Do Productivity Apps Actually Change Your Behavior?

The modern-day white collar worker is easily distracted. I don’t care if you work in advertising, finance, or the public sector. If you are sitting in front of a computer a majority of the day and have a smartphone, you will not be productive. Checking Facebook/Instagram/Buzzfeed is unavoidable in the case you miss out on the latest way to make healthy meals from peanut butter. Banging out some texts on WhatsApp while you’re on the toilet is a no-brainer–or in my case–getting in a raid on Clash of Clans. Since we all get distracted, a plethora of self-help listicles from Forbes and productivity apps have popped up to help us creative class-types be more productive. But do they really work?

When I have to write work e-mails before I’ve had coffee (source: What Should We Call Me)

Before I get into the apps, how they work, and what I think of them, the first question I have for the baby boomers out there is how did white collar workers get through the workday pre-Internet and smartphone? There were no digital distractions, let’s call it that, but surely there must have been other ways to kill time, or were workers simply more productive? The only perspective I have about work culture from the 70s, 80s, and 90s is from Mad Men. Maybe people just drank more? Hung out at colleagues’ desks more to talk? Maybe the distractions were actually healthier since they involved human interaction rather than LED screens. I’ve never had a desk job where I didn’t have the Internet, so don’t know how people got distracted “back in the day.” Having worked in the service industry, you’re on your feet during your entire shift and there really isn’t much time to, well, kill time.

The Measured Self

Ever since I read the 4-hour Workweek by Tim Ferriss, I became obsessed with this notion of the “measured self.” There are probably many eloquent ways of describing what this phrase means, but I see it as a lifestyle choice to quantify the the decisions you make in your life to inform your future decisions. The most basic example of this is keeping a budget. Prior to all these consumer budgeting apps, I used to keep track of my budget in Excel (I still know people who still use Excel for their budgeting purposes out of habit):

You know it’s old school when the Excel version is 2003! From Excel, I moved to Microsoft Money which was sold as “personal finance management software” as reported by the trusty folks at Wikipedia. I would diligently track every single expense whether it was cash or credit, and this ultimately became just like Excel in terms of its clunkiness:

I remember you too well MSN (source: PC World)

Then, of course, came the grand daddy of all personal finance management tools: Mint. I still log my cash expenses in Mint and all my credit card expenses automatically appear since Mint talks with all the major banks and brokerages. We’ll talk more about Mint later.

Returning back to the notion of the measured self, I started following more of Tim Ferriss’ advice with quantifying things like your workouts, nutrition, and even sleep a la  The 4-Hour Body (I really should get a kickback on mentioning Tim’s books all the time. Speaking of which, I just signed up for Amazon Associates and put in those links just now. Affiliate links ftw.) Tim goes the extra step with quantifying his body such as weighing his feces and drawing his own blood to monitor his bodily chemicals. I wouldn’t say I take it that far, but you can see how crazy your measurement can get. I have friends who are CrossFit and body-builder types who weigh their foods and do all that proportioning shit; but my goals aren’t to win a bodybuilding competition so I don’t take it that far.

The reason I measure everything from spending to the weights I lift is to track my progress and monitor trends. The weight room is one of the easiest places to measure and experiment because you can see whether the hard work you put in last week translates into a bigger lift. Spending and budgeting, however, are a little different. I’ll get into how I use Mint and a new app I’ve been trying out for a few weeks called RescueTime (which also came as a recommendation from one of Tim Ferriss’ podcasts).

Do You Really Want To Know How Much Money You Spend?

Through anecdotes, the number one reason I hear people say they don’t use Mint, or any personal budgeting software for that reason, is they don’t want to know how much they’re spending on clothes, food, and entertainment because it would make them feel bad emotionally. Ignorance is bliss right? It’s like taking a bite into a Whopper with bacon and being content with how it tastes rather than knowing the 100 grams of fat will clog your arteries. I get it, it’s human behavior.

When service is bad at brunch and my food finally comes out (Source: What Should We Call Me)

Mint espouses all these great features like keeping a budget, helping you see trends in your spending, and relatively recently showing you your credit score. The credit score feature is actually pretty awesome because I remember when you had to download these huge PDF reports from Experian showing how on time you are with your credit card payments. While all these features of Mint are great, the main way I utilize Mint is for seeing my entire financial situation in one place. It’s almost like putting everything down on the table and showing how much you’re worth (literally) which is both liberating and sobering. Instead of having to log into 5 different banking websites, I can track the balances across all my accounts (which is frightening in a way since Mint now has access to my entire financial profile).

Beyond this feature, Mint has turned me into a creature of habit. I have been classifying every single personal and business expense since I integrated all my accounts into the platform. This might be the anal accountant speaking through, but see an uncategorized transaction in Mint is like seeing a scab that has ripped off 90% of the way and I can’t help but peel it off. Mint does a good job of classifying common transactions, but for the one offs that’s where I set up my own categories and classifications. I do all this for the greater good of being able to track and monitor my spending over time.

This leads me to the ultimate question, does the monitoring actually change my behavior? In the last year, I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve looked at the “Trends” tab in Mint. The whole point of classifying your transactions is so that you can see how much you’re spending on food, transportation, etc. In theory, personal finance pundits say something to the effect of “now that you know how much you’re spending on Starbucks, you know what parts of your life you can cut back!” Here’s a snapshot of my spending last month:


I’m looking at the major categories like Home (rent), Food & Dining (eating out), and Health & Fitness (physical therapy sessions on a bum knee). These are all expenses I have to spend. Maybe I’m just not a careless spender who sees a brand new vacuum at Macy’s and realizes I have to have that powerful suction in my life. Or maybe I’m not doing a deeper enough analysis into my spending habits to see where my money is really going.

I’ve spent 30 minutes or so analyzing my spending over time and I always find ways to justify them. Whether that’s bad or good, the bottom line is that just monitoring the trends is not altering my behavior

It’s one thing to look at your spending patterns and make a conscious decision to completely change your habits because you are buying too many vacuums, but my guess is that the type of person who is using Mint already has pretty good control of their spending habits and has a pretty deep understanding of their financial situation.

It’s almost like the type of user Mint attracts is exactly the type of person who wouldn’t need the tool in the first place. I might just not be the right user or I’m not using Mint the right way, but I still go on buying the normal food and Metrocards that I do because I am not saving up to buy a house or car, and not planning for a wedding and babies. Maybe that’s how Mint should approach its marketing from now on:

Buying a car? Thinking about popping the question? We’ll tell you just how much debt you’re in so you’ll know how many nights a week you’ll need to eat ramen and PB&J. – Yours Truly, Mint

RescueTime Tracks Your Productivity On Your Laptop And Phone

At the recommendation of a Tim Ferriss podcast I mentioned earlier, I downloaded RescueTime on my Macbook and phone to track my productivity across websites and apps. In a nutshell, RescueTime runs in the background on your laptop and phone to show you how much time you spend on actual work versus browsing on Facebook or other social networking sites. In my mind, the value proposition was simple: we measure your entire day of “work” to see how much work you actually do. You’ll be surprised by how distracted you actually are during the day!

I think the shock value of how much time you are distracted from work was the main takeaway for me. Thinking back to the start of this story, if you knew how much employees were being distracted during the day (fully knowing they were being distracted), would the numbers cause you to block certain websites on the corporate network or lead you to establish a no-personal-email policy in the workplace? That type of knee-jerk reaction to the numbers may be detrimental to employee morale, but that’s a whole other subject.

Here’s a log of my hours from last week:


This is all the activity from my Macbook and phone over 7 days. The biggest stat for me was the amount of time spent on “Communication & Scheduling,” aka Gmail and Google Calendar. The other categories make sense to me. Did a little bit of programming, browsing on LinkedIn, and some games on my phone. The “Productivity Pulse” is the shock value factor that, in my opinion, is supposed to make you go “Holy shit I spend way too much time goofing off at work.” 9 hours and 39 minutes of my time last week was classified as being “too distracted,” which means playing games on my phone and browsing social media.

If we dig a little deeper into some of the apps that are productive, neutral, and distracting:


The purple bars are the “neutral” apps like Gmail but I would consider those productive apps since I am doing all my business e-mail in Gmail. The blue bars are the “most productive” apps like Sublime and localhost (programming-related activities), and the red bars are the evil distracters. For me, the Instagram/Facebook combo are a time suck (about 4 hours last week) and Clash of Clans (damn you Supercell!) taking up 2 hours and 35 minutes.

From a categorical perspective:


Now the “shock” becomes a little more clear. I spend more than half as much time on “very distracting” apps relative to the “very productive” time. The neutral category is again a bit of a misnomer since some of those apps are productive (like Gmail), so in order to make this a true comparison I would need to go back and classify the time correctly. As if classifying my expenses on Mint wasn’t enough already.

Knowing Your Productivity Doesn’t Lead To Being More Productive

Similar to the inefficacy of Mint curtailing my spending habits, RescueTime hasn’t given me enough of an impetus to change my productivity habits either. Simply knowing that I’m distracted is great, I already knew that. I now feel more guilty every time I load up Clash of Clans knowing that it’s going to add to my “distraction” bucket. The simple of act of knowing is not enough, there needs to be a monetary incentive tied to this data to really initiate a behavior change. This is why I think apps like Fitocracy have become successful because you’re paying for a coach to guide and train you and you’re putting money on the line to make this change happen.

With RescueTime, the reporting affirms that I spend too much time e-mailing and playing games on my phone. What really inspired me to change is reading studies about the addictive nature of e-mail and the quantifiable productivity gains achieved from checking your e-mail twice a day and not reacting to stuff coming into you inbox. The RescueTime data just gives me the calorie count on the Big Mac I already knew was bad for me, now I just feel a little more guilty eating the burger.

Being able to measure your productivity is great, but without a prescription for change, or true purpose for the data, I decided to get rid of RescueTime from my digital footprint. Don’t get me wrong, people still love the numbers and stats. On the RescueTime website, a few testimonials stood out to me:

The testimonials are all great (they’d better be if you’re featuring them on your site). At the end of David’s testimonial, he says RescueTime is great for “anyone who wants to be intentional about improving their productivity.” I read that as this app is good at getting you on the path to changing your behavior, but that’s all it’s good for. It’s like saying getting your first month free at the gym is a great deal for you to start losing weight and building muscle, but you still have to get your ass to the gym and actually do stuff to see results. Maybe I’m being a bit cynical, and this app is good at providing surface-level type of change, but that’s as far as it goes.

This second testimonial shows a real business case where I think RescueTime can really make a difference:


Imagine if clients held lawyers and consultants to the actual billable hours they worked on projects related to their businesses using RescueTime? That would be game changer. Matt’s testimonial about how he was able to quantify his entire year with 75% of it being billable to his client shows transparency in his design process. Perhaps the best use case for RescueTime is enterprise (I know it’s the easiest cop out for tech startups) but the existing framework for vendors logging billable hours is still pretty antiquated. With complete tracking and monitoring and actual revenue tied to the apps and websites you spend your time on, your behavior would definitely change to ensure your maximizing productivity since it impacts the bottom line for your company.

We took a circuitous route from the old days of logging things in Excel to the measured self to inspiring actual behavior change. I think for many out there, just knowing is the first step in optimizing your financial situation and work habits. At the same time, I’m starting to see the nonchalant response to measuring and tracking every single second of your life: it’s just too much work and I don’t want to know exactly what I spend my money and time on! On top of that, now you’re spending more precious time poring through all the data, generating reports, and affirming that you do play too much Clash of Clans and spend too much on eating out. Why not just live your life (within reason and moderation) and the numbers will eventually balance themselves out?