Next Gen Productivity Monitoring Software

Now that I have a new baby, it is even more important to me that the time I spend in front of the computer is spent efficiently and productively. I’ve played around with productivity-monitoring software like RescueTime and TimeSnapper, and they provide a convenient way to record how I wasted my day. It’s a nice first step, but I’d like to see this class of application expand into 3 new areas: positive feedback, targeted recommendations, and an attention API.

Positive Feedback
Being told that I only spent 10% of my day doing work is good to know, but getting a low number might depress me rather than motivate me. I suggest a system that actually rewards me when I have a killer day or a great week. For example, I give the service $25 or $50 up front, and after I meet some sort of goal it buys me something off my Amazon wish list.

Wouldn’t that be neat? You’re having a good week, and suddenly a book you want shows up at your door. The key to this is making the rewards somewhat random:

Several studies have been conducted which targeted neural response to rewards. The results were unanimous in the fact that when one performed an action over and over again, and was given a reward randomly, dopamine levels rose. If the reward was given consistently, i.e. every four times the action was performed, the dopamine levels remained constant.

A slight variation that might work better would be for each contiguous block of productivity over a certain length, you have a chance of earning a credit towards a purchase. After N credits, the service automatically buys and sends you the item. Structuring it like this would make the feedback more rapid and allow for a little burst of dopamine each time you get an email saying you earned a credit. Isn’t this why MMORPGs are so much fun?.

A program to help you get addicted to work is either terrifying or a big win. Either way, it would be really neat to try.

Targeted Recommendations
Some software is just better than the default stuff that ships with Windows. For example, I like Textpad and Paint.net a lot more than Notepad and MS Paint. I’ve also been pleased with my switch from Bloglines to Google Reader, and from web based twitter to Twhirl. If a program spends all day monitoring my activity, it would be a cinch for it to recommend the tools and websites that are considered “best in class.”

There is obvious potential here in terms of sponsored recommendations, but it would be nice to see those separated out from community or editor controlled listings. Recommendations could be driven by some sort of wiki, which would make for all kinds of interesting fights over things like whether Google Reader is better than Bloglines. Any recommendation could also come with an estimate of the number of people that are currently using it, which would help the cream rise to the top.

Ultimately, it’s not just about how much time you spend slogging away – making good use of computer time is an important dimension of productivity as well.

A slight variation on this idea is to recommend something like LeechBlock if the user is spending too much time on the web.

Attention API
I know I’ve seen this idea somewhere before, but because things like RescueTime are actually in a position to make it happen, I’m going to mention it here. Interruptions are usually bad, but there are some times that they are worse than others. If I’ve been focused on Visual Studio and Windbg for 30 minutes with no breaks, I’m almost certainly in that fascinating “flow” state, and I’m going to be angry if I get an IM or (even worse) if some random app asks me to download a new version.

To deal with this kind of thing, it would be great to have a standard for publishing my current tolerance for interruptions, just like IM apps publish my presence. Both desktop apps and remote users could use this to determine if what they want to tell me is important enough to interrupt me. Of course, this only works if apps pay attention to it, but first we would need some apps that can accurately measure it. I’m not terribly good with naming things, but unless someone has something better, I’m going to suggest calling this value your “inTolerance”.

So there you go. One idea to help you spend more time being productive, another to help you make better use of the time you are actually working, and a third to keep you from getting interrupted. Anyone want to go and implement this stuff? I’ll be happy to beta test it for you.

6 Responses to “Next Gen Productivity Monitoring Software”


  • Amazing ideas! Love the analysis you’ve done and the thought you’ve put into this.

    I’d love it if TimeSnapper could reward me with a random gift from Amazon wishlist.

    Bringing in some (optional) LeechBlock-style features is something we’ve given thought to in the past, and it may happen yet.

    All three are great ideas, and very creative.

  • I especially like the ‘how bad of an idea it is to interrupt me now’ idea.

  • @Leon Hey, glad you like them. Supporting a LeechBlock style feature would be nice, but just recommending it would be a good start. But if you are going to do it yourself, the firewall API on Vista is apparently pretty easy. Blocking the site at that level would block both IE and FireFox.

    @SDC Wouldn’t that be great? The IM clients seem like they are always in such a feature arms-race that I can’t believe none of them have added it.

  • Hi Tom – These are great ideas. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. We’ve been thinking of ways to add some of these features to Slife.

    Regarding the interruption idea, you could specify which apps/docs represent work and which ones represent “fun”. With this info up in the cloud, there could be some really lightweight widgets that you could put in your blog/social network/etc to indicate whether it’s a good time for you to be interrupted. With an API, you could even intersect this with your IM client and Skype.

    Great stuff,

    -et

  • @Edison — Yes, exactly! Once there is some agreement on what this looks like, there are all kinds of widgets and tools that could use it.

  • I know this post is almost a year old (time flies!), but I figured I’d chime in from RescueTime:

    “For example, I give the service $25 or $50 up front, and after I meet some sort of goal it buys me something off my Amazon wish list.”

    We LOVE that idea.

    On the API front, we’re JUST launching our first big API push– so I think a lot of cool things are going to be possible!

    Oh, and we’re building in LeechBlock style stuff, too. Here is a super sneak peak at a block page: http://www.rescuetime.com/blocked/url/twitter.com

    You’ll be able to set up various conditions for blocking (including stuff like “block social networking if it exceeds X” OR “block social networking until I exceed Y in Software Dev time”). My favorite is the “Focus” button inside the client which basically allows you to say, “Block the bad parts of the Internet for me for 1 hour”. We’ll take anything you’ve labeled as super-distracting (or, if you haven’t labeled them, we’ll rely on the rest of our users) and give you 1 hour of focus!

    (note: all the blocky stuff and API are coming in the next release– a few weeks!)

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