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