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Overlooked: The Best Productivity Tool I Never Used

When people find out that I work from home, they all say they couldn’t do it because “I’d just watch TV all day.”

My usual response is, “Well, if you don’t work, you don’t get paid, so you get over that pretty quickly.”

This is a true statement: I don’t sit around watching TV all day. I used to really enjoy that part, but once you stop making money suddenly, you realize your butt has to be in the chair working during the day.

Sadly, “butt in chair” is also not the same as “working”.

I have good days and bad days when it comes to productivity. But the temptation to putz around online is a strong one, and it can derail a work day very quickly.

The key to any achievement

The secret to working from home successfully – or accomplishing any kind of goal, really – is building in accountability.

I’ve tried different apps, but always found ways around them because I’m way too tech-savvy to let a blocked website get in my way.

If I blocked a site on my desktop, I could pull it up on my phone. Or I could find ways to unblock everything with one click and move on with my goofing off.

And the thing about goofing off online is that your time disappears insanely quickly. If I read one blog post that might lead to another, I can lose an hour of my day without blinking.

I found some site blockers that would block sites on a schedule, but those weren’t very useful for me. Sometimes I needed legitimate access to a blocked site.

For example, I run and manage a handful of Facebook ads. If Facebook is blocked from 6am-4pm every day, I can’t get in to manage those ads. But if I leave Facebook out of the “blocked sites” list, my mind will let me drift over there throughout the day.

Plus, my energy tends to be adaptive. That means the way I set up my work day often changes. Having sites blocked at certain times every day doesn’t work for me.

So I went with some site blockers that I had to turn on and off. Seems good, right? Many people – writers especially – talk about switching on their blocker when they need to focus.

There were a few good apps that did this for my phone as well, so I could block all distracting apps and sites across my devices.

Still not a perfect solution

The problem? I had to turn the blockers on.

You know what happens when you have to turn on a site or app blocker? You go, “Okay, I’ll just run through my distracting stuff one more time before I get to work.”

An hour later, you’re still not working. This has legitimately happened to me.

And none of this takes into account the time spent away from the computer – wandering around the house, doing random things, avoiding work.

So it seems like nothing will work. I’m doomed to a life of being distracted.

On the accountability side, I set up a reminder on my calendar in the last half hour of my work day every day to review my day and see what I got done (or didn’t get done). This was mildly effective, but was also something of a pain. And I didn’t have any real method of reviewing – I just looked at my calendar and determined what I actually finished.

My frustration had reached a boiling point. I had no real effective method of tracking my time, measuring my productivity, or keeping myself on track.

Then, wouldn’t you know it, I found the Holy Grail. And I was already using it, to a degree.

I didn’t know it does that

I’ve had a RescueTime account for, like, forever. I really only looked at it on Fridays to determine how many hours I spent on a few distracting sites every week.

They had a Premium-level account, but I never even really looked at it. I just had the free version installed on my browser and my phone, and left it alone.

Oh, what I was missing.

This week, I signed up for RescueTime Premium, and I feel like I discovered plutonium by accident.

Turns out, RescueTime Premium is actually loaded with features that address all of my concerns:

  • FocusTime. This is your site and app blocker. As RescueTime categorizes your activities, you can mark them as different levels of distracting. Right now, I have my FocusTime set to block all sites marked as “Very Distracting”. I can schedule FocusTime, or I can click the little icon in my taskbar and start a FocusTime session. But that’s not how I use it – I’ll show you in a minute how FocusTime is set up to be even better for my personal needs.
  • Daily Highlights. At any point in time, I can pop in and jot down something I got done. But even better, I have RescueTime watch my productivity. If I’m productive for 2 hours at a stretch, the app will give me a pop-up notification to log what I’m getting done into my Daily Highlights. It’s a nice touch.
  • Enter Offline Time. Here’s where things start getting really awesome. You can log your time spent away from your computer. That’s good. But what’s even better is, thanks to the way I have it customized, if my computer is idle for 5 minutes or more, a window will pop up when I return, asking me what I was doing. With six different customizable options, I can log my offline time with one click and keep myself accountable for the time spent away from the computer.
  • Integration with IFTTT. And here’s the secret sauce. Of course, IFTTT can do all kinds of awesome things with RescueTime, like with any other app it can connect to. But where RescueTime beats every other productivity tool for me is the integration I can have with my calendar. Here’s what happens: I look at my schedule for tomorrow and determine which activities need all sites to be blocked. I then go into the title of each of those tasks and add the tag “#focus”. The next day, when that task comes up, IFTTT checks the calendar, sees the tag, and tells RescueTime to start a 30-minute FocusTime block automatically. So, I can still schedule my focused work, but be flexible enough to let it change depending on the day. It’s not an exaggeration to say this is a game-changer in my productivity. Absolutely perfect.
  • It’s automatic. Now that everything is set up, I don’t have to think about running it. It starts when I turn on my computer, it logs everything, and every pop-up and prompt is automatic. I don’t have to spend any more time managing it. I just go about my day.
  • It’s a paid service. I’m reaching a point in my life where I have started appreciating paid apps and services. For the most part, paid services are free from intrusive advertising, the quality of support is better, the quality of the service is better, and I know I’m supporting the future of a company, rather than banking on the future of a company that raised VC funds. I’d rather be a customer than the product.

It kinda bothers me that I’ve had an account with RescueTime for this long and haven’t been using the Premium level.

I’m all about customization with my services and apps, so being able to bend the productivity system to meet my needs instead of having to force myself to work a certain way to meet the requirements of the app.