrinsic” (from the activity) and “extrinsic” (unrelated to the activity being rewarded). The consensus is that extrinsic rewards just don’t work. You can have a look at Deci and Ryan’s work in this area yourself but I particularly like a study by Carol Dweck. She got two groups of students to paint for an hour but gave one of the groups extrinsic rewards. Next time the kids got together to pain, the group that had been rewarded reported that they enjoyed painting significantly less than the group that received no reward. In another study two groups had to find a solution to an “escape the room” problem (think Portal). The group that had been paid for getting out of the room came up with fewer solutions – because what’s the point of being creative or coming up with more if this quick route gets you to the outcome quicker/easier?

Finally, take the case of two online communities: Mahalo and Quora (Thank you to Nir Eyal for this example and much else). Both sites were free and asked users to post their questions and have others in the community answer them. Both gave kudos points to top answers. The difference is that Mahalo allowed users to exchange their kudos points for actual money. How did they do? Have you heard of Mahalo? Didn’t think so.

Dopamine is the chemical most associated with reward. Dopamine motivates us to act not when we receive a reward but when we anticipate novelty. The short term gains we see when we give kids sweets for finishing a task (as well as making the task a means to an end) will quickly stop being effective as the reward becomes expected. Think of a drug addict who needs ever increasing amounts of the substance or a gambling addict who doesn’t even enjoy playing anymore. What’s more, if the things we teach have any real-world application, our young people will likely find themselves in situations where the expected reward just isn’t there. The thing they had to be bribed to do now has to be done for free and suddenly all the ways they’d previously cheated the system will come back to bite them.

When we give students rewards, what they learn is how to get rewards.

In an impressive show of collaborative learning, kids at my school have learned that they can get points for finishing a book if they share the answers to the comprehension test with their friends, dividing the amount they actually need to read by five or six. Of course, much of this learning and conditioning is unconscious and the consequences will only become apparent down the line.

A focus on intrinsic motivation meanwhile will save you time and money and leave class work untainted. How do you feel about your GCSE English text? Why?

But intrinsic motivation isn’t proper motivation you say, checking your Facebook page for the 48th time today.

What I hope to show in my research is that it is entirely possible to create environments of motivated learners without investing in systems of extrinsic motivation. I don’t mind giving away an early secret weapon: it’s “Hooked” by Nir Eyal. 

Can we start putting some thought into this please. Am I missing something?







I know that some teachers are working in contexts where extrinsic rewards are necessary e.g. some forms of special education.


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Some things I learned at the Learning Disability Worldwide conference

Some things I learned at the Learning Disability Worldwide conference

Mind maps are marvelous for all your learners
1. A review of all the good studies on mind maps and comprehension showed that they im20160910_120846prove students’ understanding of a text. Get all your students to fill in a mind map once they’ve read something, whether it’s a textbook page as well as a novel. Some teachers also got students to create ever growing mind maps as they went along in their reading. A separate study showed that it works with maths too!
2. A replication study confirmed that mind maps are better for revision than a traditional textbook. Students need a bit of training on how to convert their notes or textbook page into a mind map but once it was set up, students saw clear improvements.
There are lots of tools that let students create and track their own mind maps. The app SimpleMind and the website X Mind are two good starting places. You can set up a teacher Evernote notebook to receive these mind maps when a student creates one.special

Paired writing probably doesn’t work (unlike paired reading)
It seems Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett are the exception. Pairing students to work on a piece of writing wasn’t going to plan for this researcher. Though it’s worth noting these were primary school kids.

Someone is doing a review of whether you can actually teach spelling
It seems German schools have an actual system for doing this that’s rather different to the spelling tests I’m familiar with.

There were also many other investigations into things like how kids with special educational needs feel socially excluded.

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Spice up your literacy with Story Wars

Spice up your literacy with Story Wars






It’s hard to get thirteen-year-old boys excited about alliteration or subordinate clauses. Of course the best way to teach grammar is the best way to teach anything:  you have to get them to follow or break the rules in “real life” and then to reflect on the impact. For us English teachers, real life is sometimes hard to find.

Story Wars comes close.

I’m excited about Story Wars because

  • It’s social (and competitive)
  • It’s light and flexible
  • It’s set up to make writing intrinsically rewarding


Story Wars is an online community of (mostly) young writers. The idea is that someone writes the first part of a story and then other members submit the next part. Other members vote on which version of “Chapter 2” is the best. The member with the most votes “wins” and the whole process is repeated with “Chapter 3”. You are awarded “gems” for your activity on the site.

At first, the gem thing seemed a bit lame – I’ll write about why extrinsic rewards get my goat in a future post – but the good thing about these gems is that they are actually the currency you need to continue engaging with the site. For example, it costs twenty gems to post your own story.

Story Wars allows writers to conduct quick and easy experiments.

Be warned: the stories on the site occasionally use adult language; for example, “As sweat poured down his forehead, Sergeant Jizzbucket reached for his radio.”

Let me give you one way to use it in class.


  1. Teach the class one or more language devices / structures
  2. Show them a list of writing prompts. Get them to write a paragraph from a prompt using one or more of the devices. There are several good writing prompt apps out there like Writing Exercises and Writing iDeas .
  3. Split them into groups of five and get them to share the paragraph, feeding back on effectiveness and use of devices, then voting on the best one.
  4. Give each group sixty seconds to decide what could happen next in this story. (This is to allow them to focus on form rather than content later on).
  5. Get the class into a computer room (or set this as a homework with the winner of the vote sharing a link to their story with the rest of the group) and have them set up a personal account on
  6. Ask the winner of the vote in each group to start a new story (the green pencil icon at the top) with their paragraph, while the other group members explore/vote for stories on the site.
  7. Get the other group members to find the story by searching for the title. Have them write their own “Chapter 2” without talking about it or looking at what others are writing (you might not need to do this since they are competing against each-other). Remind them to try out some of the devices or structures they looked at earlier on.
  8. Write down each group’s story names on the board and have the class vote on all of them. Wait at least a day and check which version of the chapter got won. Look at the various winning entries with the class and get them to identify why they were successful.
  9. Ask them to forget about the rules and devices when they write Chapter 3 and then reflect on how successful these writing pieces were.
  10. Set it as an ongoing homework for the class to finish the story.

It’s quite liberating to write for an audience of strangers and not to worry about whether your piece “goes anywhere”. Here’s my attempt: (vote for it!)

It’s easy to shift the focus from devices to whole-text structure. You can choose how many parts the story has. Then think about the plot progression from one part to the next, modelling a chapter on the board. For instance you could limit the story to five parts and look at Shakespeare’s Act structure or Booker’s five stages to a basic plot or Freytag’s pyramid.


There’s probably a better way to use this that I haven’t thought of. Let us know.


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Automatically send quotes to your essay plan from Chrome

Automatically send quotes to your essay plan from Chrome

Evernote is great but it’s pretty bulky. If you’ve read my post on essay planning, here’s how you can send quotes straight to your Trello quote board with Evernote Web Clipper on Google Chrome.


  1. Create an account on Trello, Evernote and IFTTT.
  2. Add the Evernote Web Clipper extension to your Chrome browser.
    You can save your quotes to the default “notebook” (folder) on Evernote or create a new one called “Quotes”. Sign in on then find the notebook icon in the left-hand column and add a new notebook by clicking the icon at the top right of the box that has just opened.ice_screenshot_20160828-192040ice_screenshot_20160828-192249

  3. Create a new IFTTT  recipe to use Evernote as a trigger and Trello as an action.


Want to make it even quicker? Here’s how you can add quotes by just clicking \ and Enter.

Done? You can click on a quote to remind yourself of its source.

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Cut the stress of essay planning with Trello

Cut the stress of essay planning with Trello





Trello is an app that quickly creates cue cards / index cards on a virtual cork board. We can use Trello to organize any project, including an essay.

Of course if you prefer, you can use real index  cards for this instead.


  1. Once you’ve set up a Trello account, create a new board and name it with your essay question.
  2. Click “Add a list…” and title this column “Quotes”.
  3. Now dump every single quote you can think of under this heading, adding a new card for each quote. You are trying to find any quote you think might link to the question: anything that’s going to be useful later. Just copy the quote down; you don’t need to say anything about it yet. If you have a relevant point that you can’t find a quote for or you have something relevant to say e.g. about the historical context, you can stick this in as well – as long as it’s only a brief note.

If you spend quality time doing this now, you won’t have to break the flow of your essay later to flick through books/articles/Wikipedia.

You can add quotes whilst you read by downloading the Trello app on your phone and putting an “add card” widget on your home screen.

4. Once you have one long column of quotes you should be able to start shaping your essay. There are two ways you can do this

Method a) Click “Add a list…” again to add four extra columns; just call them “1”,”2″,”3″,”4″. Now try to split your quotes, putting them into these four groups. To move a quote, simply click and drag it. You don’t need to spell out what the quotes in each group have in common yet. You might find that five or three different groups emerge and that’s fine, just adjust the number of columns. If you still have some quotes it your quote column, just leave them there rather than trying to force them into a group. Once you’ve created your groups, change the column headings to something that describes what the quotes have in common using one sentence. What do all the quotes show? This doesn’t have to be the main thing they show.

Method b) Give a one sentence answer to the question. Click “Add a list…” and type in your sentence. Give three more one-sentence answers, creating four columns in total.

Q:    Is Curley’s wife presented as a villain in Of Mice and Men?

A:    1. She is presented as a naïve child.

2. She is presented as a manipulative bully

3. She is the only sign of life on the ranch and therefore good.

4. She is just projecting the hidden desires and anxieties of the other characters.

Q:    To what extent do biological approaches adequately explain the causes of Schizophrenia?

A:    1. Twin studies suggest significant heritability.

2. Many researchers focus on environmental stressors rather than genes.

3. Viruses and conditions in the womb may play an important role.

4. Some researchers suggest parenting and experiences in childhood are important.

Now click and drag your quotes into the column under the heading they relate to. Leave behind quotes that don’t belong under a heading, you might be able to mention them in the flow of your essay.

It’s fine if your one-sentence answers / column headings are similar: essays typically just have one central argument and sometimes a counter-argument.

5. A traditional essay typically has three parts:

The Thesis: Your main theory / argument.

This is the very first thing people are going to read so you need to have some hustle. Say something that can be proven wrong: not “There are many reasons to believe  that Curley’s wife may or may not be a villain” but “Curley’s wife is cruel, calculating and manipulative: a villain worthy of a Shakespearean tragedy.”

The Antithesis: The argument or arguments you know of that go against your thesis.

What would you say if you were arguing against yourself? In a scientific paper you might talk about the limitations of your study here or external factors that could undermine your findings.

The Synthesis: Why your thesis is still right, even given the antithesis.

You will need to rephrase your thesis with a few howevers to make this work.

You can split your columns into thesis and antithesis by clicking on the heading and dragging the whole column. Put your two or three thesis columns on the left. Start with the column that either

a) You believe is the “right answer”

b) You can argue for most passionately or convincingly (if it’s appropriate for the kind of essay you’re writing)


c) It is the biggest idea and can be said to include some of the ideas expressed by the other columns

6. Print off your board. To do this you can click on the right hand menu under “Show Menu”, click “More” then choose “Print and Export” and “Print”. “Print to .pdf” Will save your board as a PDF file on your computer that you can print off and have by your side when you’re writing your essay.

7. Turn off the internet at the wall and put your books out of sight.

8. Use your quote and point cards to start thinking about your paragraphs. You could write one paragraph per column or split the piece into shorter paragraphs. Use quotes or points that could belong under two different headings to move from one paragraph to the next. You can start a paragraph by talking about the same quote but making a different point about it.

9. Use your headings to help structure a synthesis / conclusion. You’re not using any quotes now. You’re explaining your key points. You’re explaining your thesis and how it might have changed or expanded in the process of dealing with the antithesis / experiments / wider reading. It often helps to make it sound like you’ve made a discovery.

You’ll probably re-write this when your essay is finished but it’s useful to know where you’re heading before you start.

10. You can go online or browse through your reading materials again at a different time, but not now! Now it’s time to write. Plug some music in (if it doesn’t have words) and write until you run out of steam, consulting your plan whenever you get stuck.

You can share your board with others to collaborate on an essay. You could focus on a column each.

Share your board with us below!

Want to automatically send quotes to your essay plan as you browse? Read this next.

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Cut the stress of lesson planning with Trello

Cut the stress of lesson planning with Trello


If organisation doesn’t come naturally to you, then juggling what resources you need to produce for what lessons for what day for what class can be rather stressful. It’s nearly as stressful as finding all those resources when you’ve got two lessons back to back and the class are temperamental and last time the email with the attachment got buried in your inbox and when you tried to find it on your USB they all saw the photos from your holiday in Magaluf.

With Trello I can create a dashboard so that everything is right there in front of me. I plan

A Y12 Creative Writing lesson
A Y12 Creative Writing lesson

and retrieve my lessons in one place without fiddling about too much. If I click on a lesson in my timetable, all my PowerPoints, worksheets, links and notes are there.

Be warned though: the process of setting this up and sustaining it from week to week could be a lot more streamlined. Can you think of another way to achieve the same results? I feel like it’s something Google should do, by integrating Calendar and Drive.



  1. Create a Trello account and create a  new board.
  2. Title your board “Blank Timetable”.
  3. Click “Add a list…” and name the list for the day of the week. Create a new column like this for each day of the week.
  4. Click “Add a card” under each day for each lesson you are teaching (Add after school and lunch sessions if you’re going to track clubs and duties).
  5. Every time you add a new card, write in the name of your class.
  6. Once you have your full timetable laid out, hover over a class and click the grey pencil in the top right of the box. In the drop down menu click “Edit Labels” – this will allow you to colour-code each class.
  7. On the right-hand side, near the top of the page, click “Show menu” and then “More”. Choose “Copy Board”.
  8. You are now working on a copy of the board. Click the title in the top left to name the board with the starting date of the week you are planning.
  9. Click on a lesson to add resources or notes to it. You can choose “attachments” from the right-hand side and choose a file from your computer, Dropbox or Google Drive. Any links to websites or videos you paste it will automatically preview, ready to play / visit once you click enter. Make sure you’ve got at least a comment on every lesson you’ve planned already so that you know what you still need to do at a glance.
  10. Use “stickers” from the menu on the right side as reminders for specific lessons / break times.


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Turn your Fitbit into a productivity coach

Turn your Fitbit into a productivity coach

Chances are, your phone’s notifications have become like flies against a windshield. The endless slurry of texts, social notifications and lame attempts at direct marketing has made our brains go into standby mode. Productivity apps that rely on our phone’s notifications are unlikely to have the kind of impact we’d want. One partial workaround is to set a different sound for these apps’ notifications but this doesn’t really get to the heart of the problem.

The salve for this pickle could well be in your humble Fitbit. A Fitbit has three advantages over you phone’s notifications system:

  1. You can’t do much with a Fitbit so it’s not going to create more distraction.
  2. It doesn’t hold the negative associations of all the things you stress about on your phone.
  3. It’s right there on your wrist, holding you to account.

Wouldn’t it be great if your favourite productivity app could communicate with your Fitbit instead? Enter bitTicker:

Bit Ticker site and logo

bitTicker makes your Fitbit vibrate whenever you get a notification from a chosen app. Let me give you three ways you can make this work for you before I give some advice on setting this up.

1) Time your to-dos

You can use a scheduling app like TimeTune (for recurring tasks) or (for one-offs) to specify the exact day and time to do what you need to do. If you sit down and spend a little time inputting everything you have to get done (and make this process one of your weekly to-dos!) then you won’t waste the time you were meant to spend working or studying; nor will you have your to-do list looming over you.

You’re in the kitchen making a sandwich and then your Fitbit vibrates. You look down at your wrist and read:


And so you go to your desk and do the essay. Removing the choice of when you do the things you’re meant to do can be very liberating!

I’ve tried this with Todoist and it seems to be a bit unreliable. Please let us know if you’ve found an app that works well for you or if you have a good way of using one of the apps mentioned here.

2) Quick reminders

You can use Google Inbox’s reminders feature to follow up on emails when it’s more convenient. Save this for important stuff; it’s a way to stop these things getting buried in all your other messages.

3) Pace yourself

The Pomodoro technique is the simple idea that you get your chores done quicker if you know you’ve got a break coming up. You time yourself for 25 minutes of work with 5 minutes of rest and there are lots of apps that do this for you. If you add your favourite Pomodoro app to bitTicker then the timer will work on your wrist!

The Pomodoro technique can backfire! It only works for things you find boring. This is because interruptions can drain you and cost you a lot of time trying to get back in the zone. To reduce this effect you could try to

a) Use the 5 minutes to do something still related to your task e.g. searching Google Images for photos to put into the assignment you’re writing or asking a friend something about the work.

b) Keep your break neutral rather than doing something else fun and absorbing e.g. make a cup of tea rather than playing Candy Crush.

c) If you have music playing, pause it and then resume it at the end of the 5 minutes.


  • Go to the bitTicker website and download the “APK file” for the app.
  • Get your phone cable and connect  your phone to your computer.
  • Move the bitTicker APK onto your phone, to a folder you’ll be able to find easily. Safely disconnect your phone.
  • Open up your files folder on your phone and find the file you just transferred. Install bitTicker.
  • You should be able to open the app. It has its own setup instructions on the home screen. Make sure you’ve clicked “Test” before going on.
  • Click the little plus in the top-right and find your productivity app of choice. It’s best to download an app especially for this use or choose an app that only gives you useful notifications. (Most  to-do apps don’t ask you to give the time at which you’d like to complete the task. You might need to look up how to schedule to-dos on your app or else how to schedule reminders.)
  • Make sure your phone is not on silence (bitTicker won’t work if it is).
  • Let us know how you got on!

Fitbit have stopped allowing this feature on the Fitbit Charge. It only works on the Surge, Blaze and Alta. If you’d like Fitbit to enable text notifications again to let bitTicker work with other models, let them know here.

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