Tech, time management, and productivity: an EMN office experiment

As we all probably know too well, technology can sometimes make us feel like we’re being less productive—it can be hard to focus in a world full of screens, pings, and pop-ups. But wait! Technology is supposed to make our lives easier! So there must be a way to use tech to become more productive, focused, and efficient.

Well, it turns out (of course) there’s an app for that. Several, in fact. We here at EMN did a little experiment: we each tried a time management or productivity app for two weeks, and we kept a record of what worked for us, what didn’t, and more. Here’s what we think:

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Victoria Thomas, Project Manager

App she tried: Rescue Time

How it works: “Rescue Time gives you an accurate picture of how you spend your time to help you become more productive. The tool tracks your activity [on your device] and classifies it by how productive or distracting it is.”

Why she chose it: “Rescue Time didn’t require much time or effort to get started. I was able to sign up and go about my other work.”

Experience: “There wasn’t much involved in using the tool. I would check it periodically to see what my time was spent on and occasionally adjust the categorization of the logs. I feel like it basically highlighted what I already knew about my time. It did make me more aware of my time spent on distracting activities and I intentionally tried to avoid those activities.”

Will she keep using it?: “Probably not. It wasn’t especially engaging. There is a premium paid version that sends you notifications when you spend time in specific activities or categories. Perhaps if I had used premium notification, I would have been more motivated to stay focused. However, I am already in touch with things that are distracting or detrimental to my workflow.”

Joe Gonzalez, Project Manager

App he tried: Also Rescue Time

Why he chose it: “I initially attempted another tool (Focus Booster), but quickly found that Rescue Time gave a better option for running in the background, which I preferred.”

Experience: “I was not really able to keep up with using this tool, and found that I abandoned using it after the first week of use. While I think it offers some good visualizations as to how a person is using their time, it ultimately became yet another tool that I had to worry about keeping on top of. In my situation, it didn’t really help with productivity, it just became another task to deal with. I would add that a lot depends on the type of user and what their work is like to begin with. As a project manager, I’m using multiple systems on a daily basis and really didn’t have room for another to add to the mix.”

Will he keep using it?: “No, I won’t continue with this tool. I think this particular app may be of some use for others though.”

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Shauna Keating, Digital Artist

App she tried: Remember the Milk

How it works: “Remember the Milk is basically just a to-do list that is organized into categories and accessed easily from the internet, a desktop app, email updates, and a mobile app.”

Why she chose it: “Since I am currently working at EMN part time, at school taking multiple classes with different projects, and taking on some side projects on top of that, it is very difficult for me to keep track of all the deadlines from all these different sources. I felt I could really benefit from a to-do list I could access anywhere, as opposed to trying to remember all the things I have to do and write them out on scraps of paper, which I always lose.”

Experience: “I did a pretty good job about putting deadlines in, entering my tasks, and updating them as necessary. I normally don’t remember to check the app every day, but what it has over a lot of similar to do list apps is it send me an email 24 hours ahead of a due date reminding me it’s a thing—I was pleasantly surprised to find an email update reminding me of something I had to have sent to the printer by the end of the day in my inbox in the morning. I get an email around 8 am most days that outline what needs to get accomplished that day.”

Will she keep using it?: “Definitely! It has proven to be really helpful and has assisted in me in keeping all my important tasks/deadlines in one place, whether it’s to send something to be printed for my thesis, or its to remember to go grocery shopping or do laundry.”

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Avi Arenfeld, Developer

App he tried: Music playlist he developed

How it works: “I created music playlists for 30-minute and 1-hour sprints.”

Experience: “I found that listening to music not only helped me focus, but was also a time management tool. It was a natural evolution. A few weeks back I was assigned a task and started an album. When I was finished I thought, “cool, that took me X tracks to complete,” or X minutes. This also then made me think next time I have a similar task, I can try to beat my last score.

I then created two playlists and used them to determine how long I put into each small project or assignment. I found that using music to record productivity was fun and enjoyable—and having headphones on is a great way to get in the zone. I was able to use this process to be more focused while in what I will call a ‘playlist sprint.’ By nature music has the ability to help with focus, creativity, and problem solving, all things I need on a daily basis.”

Will he keep using it?: “Yes. I think that this was a helpful experiment and will continue to use curated music playlists to track productivity.”

pomotodo

Jeff Musal, Developer

App he tried: Pomotodo

How it works: “Pomotodo takes the core concepts of the pomodoro technique and combines them with a GTD [Getting Things Done] methodology.”

Why he chose it: “I had some experience using Pomodoro in the past, while working in another industry altogether. It was a tool that focuses on… well, focus. Basically, you work in 25-minute sprints, or pomodoros. These pomodoros are not divisible—if you get interrupted and can’t push off or reschedule dealing with the interruption, you must abandon the pomodoro and start it over again after you’re done dealing with the interruption.

I didn’t initially view focus as a problem in my workflow, but I liked the idea of dedicating small chunks of work to a specific task and eliminating multitasking from my day-to-day life to the extent that it was possible.”

Experience: “I found that although I felt focused previously, there were a lot of little interruptions day-to-day. A notification from our office Slack channel, someone popping over to my desk to chat or ask a question, email notifications, etc. All of these things that break your focus for only 2 minutes really add up.

I often turned off all notifications for these 25-minute sprints and when I ended the sprint, it was a little overwhelming some days to see how many chat messages and emails needed to be reviewed and replied to after just 1 pomodoro. It definitely helped me get more done in those 25 minutes than I would have if I was also juggling chat, email, and interruptions. Sometimes, interruptions are inevitable. In that case, the pomodoro got abandoned, and I logged the reason for the interruption.

Some days it was easy to hit my goal of 8 pomodoros completed. Other days, it didn’t happen; meetings or other scheduled tasks sometimes meant that you finish a pomodoro with only 15–20 minutes left before your meeting, so you know you can’t start one at that point, which makes it tough to complete for the day. Overall, I found it a great way to organize my mental space on a day to day basis.”

Will he keep using it?: “I’ve continued to use this tool (most days) and probably will continue to do so.”

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Alecia Eberhardt-Smith, Marketing Team

App she tried: Brain.FM

How it works: “Brain.FM uses “brainwave research” to create background noise to help you focus or relax (depending on what you need).”

Why she chose it: “As a person who works from home most of the time—and is generally easily distracted—I was looking for a way to refocus my attention on the work in front of me without having to have another app open on my screen. Also, since most of my work is writing and editing, it’s too distracting to listen to music with words, so ‘brainwave music’ seemed like a good choice.”

Experience: “I was actually really successful in using the app consistently, and I found it really did help me focus. Was it because of the ‘brainwave stimulating’ power of the music they’ve developed? Or was it just because I had headphones in and white noise to block out the distracting sounds of my home, dog, and neighbors? I’ll probably never know, but it worked, regardless. I also liked the fact that you can set it for a half hour, 1 hour, or 2 hours, allowing you to also give yourself necessary breaks (much like the pomodoro timer does).”

Will she keep using it?: “Yes! I actually purchased a subscription, which (coming from me) is a huge endorsement.”

So there you have it—we tried time management and productivity apps so you don’t have to. The takeaway here? Technology can help you manage your time more effectively—so long as it’s easy to use, intuitive, and rewarding.

What’s your favorite productivity and time management technology?