Confession: I completely missed Information Overload Awareness Day

Oh, man. The irony of what I’m about to say…

This past Monday was Information Overload Awareness Day, and I totally missed it because an email about it went unopened in my inbox.

Information Overload Day 2013 - October 21, 2013

I usually do a pretty good job of keeping email under control, but it’s really gotten away from me over the past few weeks. It’s downright sad how out-of-sync I feel when I have upwards of 100 unread emails in my inbox. I feel more and more scattered by the mental weight of those un-dealt-with messages as they pile up. “Am I missing something important? Probably? But do I have time to deal with it right now? Probably not, especially if it’s something really important.”  Once that cycle starts spinning, it just gets worse and worse.

Even though it seems ever-so-slightly corny to holiday-ize the concept, I’m really glad there’s a serious conversation going on about information overload. It’s one of those things that (increasingly) affects our days so much, yet it feels like so many people simply write it off as an unfortunate fact of life.

The Internet Overload Research Group (IORG) brings together a really interesting mix of smart folks that are focused on the effects of information overload and possible solutions to the problems it can create. IORG members Joshua Lyman and Jared Goralnick hosted a really interesting webinar on Monday (which I did not watch live, due to the email being stuck in the aforementioned purgatory of my dumb ol’ inbox). The recording is really worth checking out if you find this stuff interesting.

The webinar features a panel discussion with Dimitri Leonov from SaneBox and Shawn Carolan from Handle, two companies which take different approaches for helping people cope with information overload. There is also a really interesting presentation by Professor Sheizaf Rafaeli of Unviersity of Haifa in Israel. He questions if multitasking is really as evil as some people make it out to be, and makes a really good case for the fact that, sometimes, it’s actually something to strive for (which runs fairly counter to a prevalent meme in the information overload world that multitasking is the root of all evil).

It’s a long video (just under an hour), but really interesting if you’re curious about the current thinking around information overload and multitasking.


Are you ready for National Novel Writing Month?

It’s almost November, which means it’s almost time for another National Novel Writing Month! For those who don’t know, National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) is a month-long writing binge with the goal of completing a 50,000 word novel by 11:59pm on November 30. That’s an average of 1,667 words per day! It’s an amazing challenge for anyone who has ever kicked around the idea of doing long-form writing.

Last year, we worked with a group of aspiring novelists who were also using RescueTime, and we were able to learn some interesting things. Check it out: (click the image to enlarge)

Lessons learned from RescueTime's NaNoWriMo 2012 experiment

We’re running this experiment again this year. If you would like to use RescueTime to track your time working on your novel for NaNoWriMo 2013, click here.

Here are some other tools that can make your 50,000 word journey easier:

750 words

As far as domain names go, 750words.com can’t get much more self-explanatory. It’s a site that wants you to write 750 words, every day. While that’s less than half the daily word count you’ll need to complete NaNoWriMo, it’s the writing every day part that’s important. Also, the site gives you some pretty analytics about your writing efforts.

Write or Die

Write or Die gives you a kick in the pants to keep you motivated. The idea is, you should be afraid of NOT writing, so they give you negative consequences when you don’t write enough. I love the fact that they have a “Kamikaze mode” where the words you have written will start deleting themselves unless you keep writing.

Beeminder

Beeminder lets you make a bet with yourself that you’ll accomplish a goal, then track your progress as you work towards it. If you stray too far from your path, it’ll cost you money. They can track your daily word count, giving you a great way to stay focused during the parts of your novel where you might otherwise give up.

Written? Kitten!

Written Kitten is simple text box with a single, brilliant feature. Every hundred words you type, you get to see a new picture of a kitten. I could say something about the science behind cute animals making you more productive, but who needs it? Cats are adorable, why wouldn’t you want to keep typing to see more of them?

Feeling inspired yet? Go get ’em!


Introducing the New RescueTime

If you are an individual RescueTime user you have probably noticed that your RescueTime Dashboard looks a bit different!

I am very excited to introduce to you the combined product of many years of user feedback and many months of development efforts – the New RescueTime.  This is a quick blog post to go over the highlights of what you are about to experience with RescueTime in hopes that the transition from old to new is quick and easy and you can enjoy the site improvements as soon as possible.

This new version of RescueTime has given us the opportunity to use feedback we’ve received over the last few years to provide a better experience for our existing users.   It will also make it easier for new users to become acquainted with the RescueTime product.  With these changes we have undergone a huge technical upgrade replacing aging components and bringing our entire stack to modern and in some places bleeding edge technologies.

A lot of the changes you see were driven by the meteoric rise of mobile device use we’ve seen in the last few years.  The RescueTime dashboard and reports will now work just as well on phones and tablets as they do on desktops and laptops.

dashboard

New Feature Highlights

We have packed over 30 new features into this latest version of RescueTime and we will have a follow-on blog post [future link here] that goes over them in more detail, but I’m too excited not to mention at least a few of them!

  • A completely rethought dashboard, based around common use cases
  • A ‘spotlights’ section giving you a better sense of your daily patterns and things that have changed over time
  • An ‘insights’ section that highlights notable information about the current day / week / month
  • An Achievements block showing your lifetime total time logged, top productive day, and some other really cool information, especially for our long time users
  • Reports have a new “daily patterns” view that shows you what time of day you tend to spend more time on particular activities, categories, or productivity levels
  • Reports have a “changes over time” view that shows you how the current time period compares to the several days/weeks/months prior
  • You can now set goals for applications (previously you could only set goals for productivity or categories).
  • You can now compile a list of “highlights” about a given day.  It’s a great way to remember what you accomplished
  • New “What work did I get done?” view that shows you a filtered view to jog your memory about the productive work you spent time doing.

Old Features Missing

With all of the changes that were made, there were a few features that have been removed or are not yet ready for release.  If there is something gone that you need, “Don’t Panic!” – you can still access the old site for a period of time, see the end of this blog post.

  • The Projects feature as it was originally developed is no longer available in the new version of RescueTime.  Our plans are to develop a much better replacement, but I can’t give you any time frames as to when that will be yet.
  • Custom Reports AKA Saved Searches are not yet available in the new version.  We will have saved search capabilities released soon.
  • The Document and Details report is not available in the new version.  You can still access all of your document details by first going to the Application & Websites report and clicking on specific applications to view the available documents.
  • The Customizable Dashboard is no longer available in the new version.  (Our new dashboard is perfect!  So why would you want to customize it!? 😉 ) Seriously, though, the customization features were a lot of technical overhead that really didn’t get a whole lot of use, so we decided to go with a more structured approach.
  • The Comparisons Report is no longer available as as single report. We’ve taken some of the things we learned from that report and applied them across the site. We will be adding even more new ways to view your data soon.

What does all this mean?

For the time being, the new version of RescueTime is only available to our individual users (both free and premium).  If you are part of a Team account, a Research Project, or actively use the Projects feature, you will be automatically redirected back to the older version of RescueTime.  The data is seamlessly shared between the two versions of RescueTime and will be for at least the next month or two.

If you are currently viewing the new version of RescueTime and want to switch back to the old version, you can do so by clicking the “old version” link at the top of the RescueTime Dashboard.

If you are an individual user and are currently viewing the old version of RescueTime, you can switch to the new version by going to the “settings” link on the old RescueTime Dashboard and selecting the “Click here to switch to the new interface” link on your Account Settings page.

Team users don’t despair, we’ve got some nice shiny new love coming your way soon.

We hope you love the new version of RescueTime as much as we do.  We’re going to have a few bumps over the next couple of days, but we’ve got all hands on deck and will be addressing issues as they arise.  I encourage you to take a bit of time to wander around the new site, take a tour of the new features and then come back and give us some feedback!


How Quantified Should the Self Be?

I recently came across an Austrian article that raises some interesting questions about the use of technology in “measuring” our lives (http://www.format.at/articles/1328/940/362012/die-vermessung-ich[in German]).  The scope of this technology continues to increase and there are more opportunities for its insertion into our lives than ever before.

Here are some examples of the latest technology:

– an armband that measures physical activity, including steps taken, distance walked, and calories burnt; length and quality of sleep; and with auxiliary links to mobile devices and a scale, meal planning and weight management (http://www.fitbit.com/)

– work productivity software that measures active computer use and trends very precisely (http://www.rescuetime.com/) [That’s us]

– a strap-on device for posture and movement monitoring and correction (http://www.lumoback.com/)

– a fork that measures eating habits and mechanics (http://www.hapilabs.com/)

– an all purpose physical activity device for multiple kinds of exercise (http://www.runtastic.com/)

– a scale that provides body anaylysis by measuring weight, BMI, body fat, and heart rate (and also local air quality to boot) (http://www.withings.com/scales)

– a diabetes app testing blood sugar (http://mysugr.com/)

– comprehensive health management software (https://www.dacadoo.com/)

Those who embrace this technology often self-identify as members of the “Quantified Self movement,” which is characterized by the search for informative feedback from devices such as those listed above.  Some see in the wealth of available data a “digital reflection” of their lives – this is felt to be empowering, allowing individuals to achieve a greater degree of self-awareness and to take proactive steps to optimize efficiency, health, and happiness based on adjustment of recognized patterns.  Sometimes the motivation for self-monitoring is a desire for improvement, sometimes for identifying and solving problems.

There are potential negative consequences to the adoption of this new technology and the hyper-analytical mindset and lifestyle that can result.  Having such a wealth of data at one’s fingertips, and a feeling of overarching responsibility for this data, can lead a person to believe that they are accountable and culpable for everything that happens in their lives.  There is also a danger of misinterpreting data – a person can mistakenly identify correlations among metrics and activities where there are none, or miss important ones that do exist.  This misinformation can then be used to make lifestyle decisions with potentially harmful consequences.  There are also issues with ownership of this data, its security, and its potential uses by others.

This raises a number of questions for debate:

1.  Are there specific uses of self-measurement technology that you find seriously problematic?

2.  Do we need some degree of education about understanding certain data to draw out the positive benefits of self-analysis and avoid pitfalls?  If so, what would this education involve?

3.  What type or types of measurement are the most important in the search for self-improvement?


RescueTime for Android adds Website Reporting

(Firefox users: up vote this if you want support on Firefox for Android: https://bugzilla.mozilla.org/show_bug.cgi?id=908224)

We just pushed an update for our Android app that adds the ability to report on time you spend browsing on your phone or tablet. Get it here:
https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.rescuetime.android

To do this, we needed use Android’s Accessibility services, and this requires an elevated privilege you will need to manually enable. Our app will walk you through this when you click the “Enable website logging” option. However, here is a brief explanation of the process:

1) Open up the RescueTime app and click the settings button (the gear icon). Click the “Enable website logging” option. This will automatically take you to the system Accessibility Settings screen, if it needs to be enabled.

RescueTime Settings

2) Find RescueTime in the Services list on the Accessibility settings screen and select it. On older devices you may already see an “on/off” switch for RescueTime here, just select On and you are done.

Screenshot_2013-08-16-10-38-53

3) After tapping it, on newer devices it opens the screen for enabling the service for RescueTime that has a description of the service. Click “On” to enable it. This automatically signals RescueTime to begin looking for site info in browsers.

Screenshot_2013-08-16-10-39-01

4) Achieve success! Supported browsers are: the stock Android browser, just called “Browser”, the Nexus series stock browser (a version of Chrome), Chrome (the version in the app store), Chrome Beta, and Dolphin. Not supported: Firefox and DolphinMini.


The knowledge worker’s dilemma

When you get down to it, ideas and problem-solving are the products of people who do knowledge work of any kind. Sure, they may be wrapped up in a more tangible deliverable (shipping code, delivering designs, meeting a word count, closing a deal, etc..), but the real value being passed along is in the ideas and inspiration that drove those outcomes. And those ideas can be huge. A great idea can be transformative, a breakthrough with far reaching impacts.

But innovation is unpredictable, and that’s slightly problematic. Process work, as opposed to knowledge work, is linear, and incremental. If you put in X hours, you can reasonably expect Y units of results. If you put in twice that amount, the results double. Knowledge work, on the other hand, is non-linear, and that makes the expected output a much fuzzier proposition. For example, the steps of building a motorcycle can be an incredibly fine-tuned and optimized process, with highly predictable results. But designing that same motorcycle doesn’t follow a repeatable formulaic process. (if it did, breakthrough innovations would be easy.)

You may work on a problem for days and not make a dent in it. Or you may spot the solution right away. The level of time devoted to solving a problem doesn’t necessarily correspond to the quality of the output. That’s not to say that creativity doesn’t involve process. It’s essential. But the output can’t be as easily predicted, and it’s difficult to point to anything that works universally.

So figuring out how to “do” knowledge work can be tricky. Here are three common traps that people fall into (I’ve suffered from all of them at different times)

The “I’m an idea guy!” trap

Just because solutions can’t be mapped to linear time input, and that some people appear to be able to pull amazing solutions out of thin air, it’s easy to fall into the line of thinking that effective solutions don’t require long slogs of effort. While it’s absolutely true that some of the best ideas come away from my desk, that doesn’t mean I can just sit back and relax until something amazing pops into my head. Even though it’s fun to think otherwise, Don Draper is just a fictional guy on a TV show, and Steve Jobs actually worked really freakin’ hard.

The workaholic trap

On the flip side, it’s possible to work on something too much and think my way into a trap that’s really difficult to get out of. Part of this may stem from confusing the feeling of “being busy” with “being productive”. If I’ve been hammering away for a week on a project and feel like I’m not getting anywhere, what’s the likelihood that I’ll make a breakthrough by forcing it and pushing through the weekend?

The procrastination trap

Oftentimes, I’ll put off work that needs to get done until the last minute, forcing myself to have a tight window for working. Parkinson’s law states “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”, so this actually seems like an efficient approach, but I’m not sure it’s really the best approach (both for my sanity and the quality of my work). There’s some psychology about why this actually works, but it sure is stressful. I also find deadlines tricky because they tend to give way to a lot of rationalization about “arbitrary deadlines vs. actual deadlines”, “this was an unrealistic timeline given this or that new information”, etc…

It’s difficult to figure out the right balance, and I doubt there’s a universal answer. How do you figure out what works the best for you? How do you “think” about thinking?


Does self-tracking help (or hinder) creativity?

The Quantified Self movement, in all it’s various shapes and sizes, is giving us the opportunity for an unprecedented view of ourselves. Examining ourselves through a lens of data holds the promise for better health, increased productivity, even greater happiness.

But what does self-tracking do to your creativity?

Now, it could be argued that all this careful measurement and instrumentation is really just a misguided way to optimize all spontaneity out of life. Albert Einstein said “Everything that can be counted does not necessarily count; everything that counts cannot necessarily be counted.” There’s absolutely truth to that. Today’s knowledge workers need to be creative. It’s probably the most important skill to have, especially as more process-oriented work is increasingly automated. The problem, from a self-tracking standpoint, is that creativity is subjective, and damn near impossible to express in a structured way. Some people are certainly trying, but I think it will be a long time (if ever) before any broadly agreed upon metric is established.

I think that’s just fine. Self tracking can still do amazing things for your creativity.

New problems, new solutions

“self-tracking paints an interesting picture in the negative space around our creative output.”
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Just as we’re faced with problems we didn’t have 20 years ago (when you could work for more than three minutes before being interrupted by email), we need to discover new coping strategies. A data-based approach makes a lot of sense.

Sure, it’s true, quantifying creativity is problematic. But do you know what’s not problematic? Quantifying emails, meetings, workflows, and all the other process-oriented stuff that takes up increasing amounts of our day. All of that is easily measurable, and self-tracking paints a pretty interesting picture in the negative space around our creative output. One of the observations we hear over and over from RescueTime users is “wow, I spend WAY more time in email than I thought!” Multiple studies have shown that the average desk worker spends about 30% of their time in email. It doesn’t feel that way because it’s generally spread out across the day in small chunks.

Switching back and forth on tasks takes a toll on our cognitive performance, and some research suggests that heavy multi-tasking diminishes our ability to recognize a breakthrough idea. Humans are nearly universally bad at multi-tasking, but it’s increasingly difficult to escape. But we can at least keep track of it, and that can bring an awareness that allows us to take steps to minimize it.

Different strokes for different folks

It’s easy to imagine creativity as this innate quality that manifests in spontaneous bursts of genius, but if you look at creative minds throughout history, you’ll see a very sophisticated creative process that’s been refined over time. It’s part of mastering your chosen craft. But what works for one person may not work for others. Hemingway only wrote in the morning, and had a very specific flow from handwritten pages to the typewriter. Picasso on the other hand, worked late into the night and slept in. Self-tracking can enhance this process, allowing individuals to methodically tweak their behaviors to find the ideal state of flow. Is the time you wake up more or less important than the total amount of sleep you got the night before? What about the quality of your sleep rather than the duration? Or is the really important thing the strong cup of coffee you drink before work? These are questions you can answer with self-tracking.

Let’s admit that maybe some of that creative output can be measured, and that’s really awesome

Even though there’s really no way your creative genius will be fully expressed by some numbers sitting in a spreadsheet (unless you are a mathematician, I suppose), most any creative endeavor has output that can be be revealing when tracked. Hemingway kept a daily log of his word-count “so as not to kid myself”. He used this to keep track of his progress, but also to reward himself. After a particularly productive day of writing, he could spend the next day fishing, guilt-free.

Motivation is key to creativity, and consistently measuring output is a fantastic way to stay engaged, especially with creative projects that require long slogs of work before seeing a finished outcome. It’s the digital equivalent of turning around after an exhausting uphill hike and beholding the beautiful view you’ve trudged into. Services like iDoneThis make this as easy as giving a short reply to a daily email. Another example is National Novel Writer’s Month, where daily word count is celebrated as a way of keeping authors pumped up about writing their novels.

Your turn. Do you think self-tracking impacts your creativity?

Obviously, we’re a little bit biased here at RescueTime. We think the greater awareness that comes from self-tracking has a huge benefit on one’s creativity. But I’m curious what you think? Do you agree? Or is it too clinical of a lens for such a organic thing? Or, is it simply navel-gazing, and a distraction in and of itself?

Further reading:

NPR.org: The Myth Of Multitasking

99u: The 5 Most Dangerous Creativity Killers

Courting a Muse In a Data-Driven Workplace

MeasuredMe.com: My Attempt at Tracking Creativity

RescueTime Blog: 5 habits of highly motivated novelists