The idea of Focusmate is odd, a little uncomfortable. A stranger appears on your screen, and you have a quick conversation — the expected “how do you do,” but followed by plans. What are you working on for the hour? What’s your goal? You show me yours; I’ll show you mine. My plan, that is.
It’s natural to have reservations toward Focusmate before you use it. I was suspicious when I first heard about this online productivity community. Do I want someone watching me while I work? What kind of people use this thing?
But Focusmate is brilliant. And as someone who is continually trying out new productivity apps and systems — ironically, often to the point of distraction — I can tell you that Focusmate is the most effective one I’ve used. When it comes to a list of things we’d like productivity tools to accomplish, most apps check off two or three boxes at most. Focusmate has so many layers intuitively built in — I imagine even the creator was surprised how many boxes ended up simultaneously checked.
Here’s the deal: after signing up with Focusmate you are presented with a calendar of the week. Each day gets split into hours and each hour into 15-minute increments. You will see the names of users (usually first name, last initial) claiming some of these increments. Now, you think about the time — or times — you want to get to work. If there’s a name at that time, then click on the name — that’s your work partner for the session. If there isn’t a name listed, go ahead and claim the time. Someone will match up with you. Either way, once you schedule a time, it gets added to your Google calendar.
When the time comes, log o
Each session is 50 minutes long. Sometimes your partner will keep her microphone on — if she’s in a quiet spot or isn’t listening to music — and you can hear fingers tapping the keyboard and other ambient noises. You can do the same. I found this helpful — the sound of my partner working spurs me on. And, often your partner will keep a running log of what she is working on in the text chat box. “Now I’m working on clearing my email inbox” and minutes later followed by “Completed” and a short description of the next task.
I usually don’t list what I’m working on because I’m often deep in the flow state. Your experience might be different, but Focusmate gets me in a mental flow like nothing else. I find myself working straight through the 50 minutes without stopping, without distraction, and then amazed at how much I accomplished once the
When you finish a session, you check in with your work partner. How did you do? Briefly, let your partner know if you got through your agenda, or if you hit roadblocks or distractions. Regardless, getting anything done is a win, and your partner will probably congratulate you. You’ll do the same in return.
This tool is powerful — I can’t emphasize that enough. Remember how I said Focusmate checks off many productivity boxes? Here are the ones I’ve found so far:
• Scheduling your day. Scheduling these sessions puts you in the habit of thinking ahead about your work. Though you can schedule a Focusmate session right up to the last minute, the tool is most potent when you plan out your sessions well in advance, whether it’s first thing in the morning or a day or two before. This practice adds intention and purpose to your day.
• You have to show up. I’ve tried scheduling my day on a calendar on my own, to plan my day in advance. It never worked. Though I’d have a specific task planned for, say, 10 AM, I’d usually find myself continuing to work on whatever I started at 9:45, blowing apart my agenda. Or, even worse, I wouldn’t show up at 10 — I’d keep reading through my email newsletters or continuing a long breakfast. With Focusmate, you’ve got to show up at the designated time and be ready to do your task. Someone is counting on you to be there. And, if you don’t show up, your rating suffers — your profile displays your ‘attendance score.’
• There’s accountability. Naming your task(s) for the session and then reporting progress at the finish works. Psychologically, this adds determination — especially as your goal is stated out loud and to someone — and positive reinforcement when your partner congratulates you at the end.
• Parkinson’s Law comes into play. Parkinson’s Law states that a task will often fill the time allotted to it. For example, if you think a task will take three hours to complete but your hard deadline is in one hour, sometimes — miraculously — you’ll finish that task within that hour.1However, most often the law is applied in reverse. I’ve found Focusmate to work the same. With a clock counting down and knowing that I’m checking in with my partner at the end, I find myself finishing projects that I didn’t think I’d get done in a single session.
• You get to interact with people. I work at home and can go all day (and sometimes days) without encountering another human besides my significant other. This situation isn’t healthy — at least it isn’t for me — and leads to monotony and isolation. With Focusmate, I’m meeting and speaking with multiple people daily. My days alone in the home office don’t drag on as they used to, and I look forward to each work session to find out who I’ll meet. And Focusmate’s users are interesting people from around the world — last hour I was in a session with someone working out of a library in Kolkata, and, as I write this, I’m working alongside an author in Chicago. Yesterday I worked with an ex-pat starting a business out of her new apartment in Morocco. These encounters are fascinating. And there are strict rules users must abide — no pitching, selling, or flirting, for example — and you’re encouraged to report any violations. But I have yet to meet anyone who was a hassle and wasn’t laser-focused on their task at hand.
I was super-excited about Focusmate from the first day I used it. But I’ll often be excited about a new tool and then lose my enthusiasm and stop using it a couple of weeks later. So I decided to try Focusmate for six weeks before posting about it, to make sure it stuck. I’m pleased to report that I have five sessions booked for today and am already planning out sessions for the rest of the week. I’m still an enthusiastic user, and Focusmate has become an integral part of my work day. I don’t like throwing around the phrase ‘game-changer,’ but I think I finally found a tool that qualifies.
Here’s where you expect me to recommend that you try Focusmate — which I do — and give a referral code or affiliate link. But here’s the buried lede: it’s free. There’s no fee to use Focusmate. The creator has hinted that he may look into a way to monetize it soon, perhaps by limiting how many sessions one can schedule in a week on the free plan (my guess). I actually hope he does monetize Focusmate in some way as I want to see it persist and develop. This tool has dramatically improved my workflow and given value to my work days, and I’d happily pay for that.
I write a lot about how internet companies are up to no good, commoditizing our time and attention. It’s reassuring to find an online platform that is selflessly adding true value to my day. Perhaps I’ll meet you for a work session?
P.S. Here’s the article that convinced me to give Focusmate a try:
🔗→ I Let a Stranger Watch Me Work for a Day — And I’ve Never Been More Productive
2018 has bolted away like a space probe blazing past Ultima Thule. Cue mass introspection. Sure, dates and years are universally accepted ‘imagined realities’ and, yes, it’s just as fruitful to reevaluate and assess in May as it is on January 1. 1/1/19 ain’t nothing but a number. But, even if we resist, this time of year is still when we think the deepest about our next steps. I believe the general lull of the last two weeks of December is partly to blame: we end up with a lot of time on our hands — time to think for extended periods free of most work distractions — and we’re spending a lot of it in close contact with our families. Reflection and contemplation come naturally.
I’m not any different. My week in the sticks afforded ample time to go over my strategies moving forward, where my goals lie, how I’ve veered off track in 2018, and what else I can do to increase joy in my life. Some of these thoughts are deep — I don’t feel I have a firm grasp on my goals and what they mean to me — and some are tactical. In the latter category, I’ve done another (!) redesign of my daily work routine, a bunch of Omnifocus tweaks (new perspectives and constraints, oh my), and am going to experiment with more incorporation of a calendar in the workflow. I need the discipline that scheduling and time blocking encourages, and I aim to exercise this discipline as if building a skill.
My friend (and fellow altMBA’er) Dean Caravelis has a plan. He publicly listed his 2019 goals for all to see. Dean’s also printing these out and putting the list in a place where he’ll encounter it each day first thing in the morning. I like this.
I’m still thinking about my own goals, but I do know that I’d like to write every single day (and post the result on this blog, but no pressure); I’d like to get at least six new 8D Industries releases in listeners’ hands within a year; I want to read at least two books a month; and I plan on regularly writing and recording new music once again. I know there’s about five more I can come up with and I’m giving this some thought. As I said, it’s that introspective time of year.
Dean has also listed his ‘word of 2019:’ Intentional. The first thing that comes to mind for my 2019 word is ’transitional.’ That might be a cop-out as every year I feel like I’m in transition. But, for some reason, 2019 feels more so — not just for me, but for everyone.
I’m also going to return to my ‘album a day’ practice, which I wrote about here. I’ll do it a little differently — not as strict, and I doubt I’ll regularly post my listening habits on social media — but I think it’s important that I keep my mind fresh with new music daily.
To start, today’s soundtrack is apt: a thoughtful ambient album by Utah’s Grizzly Prospector. Titled dream story, it’s out on the intriguing Japanese label White Paddy Mountain. It’s bright and ringing, recalling vibrating strings, and there are some lovely vocal tracks (nearly a cappella) towards the end. The music gives off an air of future hope, just what the doctor ordered.
Here’s a tip: ‘follow’ your favorite labels and artists on Bandcamp. Then you’ll receive an email when there’s a new release. Create a rule in your email client so that those messages skip your inbox and are automatically archived and grouped into a predesignated folder. Then, when you’re looking for something new and tasty to listen to, open the folder. A list of new releases will be waiting for you. That’s how I ran across Grizzly Prospector.
Cheers to 2019. Let’s make it as good as we can imagine.
I’m spending Christmas week in the country. I’m taking care of a family member (she’s doing well) and enjoying the idyllic quiet and slow pace of being away from home. You might think that I’d get a lot done in calmer surroundings but you’d be wrong. The hustle-and-bustle — and familiarity of my work environment — inspires productivity and busy-ness. Here I want to relax and let my mind wander. There’s something to be said for that, though — these breaks away from work are healthy and serve as a mental clearing house of sorts.
The main fear is routine-interruption. I’m getting up later these days, though my definition of ‘later’ is 7 AM-ish, so it’s not too terrible. I only have an iPad with me, and I haven’t experimented with it that much as a remote work computer, so there’s some trial-by-fire happening there. I’m getting by.
Mainly, I want to keep writing daily which I can do in an iPad environment. I’ve got a bluetooth Mac ‘Magic Keyboard’ so I don’t have to type on the screen. I use Ulysses (via Setapp) as the place I write, synced across all devices. I tested many different writing apps over the past year and Ulysses is the hands-down favorite. It’s the only app that is outstanding on its iPad, desktop, and iPhone versions. So there’s no excuse to not write every day while cold chilling in the country.
I am surprised there’s not a solid WordPress editor for the iPad. I haven’t found one. The WordPress iOS app seems fine but it’s limited — for example, I couldn’t find a way to center the Deep Purple photo in yesterday’s Xmas post from within the app. I ended up opening the site’s dashboard in Safari and editing from there. Go figure.
Anyway, I didn’t mean to get into app talk in today’s update, though I am planning a future post about work routines and techniques — including software — that I’ve found helpful. But, before I get back into country life, I’d like to give you a podcast recommendation.
Reply All is a consistently fantastic podcast, a deft mix of the entertaining and informative. Today I listened to episode #130, The Snapchat Thief. It details an investigation into a listener’s hacked Snapchat account to determine how it was compromised. The hosts’ discoveries are fascinating and a little terrifying. They shed light on a hacker underground that you know is out there but is still surprising once revealed. Let’s just say I’m looking into using Google Voice a lot more.
If Reply All is new to you and you like what you hear, then your next step is to listen to episode #102, Long Distance. Highly recommended — what a wild ride.
I hear trains blowing in the distance as the sun begins to set over rows of pine trees. I could get used to this.
- I started testing a new music marketing consultancy package that I plan to unveil next month. The process in a nutshell: I interview the client and audit his or her online assets and overall presentation. I create a report with my initial insights and recommendations, and we get on a call to discuss and brainstorm. I follow this conversation with an expanded, final version of the report containing actionable tasks that the client can immediately implement. We then have a limited email exchange to go over any questions about my recommendations, and I’ll follow-up a month later to check on progress. The client is also welcome to schedule regular brainstorm sessions and audits to keep the process going. The goal is to set the client up for the next stage in his or her music career, whether it’s for an upcoming release, a tour, or just a professional ‘polish’ to become more attractive to the likes of record labels, promoters, or managers. I can work this magic for recording artists or labels — or both, as was the case with the first client to go through this procedure, the talented techno producer Deepak Sharma of Hidden Recordings. I’m excited for what this will bring and the people I’ll be meeting and advising.
- Two new releases I’m assisting with that you should check out: Arthur’s Landing – Spring Collection EP on Buddhist Army; and More Ghost Than Man – The Courage To Lie To A Dying Man on Westerns With The Sound Off. Also, we’ve received vinyl copies of Nirosta Steel’s The Dry Ice Remixes (featuring remixes by Sleazy McQueen), and these should be hitting the cool record stores at the very beginning of May.
- I’m always testing new systems to improve daily productivity. This month I’m trying out Cal Newport’s Daily and Weekly time-blocking scheme. In the past, I attempted time-blocking using a calendar app but found this to be too rigid. For example, there was no room to extend a task ‘on-the-fly’ for a few more minutes when nearly finished, and it was difficult to change a schedule if confronted with the unexpected. These issues, combined with nagging calendar alerts, stressed me out more than increasing effectiveness. Newport’s system allows some ‘float,’ is refreshingly paper-based, and it’s easy to rearrange the calendar if things get out of whack. I also like the idea of a Weekly Plan reminder in my email inbox. It’s become a game to have that reminder email be the only thing in the inbox at the end of the day. The early results are encouraging and, if it continues to work, I’ll do a blog post about this and the rest of my productivity system.
- Great discovery: Kanopy. If you’ve got a local library card (and you should), then chances are you will be able to access this streaming movie service for free. You’re limited to five movies a month, and the selection is strong, including more than a few Criterion classics (French New Wave, Italian Neorealism, those samurai movies I love …) and recent independent offerings.
- What I Read This Month:
- What I Watched This Month:
- What I Listened To This Month:
- A Few Other Things I Enjoyed This Month:
Anil Dash on what it’s like to be a ‘non-celebrity’ with 500,000+ Twitter followers
An interview with the mayor of the curious, Orwerllian town of Scarfolk, UK
Planet Earth as described in the 116 photos aboard the Voyager spacecraft
This video of Brian Eno getting giddy over his Ultra-Harmonizer in 1994
Ten moments in the history of Cocteau Twins … some which were new to this longtime fan
That time Sterling Morrison left the Velvet Underground for an academic life in Texas
Author James Clear recently published an enlightening post about goals vs. systems. He proposes that one can find effectiveness in a project by focusing on systems and jettisoning goals.
The general idea is this: a goal to complete a novel in three months is intimidating, and this looming target often triggers anxiety and procrastination. Regardless, you should have a system planned out to reach that objective, such as ‘write five hundred words each day.’ Clear argues that you may find yourself more productive by not having the goal, but maintaining the system. Just simply write five hundred words a day without the pressure of an end goal. Soon enough you’ll have that novel.
But we do this to ourselves all the time. We place unnecessary stress on ourselves to lose weight or to succeed in business or to write a best-selling novel. Instead, you can keep things simple and reduce stress by focusing on the daily process and sticking to your schedule, rather than worrying about the big, life-changing goals. When you focus on the practice instead of the performance, you can enjoy the present moment and improve at the same time.
These sentiments echo the advice that I give to music producers who are stressed about ‘not enough time in a day’ to finish an album project. Take it from me, writing and recording an album is nerve-racking, especially when you’ve put the process in the context of resulting in an album statement.
A simple way to remove the stress and put the fun back into recording is to forget the album. Just record songs. Those songs may show up on an album, but don’t think about that now. Just make a point to write and record every day. Stay consistent, and keep up the practice, and you’ll end up with a bunch of songs. Whether you want to release them individually, as EPs, or as an album will be your choice, rather than a ‘goal’ choosing for you. As a bonus, this will become a habit. You’ll continue to write and record every day even after the ‘album’ is finished.
Not enough time in the day? Forgo watching Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt tonight and instead spend thirty minutes in your DAW. Not inspired? Play around with sounds and loops. Delve into that new soft synth you purchased last week. Waiting for inspiration is for producers who don’t deliver. Chances are once you start messing around inspiration will magically appear.
There’s also the Seinfeld method, which is another great tool for consistency and output. Jerry Seinfeld uses this to make sure he sits down to write every day. Via Lifehacker:
It’s more commonly known as “Don’t Break the Chain,” and the concept is simple: spend some amount of time doing a desired activity every day and, when you do, cross off that day on a calendar. This creates a chain of Xs showing your progress. If you don’t do your specified task on one day, you don’t get an X and that chain is broken. It seems almost too simple to work, but it’s allowed me to accomplish so much more than I ever thought possible.
I think a trick here is to get a big, bold calendar and hang it where you can’t miss it. Use a thick marker – maybe even bright neon ink – to X out the days. Working on music thirty minutes a day is a good starting point, and let the calendar’s visibility remind you of the task at hand.
Not every day has to be successful or produce the beginning of the next big hit song. The point is to be working at it consistently, and the long-term result (or goal, if you’d like) is that you’ll be so much better at what you do with a large body of work to show. And I’m certain there will be a potential hit in there somewhere.
Co-signing this article found on Raptitude:
The news isn’t interested in creating an accurate sample. They select for what’s 1) unusual, 2) awful, and 3) probably going to be popular. So the idea that you can get a meaningful sense of the “state of the world” by watching the news is absurd.
Their selections exploit our negativity bias. We’ve evolved to pay more attention to what’s scary and infuriating, but that doesn’t mean every instance of fear or anger is useful. Once you’ve quit watching, it becomes obvious that it is a primary aim of news reports—not an incidental side-effect—to agitate and dismay the viewer.
Curate your own portfolio. You can get better information about the world from deeper sources, who took more than a half-day to put it together.
I quit watching TV news (and reading the more opinionated news sites) several years ago and I can attest that my life, outlook, and – I truly believe – knowledge of the issues have improved. I used to watch daily news shows that mirrored my liberal preference and thought they were rationally informing me, unlike those ‘other’ news shows. All it took was a month-long media break to clear my head and, upon returning to TV, see these shows for what they were. I was surprised to realize they were just as alarmist, loose with the facts, and conflict-oriented as their conservative counterparts.
How do I stay informed? I subscribe to two fine email newsletters that I read on my lunch break: The Week’s 10 Things You Need To Know Today and Vox’s Vox Sentences. If there are any stories in those that I want to learn more about then I’ll easily find additional articles for a deeper dive. I try not to read news any earlier than the afternoon as my mornings are sacred, dedicated to setting the day’s tone and working undistracted on my most important tasks.
I highly recommend quitting the news.