Productivity hacks can be fun to read about, but they never carry much weight for me. They’re usually made up or based on what some successful CEO does, as if what works for someone who is already successful would also work for the rest of us.
Instead, I advocate looking to two places for productivity tips: 1) peer-reviewed research on large numbers of people and 2) personal insights that come from your own data.
To that second point, there’s an app called Exist.io (a.k.a. Exist) that finds patterns in your data for you. The app compiles information you collect about yourself from a variety of sources, such as a fitness tracker and time-tracking software RescueTime, and over time it identifies correlations, trends, and insights. For example, it might tell you based on RescueTime and other productivity apps, that you get more done when you sleep eight hours the night before.
Exist, which has been around since 2013, has a decent network of services it supports, so you can find possible links between your productivity and all kinds of other things going on in your life, such as what kind of music you listen to while working, your weight, and places you go.
What Can You Learn About Your Productivity?
Josh Sharp, one of Exist’s co-founders, has been using the app much longer than I have, and he was kind enough to share a few things he’s learned about himself and his co-founder through their data.
Sharp is more productive when he listens to music, as tracked by Last.fm. More specifically, he tends to get more done when he listens to Radiohead or Ryan Adams. His co-founder, Belle Beth Cooper, completes more tasks when she goes to bed earlier the night before, and she also completes more tasks when she wakes fewer times during the night.
“We started off thinking that it’s too hard to do all this stuff yourself,” Sharp told me. “We should take advantage of the fact that we can pull all this information together without any effort,” he said, referring to the passive nature of the apps, gadgets, and services used to collect the data.
Building Support for Your Data
Some of these insights are easy to act on. Sharp can make sure to turn on Radiohead when he has a big project that needs to get done, but Cooper might have a harder time figuring out how to sleep soundly through the night, because that’s a tougher change to make.
There’s also a chicken-and-egg issue going on here. Does Sharp tend to turn on Radiohead when he’s about to buckle down and get work done, or is the music what’s causing him to focus on his tasks? With Exist, it’s hard, and in some cases impossible, to isolate factors. That’s something we give up when we use consumer devices that passively collect data and seamlessly fit into our lives. Controlled experiments are very good at isolating factors, but they’re often bad at replicating a natural setting.
In the case of music and productivity, we can turn to peer-reviewed research and find that in controlled settings, listening to music can cause an increase in productivity. So Sharp has more evidence to support the correlation he sees in his own data.
What Exist.io Tracks
Exist tracks more than just productivity and music. The full list of what’s supported to date is:
- Steps, activity, sleep, and weight from fitness trackers: Fitbit, Misfit, Jawbone UP, Withings, Apple Watch
- Activity from other apps: Moves, Runkeeper, Strava, Apple Health, Google Fit
- Productivity: RescueTime, Github (commits), Todoist (tasks completed)
- Events: Google Calendar, iCal
- Location: Swarm by Foursquare
- Weather: DarkSky.net
- Music: Last.fm, plus Spotify, Deezer, Apple Music connected via Last.fm
- Social media interactions and activity: Instagram, Twitter
There is one more piece of data you can track, but it’s manual rather than collected automatically from a connected source, and that’s mood. Sharp told me he initially believed Exist members would not want to rate their mood daily and type a few words about it, but it has turned out to be one of the most used features.
If you want to keep tabs on some kind of information that’s not supported, such as daily pain for chronic pain sufferers, you could co-opt the mood rating for that (you can’t rename it, though) or type a few notes about your pain into the mood log.
My Exist tracking is still in its early stages, and I probably need a few more weeks of data before I can see true patterns. But already, Exist is confirming some things that I already know about myself, or that are common sense. For example, I spend more time in email when I have fewer events (because when I’m at an event, I’m away from my desk).
I asked Sharp if he could share any trends that he’s seen in aggregate across the Exist community. “Monday is the least productive day of the week,” he said. “In terms of things that make people more productive, music is the biggest one.”
He also noted that weather affects productivity: Good weather, meaning clear skies and moderate temperatures, makes people less productive. That correlation has also been supported by peer-reviewed research, where it was found that workers get distracted thinking about all the activities they could be doing outside when the weather is pleasant.
“Our users are also slightly more productive after a better night’s sleep,” Sharp later told me, adding, “again, not a groundbreaking discovery.”
Even if Exist merely confirms things we already assume to be true, seeing the data can be powerful. It’s hard evidence, rather than just a hunch, and it’s quantified, so you can see if the results are moderate or severe. It also can guide people with clear and concrete actions they can take to make their day more productive.