Practice and Productivity: Just Pay Attention

[Full Disclosure: Well, there’s nothing to disclose. I didn’t get money or any kind of kickback from RescueTime for writing this post, nor was I asked to write it. I sound like an infomercial but that’s just because I love this service and have begun to see how it connects truths about my work life with truths about my life in general.]

One of the few web services I actually pay for is RescueTime. RescueTime tracks how you spend your time on your computer and mobile devices by logging each window/app you have open and how much time you spend in it. (Just the window/file itself, not what it contains.) Then it compiles all that data to show you how much time you’re wasting, and how much time you’re spending productively.* First I’ll talk about why I think it’s useful in general, and then I’ll talk about a couple of personal insights it’s led me to.

I have recommended RescueTime to a lot of people. A few of them have seemed interested, but most react in horror at the prospect of using such a service for themselves. “I can’t imagine having that,” they say. “I don’t want to know how much time I waste!” But the idea isn’t quite as Big Brother-ish as it seems at first. Most importantly, you are in control of what RT considers “productive” or “distracting” and you’re also in control of when it’s monitoring you. (For instance, if you are a marketer, you might tell it to consider time spent on Facebook “very productive,” while for most of us, it’s “very distracting.”) You can also have it monitor you 24/7, Mon-Fri 6am-8pm, or whatever time frame you choose. (I think this latter option is only available to premium subscribers, though.)

But also remember that the thing that’s motivating you here is not RescueTime, it’s you. RescueTime is not a person; it does not judge you, it just aggregates data you provide. It shows you how you spend your time, but it doesn’t hold a gun to your head and force you to have a big guilt trip about it. In fact, RT can give you a more objective perspective on things that once might have inclined you to feel guilty. For instance, before RescueTime, you might have felt that you spent too much time on Facebook because you check it so often, and then after you installed it, you realize that you only spend a grand total of about 30 minutes a day on Facebook and it just feels like much more time because you’re checking it often. You may then decided that 30 minutes is an acceptable amount of time to be spending on Facebook each day, and cease to worry about it.

Furthermore, RescueTime also shows you how much time you’ve spent doing productive things, which makes you feel awesome. I personally find that RT is much more of a carrot than a stick. I love seeing big swaths of blue (which stand for productive time) on my dashboard. The last great thing about RT is that it allows you to see how much time it takes to complete a project.  For instance, if I’m grading a batch of papers, I don’t often work on my own stuff at the same time. Therefore, I can track how much I use MS Word during grading week to see if it takes longer than I’d planned to grade, or if I can afford to slow down and give each paper a little more attention.

I’ve been using RescueTime  for over two years  and have been a premium subscriber for most of this time. The most valuable thing about the paid service is that it allows you to enter time you’ve spent away from your computer. Thus, I use RT not just to track how I spend time on my computer, but how much time I spend doing my Buddhist practice, in meetings, drawing, and doing gardening/housework. Whether or not most people would consider all of these “productive” activities is beside the point. I know they are productive for me. This way RT gives me a better picture overall of how I’m spending my days.

I have written a little bit about my RescueTime data before in this post from a couple of years ago. I didn’t even realize it when I was writing the post, but I now see that I was sinking further into depression that summer. For weeks on end, I did very little–slept a lot, spent most of my time indoors, mindlessly consumed movies or TV or whatever, and played lots of games on my tablet. I can now look back to those weeks in May and June when my productivity totally tanked and I spent a lot of time (as much as four hours a day!) playing games on my phone, and say, Oh, that’s what depression looks like.

practice and writingFortunately, I’ve been feeling better for a long time. But even when my mental health is good, I know that the amount of time I spend looking at my RescueTime data, and the greater the number of daily goals that I try to meet, the more I get done. And doesn’t that make sense? The more we’re aware of how we choose to spend our time, the better we’ll be at making choices about how to spend it? For me, it’s all a matter of paying attention.

The graph with the blue lines, which covers the last month, interests me a lot. The light blue line is how much time I spend writing and the dark blue line is how much time I spend doing my daily Buddhist practice. The first thing I notice is that I’m not at all consistent. I go back and forth between days of high productivity and days of low productivity with both. Now that I really concretely see this, I can decide whether or not this is acceptable to me, and if not, how I can to try to even things out. But what was even more surprising to me is how closely my practice and my writing have been tracking one another. There are a few days where they are at odds, like 6/16, on which I took notes at my best friend’s dissertation defense but was so busy because of that that I didn’t have time to practice, but overall, it’s clear to me that there’s at least some correlation between when I practice and when I write. And this only makes sense: a day when I have the discipline to get up in the morning, copy a passage from the Diamond Sutra, do prostrations, meditation, and chanting, is also probably a day on which I will have the discipline to work on my dissertation for a good chunk of time. A day on which I waffle on my practice and decide to be lazy is also probably going to be a day when I don’t get much writing done.

Ever since I entered my Zen training program, I had a vague notion that daily practice was helping out with my dissertation, but seeing this data really motivates me to keep both up! But it’s not just discipline. Practices like meditation are at their foundation practices that teach us how to pay attention. When I pay attention to what’s going on inside me, what anxieties or distractions might be pulling me away from my work, I have the presence of mind to sit there and watch the anxieties and distractions rise and fall away. If I’m not paying attention, then I get pulled away from my work at first sight of a shiny new distraction. In a way, I feel like RescueTime works in the same way. When I pay attention to my work habits, I am much more likely to work. In that way, productivity isn’t a matter of strong-arming yourself into working, it’s just a matter of paying attention.

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*One reason people might not want to use RescueTime is that they’re uncomfortable with having a service watch what they do. Fair point, and yeah, it is always a gamble. I haven’t seen any evidence that RT sells data. They could make a killing off of targeted ads, but they don’t use ads at all, which is why I think the premium service is so pricey. You can also tell it to stop tracking you for a certain period of time–like the next 60 minutes. And you can tell it to never record when you visit adult sites. They also give you the option of deleting all or a selected portion of your data. Of course, even these things depend on whether you trust them to actually get rid of the data, but to me they don’t seem like shady company and this service is by far the most useful thing I’ve used to understand my work habits and boost my productivity. I guess I’m accepting the risk, but that’s for each person to decide.

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