Browsed by
Category: Learn Better

Am I growing or just surviving? Building reflection through RescueTime.

Am I growing or just surviving? Building reflection through RescueTime.

At the end of a workweek I often find that I’ve spent five days moving from one pressing issue to the next like a pinball. In this post I explain my process for breaking this cycle and regaining control over how I spend my time.

RescueTime automatically analyses how you spend your time. It tracks how long you spend on different websites and applications on your computer or phone. This is a good start if you want to get an idea of where all the time goes.


RescueTime rates your activity as “productive” or “unproductive” and lets you know what percentage of the time you’ve been productive. This can initially be very enlightening. Unfortunately, in the long term I found that the productivity rating makes me feel a subtle sense of guilt and pressure without spurring me on to actually reflect on what is causing my unproductive behaviour. The personal data RescueTime was collecting soon became abstract and disconnected from my everyday actions.

Daily RescueTime dashboard
Daily RescueTime dashboard

Live feedback

I realized that if I wanted to be more reflective about how I spent my time, I needed something to nudge me into reflection. I needed something that would feel like a physical presence involving itself in my actions. A smart light seemed like a good solution here. The ORBneXt can connect to RescueTime via If This Then That and allowed me to see how productive I was being in “real-time” as the light colour on my desk changed.

Offline productivity

Timer and button

I don’t do all my work on computer so I also needed a way to log offline time. The easiest way to do this is using the RescueTime android app timer. The way I did it was a bit more unusual: I used the power of the Pomodoro technique. I bought a mechanical egg timer and used it to time my Pomodoros. I then used a smart button to log whether or not my Pomodoro was completed successfully (without distraction): I press it once for yes and twice for no. A single press logs 25 minutes of productive time on my RescueTime and two presses turns off my smart light.

IFTTT recipe for Niu
Here is my If This Then That recipe for the Niu smart button.


 Nurturing a ritual of reflection

The light was a useful reminder of how I was doing, but it didn’t “mean” a lot to me. However the light did mean a lot to my house plant “Pip”. I chose a house plant that didn’t need a lot of light (ivy) and put it under a box in which the ORBneXt would be its only source of light.

Plant with smart light and under box

Now all of my productive time would be feeding Pip and my distracted time would be allowing him to wilt. Every three days I take off the box and give Pip a spray with a water bottle. I take this as an opportunity to study Pip’s leaves and discern whether they are telling me anything about how I spent the last three days. Sometimes I find that the leaves have yellowed “unfairly” but judgement already implies that I have formed some kind of story about the quality and value of my time. When I return to my RescueTime dashboard, I am carrying over my observations of Pip and seeing growth and wilting in my data.

For more about how such gradual skillful practice can help us make meaning of our daily actions, I’d highly recommend “The World Beyond Your Head” by Matthew Crawford or the lectures of Hubert Dreyfus.


Getting the most expressive data possible

My RescueTime dashboard was now a lot more evocative but it somehow didn’t feel right to say that something like answering work emails should be nurturing to Pip. My regular practice of reflection made me realize that a lot of what I considered “productive” didn’t actually make me feel like I was doing anything of value. I created two new categories on RescueTime called “Growth” and “Survival” and reclassified individual productive activities into these categories. For example, I feel like the thought I put into planning my Year 12 and 13 lessons is Growth: it challenges to stretch my knowledge and creativity. I plan these lessons on Google Slides so I classify Google Slides in the Growth category on RescueTime. My Year 11 lesson planning is all focused around getting them to pass their exam and this feels more like Survival. I do all this kind of planning on PowerPoint and classify accordingly.

If I’m paying my bills, writing applications or marking, it’s Survival. Writing on philosophy, reading psychology papers or learning to code is Growth.

To set this up, click the grey toolbox in the corner of your RescueTime dashboard and choose Categorize Activities. Create new categories by going to “Manage Categories” and clicking “create new sub-category”. Then choose “Categorize Activities” from the four headings at the top and classify each activity you want to track according to the sub-categories you’ve just set up.

Create new category


I have my ORBneXt set up to turn on after every hour of Growth and turn off after every hour of Survival.

This ritual has made me see my productivity in a new light.

Here are my RescueTime reports for the last two months:

Monthly report for April

It might look like April was a good month. There’s a lot more productive time (blue) than unproductive time (red) but in another way this is a testament to what a stressful time I had in may. Above all else, I spent my time trying to survive: meeting various marking deadlines and generally letting the Growth activities I’d have wanted to prioritize fall down to 4th place. I decided to limit how much time I spent frantically searching for things to do with Survival by never having more than two tabs open in my browser and to give myself time every evening in which I either sat and did nothing or did some Growth.

May, in contrast, seems quite dominated by me playing backgammon on my phone. I’m not going to beat myself up about it though because perhaps it helped lower my stress and it certainly doesn’t seem to have negatively impacted my productivity. I’m very pleased with this month so far because I am giving priority to the things I’d like to think of as important to me.

This is a constant process of negotiation, re-classification and failed hypotheses so we’ll see what next month will bring.

Practical tips on connecting RescueTime to a smart light

To connect RescueTime to anything you need an If This Then That or a Zapier account. In the case of my ORBneXt smart light, it’s an If This Then That account. Next, you need to choose “Goals & Alerts” from the RescueTime toolbox and set up an alert for whatever you want to track. Here are mine:


Finally, go to If This Then That and choose “My Applets” then create a new applet.  Click ‘this’, search for RescueTime (you might need to sign in to authorize your RescueTime account) and choose “New alert delivered’ then find one of the alerts you created earlier. Click ‘that’ and search for ORBneXt then choose the colour you’d like it to turn. When creating a ‘that’ for your survival alerts, set the colour to “off”.

Here are some of my applets on

I hope all this encourages you to experiment. Let me know how you’ve hacked your productivity.

FacebookTwitterGoogle Classroom
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.

FacebookTwitterGoogle Classroom
FacebookTwitterGoogle Classroom
FacebookTwitterGoogle Classroom
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.

FacebookTwitterGoogle Classroom
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.

FacebookTwitterGoogle Classroom
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.

FacebookTwitterGoogle Classroom