I’ve been trying out an app called Moment. It’s purpose is to keep track of how much I’m using my phone, reminding me of the passage of time (wasted?) with regular notifications. They’re set at every 15 minutes as default, which seems annoyingly frequent enough for the goal of the app, although you can adjust this in settings if you like. Here you can also set an upper time limit and add an alarm. It’s only on iOS right now (free with a £2.99 upgrade to unlock all features) but they have a sign up for notification when the android version is ready if you’re interested. Having used the app for a few weeks now I can confirm it does everything it sets out to do. A few week’s use reveals I’m on my phone for often more than 200 minutes a day – but then I am an app reviewer, so I think you have to give me some leeway there.
The big question is, did these notifications make me use my phone less?
Not in the slightest. The most it achieved was a slightly annoyed huff whenever the notifications nagged at me. There was no motivation for me to act.
Perhaps I don’t feel like I use my phone too much? Although there are a growing number of experts expressing concern about how dependent on our technology we have become.
Locket is an Android app that pays users to place ads on their lock screens, and when analysing its 150,000 users it found the average person checks his or her phone 110 times a day, with that figure going up to 900 times a day in extreme cases.
In an attempt to find out whether I am just deluding myself I downloaded Checky – Phone Habit Tracker (available free on iOS and Android). This very simple app has one objective; to keep a tally of how many times you check your phone. There’s even a map to tell you where your phone habit is most persistent and it will notify you at the end of the day with your count. In the end I think I’m doing pretty well – normally looking at my phone around 10 to 20 time each day. But that figure more than doubles if I’m out of my office all day and can probably run into the hundreds when I’m at an event or conference.
But it’s not necessarily my phone which is to blame day-to-day, and I’ll admit I probably do spend more time than most people connected to my technology in one form or another. So I decided to dig around on the web and see if there are any tools that can truly help me spend less time plugged in.
It strikes me there are several possible strategies when trying to influence a person’s will in this respect. One is to help them track how much time they are spending on a task, hoping it will motivate them to curb excessive activities and set goals for the things they want to get done.
TOGGL This very simple browser based app lets you start a timer to track tasks that can be assigned to different categories. One of the problems I often see with tools designed to help you save time is they are so time consuming to set up and use. That couldn’t be further from the truth with Toggl, just select or create a project and click start. Simple. The trick is remembering to click stop when you’re done – and the timer doesn’t switch off when you close the browser window either. I’ve logged more than a few 100+ hour work stints, even unlocking an achievement badge “Workaholic”. If you can remember to use it religiously it will do exactly what you want it to in a way that is head and shoulders above the competition in terms of simplicity – which has to be a key consideration here. It’s also useful data for time sheets if you work that way, but personally I don’t think I have the staying power to use it long term.
ATRACKER In a very similar vein if you want to use a smartphone to track your activities instead, ATracker is about the simplest I’ve seen. It’s iOS only, the lite version is free and good enough to try but with a limit of only 4 tasks you can track you will pretty quickly want to upgrade to the £2.99 version with unlimited tasks. Once the categories are set – which was edging towards annoying complicated but just about managed not to irk too much – just tap on the appropriate icon to start the timer. You get a nice pie chart to look at, and again it does precisely what it sets out to do as long as you remember to start and stop it diligently. The premium edition also lets you set a countdown timer on certain activities – say computer gaming – then receive an alarm when your time is up.
GLEEO For android users there is Gleeo, which is a little more complex to set up and not as easy on the eye, but does pretty much everything the above apps do.
Undoubtedly all these apps do what they advertise as well as you could want, but none of them prevent me from using my tech; buttons are easily forgotten about and alarms easily ignored after all. And life is definitely too short to tell your phone every time you start doing something else.
Ultimately, although it would be nice to know accurately how much time I spend doing certain things, neither of these apps know when I have deviated from the plan. If I get distracted and go off on a Youtube related videos adventure, or get sucked into a Twitter storm; it all falls apart when human error enters the equation and I forget to click the button.
If tracking is a lost cause for me, perhaps I need a little extra help? A digital intervention to make me spend less time on my tech?
RESCUE TIME I have long been a fan of Rescue Time, a productivity tool that tracks, blocks and motivates you to stay on target. The free version lets you set goals and it automatically monitors the time you spend on individual websites and applications on your computer – like Photoshop and Microsoft Excel – from which you can extrapolate what you were doing. If you upgrade to premium ($72 a year right now) you can log offline activities too, like making a phone call, as well as blocking certain distracting URLs (like Facebook and Youtube) using ‘Focus Time’ or setting a time limit on their usage. It’s annoying when the block kicks in just as things were getting interesting on Twitter, but it’s definitely helped me curb my procrastination. You can choose if you want the site to track all, or just part of your traffic including setting it to ignore time spent away from your computer, which could mean you’ve been called into a meeting. Although in my case it probably means I’m on the sofa watching Star Trek repeats.
STAYFOCUSD Some websites are a real problem. Social networks and your favourite discussion boards. For a simple way to curb your worst web habits StayFocusd is a free Chrome browser extension that lets you set a maximum daily time limit on certain pages, or entire domains. The default is 10 minutes, but you can change that in the settings. You can only have one time limit across the board, which isn’t ideal, but there’s a bunch of other nice features in the settings panel, including a Nuclear option to entirely block all restricted sites for a set number of hours. Otherwise you’re free to browse restricted sites until the time is expired, after which you see this cheeky message for the rest of the day:
LEECH BLOCKER Something very similar for Firefox browsers is Leech Blocker. These types of brute force motivation are extraordinarily effective as long as you can brush aside your annoyance from being stopped in your tracks. The trick is making sure you set everything up first thing when you are motivated for the day ahead, and not just finding new and ever more inventive ways to waste time when it kicks in.
OFF TIME Being distracted by my phone when I’m trying to get an article written is another fatal flaw in productivity. Our mobile devices are so talkative now, binging and bonging all over the place. Off Time is a great solution. Free on android it lets you set a period when you don’t want to be disturbed unless it’s something important, like a call from your mum. The app will then completely choke your phone’s connection with the outside world, taking messages for you and letting people know when you’ll be back on the grid.
MAC FREEDOM The ultimate sledge hammer action if you find the internet a distraction is to completely turn off local network access, severing your connection to the distractions of the web for a designated period so you can get on with coding or design work. Mac Freedom does just this, giving you the option to schedule the switch off for certain times and days of the week. It’s available on Mac, Windows and Android for around $10 each each version. You get a registration code by email after paying and the company offers a money back guarantee for 60 days.
ANTI SOCIAL There is also a sister product, Anti Social, you can buy in a bundle for $20. Like the browser extensions above, this lets you block certain websites specified by you but works across all your browsers so can’t be circumvented by browser hopping. It’s designed for social media, like Twitter and Facebook, but you can block whatever flavour of distraction that grabs your attention in there by just posting its URL.
On balance it seems that apps and tools which enforce time away from technology are most effect, but they still require a level of willpower to deploy consistently and long term.
Perhaps I am looking at this from the direction way completely?
BOND Maybe just reminding myself there are better things to be doing than sitting at my computer all day will be all the motivation I need? Bond is a free iOS app that lets you set up reminders to stay in touch with people. Enter your number in the website and you’ll get a download link texted to your phone. Life can get busy and time passes so quickly it seems it can be easy to lose track of it. You can chose a way to make contact from three categories – phone call, text message or Facebook (though the app is very new and says more options are on the way) – then pick a contact and the frequency for the reminder.
BEERAPP Once I’ve made contact I can use free iOS and Android app, Beer App, to invite them out for a drink. I can think of no better incentive not to waste time messing about online.
See you in the real world sometime.