There is no such thing as a unitasking device any more. The computer I’m writing this on is my home stereo, my home theater, a video game console, and a gateway to the most intense legal K-hole you can get without a prescription. (Damn you TV Tropes!) If you’ve ever sat down at your machine with the full intention of getting down to work, only to emerge a couple of hours later, with no work done and no recollection of how you spent your time… you are not alone. I’ve done it twice, today. See, I’m figuring all this stuff out too.
One secret weapon I have, however, is that I’m tracking everything I do at my computer. When I need to figure out exactly what I’ve been wasting my time on, I can dive into RescueTime and get a sense of my day. I even have Rescue Time set to send me a summary of what I did during the week, every Sunday, so I don’t even have to log in to find out what I’ve been up to. There are other solutions as well—many time tracking apps will do the same thing, so you can see if you’ve spent your day in Photoshop or on Pinterest. RescueTime has the benefit of being cross-platform, and being free (with a paid upgrade option that I don’t use.)
There’s no RescueTime for iOS for obvious reasons, but in iOS 8, Apple added a section to the Battery settings page to show what apps have used the most of your device’s battery. This gave a general overview of what apps you might be using most, but In iOS 9, they added a clock button which shows, to the minute, how long each app you use has been on-screen. It’s not as detailed of a report as RescueTime, but it’s helpful. Long story short, I’m spending way too much time refreshing Tweetbot these days…
Here is the thought technology, to borrow another Merlin Mann-ism. Set up a tracking app, and then just let it run. Go about your standard computing life for a whole week, without even thinking about the little cross icon in your menu bar watching your every move. (If you hide your menu bar, like I do, it’s a lot easier.) Once that week is up, take a look at the data and start identifying the patterns. It’s up to you what to do with the data, but without a clear picture of what your behavior is, how will you know what to change?
When trying to change a habit, a lot of us have a tendency to just throw stuff at the wall to see what sticks. We also have a tendency to try to change a million behaviors at once—Well, maybe just a dozen, but the point remains. Having hard data on how we’re spending our time on our devices each day gives us something concrete we can use to take action. A proven, effective way to change a habit is to identify the cue, and then change the behavior. Adding your technology usage gives you insight into that.
But data alone doesn’t give you the full picture. Maybe you’re one of those increasingly common people whose job is to constantly check Twitter, live in your email inbox, or tear through RSS feeds all day. Don’t laugh—I had a job that required all three. Even my most recent job had chunks of the day that involved me waiting for Gmail to refresh with my latest assignment. Email wasn’t keeping me from getting my work done, email was my work.
Also, knowing what we waste our time on doesn’t identify the reason. There’s a whole psychology of procrastination that’s way out of scope for this essay, but sometimes our distractions have a root cause that isn’t actually technological in nature. While you’re going through the reams of data you’ve created in your week of private espionage, try to keep in mind all the things you were intending to do, and why you ended up not going them. That will give you insight into how to solve the real problem instead of unplugging the modem twice a day when you need to get down to work.