This week I took (and presumably failed) an Italian exam in which one of the tasks was to describe my relationship with technology. Thankfully my abysmal knowledge of the Italian language did not allow me to actually expose the full extent of my digital serfdom. The truth is that my whole productive lifestyle is based by and large on the use of a few choice apps. Almost since the beginning of the DPhil I have been using an app called Atimelogger, which I then updated for the pay version Atimelogger2. Only this week my arsenal of productivity apps was extended by a to do list with a personality disorder called carrot. I’m not going to give you a detailed description of the apps. If that’s what you want, I recommend reading this carrot review on pcmag or this blog post about atimelogger. I am not incredibly interested in technology but I am very invested in productivity and time management. Rather than claiming that these two apps are the best ones on the market (I doubt it), I claim they are really simple, don’t require any engagement with the technology itself and together they get the job done or, even better they get you to get your job done.
Atimelogger is basically a digital attendance clock for your smartphone. Part of me sees the final victory of capitalism in the fact that a worker (me) would track themselves on their own attendance clock and punish and reward themselves according to their own performance. Surely this merging of worker and foreman is every capitalist’s cost-efficient dream. Apart from my inner Marxist’s objections, I do enjoy atimelogger a lot. My mantra has always been “know thy work habbits” and atimelogger allows you to do just that.
When you open the app you see a screen with little icons that represent activities. If you click an icon, the app begins tracking that activity. When you finished that activity, you click stop (or pause if you only take a break). The amount of time you have spent doing the activity appears on the main screen. Especially when I started using the app, I often encountered the following situation: I start an activiy, “write Dphil”, for example. After what seems like forever, I want to take a short break. I open the app to pause “write Dphil” only to see that I’ve actually spent less than ten minutes writing on my thesis. I hang my head in shame and do some more writing. This makes you wonder how many times you have thought that you’ve done tons of works, when in reality it was only a couple of minutes. Having a tracking app makes you hyper aware of your ability to fool yourself.
What I love about tracking my activities with this app, rather than, as I used to do with a digital calender, or (even worse) with pen and paper is how incredibly easy and quick it is. Before I started using atimelogger, I’d often forget to write down when I started doing something or I’d be too lazy to invest the 10 seconds to make a note in my calendar. With this app, this almost never happens. Tracking literally takes about one second. Stopping an activity also takes about a second. So tracking is fairly accurate.
Of course, the point of tracking is that you can then see results. Atimelogger creates fairly straight forward reports. You can choose which time span you want to see reports on and on what activities. At the click of two icons you know exactly how much time you have spent writing your thesis, studying Italian or watching your toenails grow in the last week, month, year (once you have actually tracked that amount of time). There is a couple of visual options (pie charts and the like), which are nice if you are into that kind of thing. I am not. I like the firm grasp of hard numbers. After a couple of weeks you get over using the app as a self-congratulatory device and simply use it to figure out how much time you spend doing what, thereby having the numbers to plan the weeks ahead. You realize that there is simply no point planning for 40 hours of thesis writing and a daily workout because it has never happened in the past. So your start planning achievable goals and end up actually achieving them. Which feels awesome.
One simple feature that I love is the “goals” option (it took me a while to become aware of that feature, as it is hidden in the “more” tab). You can set yourself weekly goals, such as “15 hours of Dphil” or “4 hours Italian”. Another handy feature is that you can also set limit goals, so that the app informs you when you have spent a certain contingent of hours on a less desirable activity. Atimelogger helps you both do enough of one thing (say, writing your thesis) and not do too much of another (say facebook stalking your exes).
Atimelogger is great at helping you manage your time but its obviously not task oriented. It makes you aware of whether you are putting in the right amount of hours but doesn’t actually tell you whether you are getting the right things done. For me this is not much of a problem as far as my thesis is concerned, since I am usually quite good with doing the right tasks and getting things done if I actually spend the necessary hours in the library and working. Also, the fact that I see my supervisor regularly and therefore have to complete writing fairly regularly means I rarely get trapped in unproductive behaviours (aka reading all these really interesting and marginally potentially useful other things). However as far as anything but my thesis is concerned, atimelogger has the disadvantage that it rewards me for spending time with a task rather than finishing it. Which means that even quite small task, like writing an email, doing the laundry or forming a secret society for total world domination can be procrastinated at infinitum. This is where carrot comes in handy.
Carrot is a very simple to do list. It’s also an artificial intelligence style game. You start with a basically blank page (and a couple of instructions). You add an item to your to do list by dragging down so that a command line appears, where you enter your task. Once you complete the task you swipe it to the right and it disappears. So far so good. But rather than merely basking in the knowledge that you just completed a task, you also get points and an (often quite mean) motivational saying. When you’ve collected enough points you level up. With each knew level you also claim rewards. Many of the rewards are merely humorous (such as an invitation to a party to celebrate your success in Antarctica) others are additional features to the app itself: the ability to delete tasks is a fairly early addition, later you can order tasks, or set task reminders. In level 5 (I think) you get a (virtual) cat, which you cannot see but which depends on you for its survival (you slack; the cat dies). Carrot also has a mood indicator (the little circle in the top right corner). When you regularly complete tasks, it’s blue and carrot is happy. If you stop completing tasks for too long it turns red and carrot becomes angry. In a later level you also get access to a cat cam, so you can feed the cat (if you’ve been doing your tasks and carrot is happy) or can watch it get punched in the face if you have made carrot angry.
On an intellectual level I would agree with pcmag’s verdict that carrot is a terrible app. It’s too simple for most things you’d want a todo app to do. You are awarded the same number of points for every task – for carrot, there is no difference between writing a paper and taking out the rubbish. Also it basically works by a very reductive and frankly silly set of rewards and punishments… No reasonable human being should give a crap if a virtual “intelligence” named carrot kills your virtual cat because you haven’t completed a task in a day. The problem is, it works. More importantly it makes me work. I want to level up and I really, really do not want my cat to die (even though I know it’s not real). I hate the people who make carrot (they also have a horrendous weight shaming app, which capitalizes on body shame big time), I even hate the fact that their overly simplistic “psychology” works… but it does. And if you use it together with a more substantial app like timelogger it works a treat. On its own, carrot would very quickly lead to me spending my days taking out the rubbish, sending emails and cutting individual hair. I’d do all the quick and easy task, searching for cheap ticks and the next level up. Similarly timelogger on its own encourages me to do only time intensive things, which means I can procrastinate something relatively important for months, although it would take only minutes to do it. These two apps together, on the other hand, make sure I do my time in the library and actually write the paragraph (so I can tick it off and make carrot happy). Atimelogger makes me write the blog post but carrot makes me publish it. Time to level up.