Ensuring I spend X hours/day on activities A, B, and C?
January 24, 2022 7:15 AM   Subscribe

I'm reading about the importance of doing an activity daily in habit formation. I need a set-and-forget system/app with reminders and timers to ensure I spend e.g. 1 hour every day on household chores, 8 hours for my employer (only on weekdays), 30 minutes exercising, etc. Simply blocking off time on my calendar won't work. Snowflakes inside.

I am looking for ideally a single, set-and-forget system (app(s), timer(s), something) that will help me engage in an activity for X hours (no less, and in some cases no more) each day. By set-and-forget I mean the system needs to "push" notifications/reminders to me. I cannot be relied on to "pull" notifications from the system; I will forget/lose track of time/etc. Ideally this system will have been proven to work by (many) others.

Why I need this:
- I work from home, and am always scrambling to make up time on the weekends because I'm doing household stuff during the workday.
- I have personal projects that I never make time for.
- I've stopped exercising altogether.
- I don't spend enough time with my family.
- I spend more time than I want to on social media.

I would just schedule alarms on my phone or blocks of time on a calendar, but unfortunately interruptions by family/work/appointments and changes of plans are the rule of my life, not the exception. Ideally, the hours for each task could be non-contiguous, and not at regularly scheduled times. I understand that ideally I would enforce "focus times" for myself but for now let's assume life won't let me.

One thing I've tried that I like: Qbserve (similar to RescueTime) automatically tracks my app and website activity on my laptop (reporting only to me). It pops up 2 alerts that I know of: one appears once I've spent 4 hours on productive activity, and potentially one appears once I've spent more than 2 hours on unproductive activities (social media). These are very helpful to me; ideally I would find a similar system that helps track/limit off-computer activities. Qbserve's reports are not helpful; they don't cover off-computer activities unless I log them and I never check the logs. One reason Qbserve is so helpful is that I don't have to type/click anything to start tracking an activity; it's always running in the background. I understand I'll have to perform some action to track off-computer activities but it needs to be highly convenient. (Ideally clicking a single button to start tracking an activity, and I stop that activity by switching to another activity.)

- I am happy to buy/use kitchen timers, paper products, whatever, as long as others have proven a system to work and it's fairly automatic after a reasonable period of habituation. That said, a smartphone/web/email/SMS/computer solution is preferred.
- My phone is a Pixel 3 running Android.
- I have Mac (laptop), Windows (desktop), and Raspberry Pi computers available to me, as well as older Android and iOS tablets. I can and will dedicate a device only to time tracking.
- I can program in Linux/Unix shells, Ruby, Python, Kotlin, schedule with cron, whatever, but I would need battle-tested system rules described to me; I don't have time for trial and error.
- I will gratefully spend money on one or more tools/devices as long as they actually solve the problem.
posted by commander_fancypants to Computers & Internet (9 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
Two tools I have found recently that are helpful with similar issues:

OWaves is a phone app that lets me plan out my day, and has notifications. As opposed to other apps I've tried, OWaves makes it very easy to plan the whole day and to include activities such as exercise, family time, etc. I do not find that I stick to the schedule each day, but I do find that sitting down each morning with my coffee, my todo list, and OWaves, helps me set my intentions in a way that makes it easier for me to get all the things done. I might schedule a walk for 10am, and then something comes up and it doesn't happen, but having scheduled it makes me much more aware and likely to do it a bit later in the day. I check this morning planning activity off in my habit tracker, described below.

The other tool is the Streaks habit app. This one I use on my Apple Watch and iPhone, so you may want to find something similar for your android phone. Streaks lets me set habits that I'd like to complete on a very customizable set of schedules. Habits can be every day or a certain number of times per day or a certain number of times per week. The app will send me reminders as often as I wish. And there is a timed habit type. If I click on one of those, a timer will start down and it will get marked as complete only when the timer finishes. I actually use two of these timers to make sure I give each of my kids a dose of full on, one-on-one attention each day. If we get interrupted, I can pause the timer.

Having suggested these two tools, though, I'll add that my Apple Watch has been a key component for me. It makes notifications un-missable, and it makes it frictionless for me to check off habits as "done" and to start timers etc. Previous attempts to use similar tools before the watch had failed, because I'd often do the thing but forget to mark it off in my phone or notebook or whatever.
posted by wyzewoman at 8:04 AM on January 24, 2022 [1 favorite]

I've been using Productive for this on iPhone. Looks like it's also available on Android.
posted by anotheraccount at 8:12 AM on January 24, 2022 [1 favorite]

Yep, this is me, I have two Android apps to recommend to you (and you only need one of them).

Productivity Challenge Timer: An app with a hardass authoritarian feel, e.g. you get yelled at by the creator of the app even in his FAQs and demoted in rank even if you try to take a vacation... but you can totally turn off the hardassery by setting the app on casual mode (which does mean you lose the ability to move up in rank), or maybe you can get yourself to not care about the yelling, or perhaps that kind of drill sergeant talk motivates you! In any case this app works just like you need it to using the "Schedules" feature; however Schedules may not be available in casual mode, I am not totally sure. This app has fewer features, bells and whistles than the other one I recommend. It's also cheaper (IIRC $5 one-time purchase to remove ads and get an unlimited number of projects - but I bought it two years ago so price may have changed). Does not have a web component. Gives you charts and stats about how much and how frequently you've worked on which project.

Focus To-Do: A prettier, gentler and more normal app that costs $12 for a one-time purchase to remove ads and create unlimited projects. While Productivity Challenge Timer has ranks, Focus To-Do has ranks plus a tree which grows when you collect sunlight by marking your tasks as done. IMO this app suits your needs slightly better imo. It is more fine-tuneable and flexible about setting up those recurring tasks for yourself, and it has a web component which I find really useful. Gives you even more detailed charts and graphs for which projects & tasks you worked on, and since this app also has tags (not just projects and subtasks associated with projects), you can slice and dice your reports in several different ways.

Both apps are based on a pomodoro system, which means you set up a standard chunk of time to work followed by a short "break". Every time you hit start on a new pomodoro session, you choose which project or task you're working on. Both apps let you switch tasks mid-session, and the time gets allocated to different tasks perfectly accurately (i.e. however many minutes you spent on the first task gets counted toward it, and so on).

By default each pomodoro is set to 25 minutes work and 5 minute break, and there's a 30 minute long break after every 4 pomodoros. I have mine tweaked to 45 minutes of work, since 25 minutes feels very frustrating when I'm in the thick of things, and also, I set my breaks for 12 minutes instead of 15 because I *always* ignore the timer for a minute when it rings because I'm trying to tie up loose ends before putting the work down/finishing up my break.

Both apps also let you skip breaks altogether - either manually each time the timer dings, or automatically in the settings, so that the app never even suggests a break, just DING DING DING DING DING DING until you dismiss and choose which task you move on to next.

Both apps let you create a recurring task for every weekday or every day or every tuesday or whatever and specify a custom duration for that task (this is easy and intuitive on FTD; PCT makes it harder and less intuitive since you have to create a new "schedule" for each recurring task you want to be able to control separately). So for instance, you want to spend 1 hour on household chores every single day, then you set that up as a recurring 1 hour task every day. Unlike FTD, PCT doesn't allow you to mark it as DONE until you actually spend the time you have allotted *using the app* (this is much more annoying than it sounds! sometimes I live my life without telling my phone about it, and PCT demotes me and yells at me for my independence!).

One last and IMO very important tip: I use both these apps primarily as a way to mark time, so every time I start my pomodoro or break timer, I deliberately leave the phone in a different room than where I am working. The number one reason why these apps work for me is because it waves its hands in front of my face shouting HELLO EARTH TO MIRAK PAY ABLOODYTTENTION TIME HAS MARCHED ON. Having to get up and walk somewhere different is the only way I have found to force my brain to return to the real world every 45 mins.

Setting up different projects and tracking time spent on each is overrated. You do not need reminders on what to do routinely. Like, your challenge is not that you have forgotten that you need to [do X] but rather that you're getting sidetracked doing other shit and by the end of the day it's like, oops! So you don't need the app to tell you what to do next. You just need the app to DING DING DING DING DING DING DING in your face, telling you it's time to very deliberately and mindfully figure out, using your own brain, what you should do now.
posted by MiraK at 8:13 AM on January 24, 2022 [5 favorites]

I haven't tried any of the above suggestions, but I will be checking them all out. I am currently in the midst of a transition where I'll need some new habits, and they'll need to stick.
A few days ago I downloaded an app called "mytherapy" which is a pill tracker.
I just added treatments like "pill x", "30 minutes outside" etc. And it bugs me to do all of them and shows a pretty picture when I confirm them all.

It has a progress tracker, but it doesn't seem gamified any more than a sticker chart.
posted by Acari at 8:24 AM on January 24, 2022 [1 favorite]

I'd like to suggest a low-tech approach first: a whiteboard with a to-do list. Sure, you can get an app that does the same thing, but then (in my experience) you spend more time fiddling with the app than doing something. A whiteboard is simple, cheap and easily customizable.

A beeper or alarm app to remind you to think about what you're doing and be mindful, as MiraK suggests, is a good idea.
posted by SPrintF at 8:32 AM on January 24, 2022 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks everyone for the answers so far! I should mention that while dinging alerts/timers that tell me it's time to stop and switch activities are OK for exercise and even desirable for social media, I would prefer to avoid them for my work and personal projects. There, I actually want to get so focused that I lose track of time, because that is my most productive state. The interruptions pose a risk to that.
posted by commander_fancypants at 9:34 AM on January 24, 2022

The closest thing to “push a big button” I have is a timeular tracker. It has 8 sides, you assign an activity or type of task to each side and when you start that activity, you flip the tracker so that the side labeled with the current activity faces up. Then you flip it to the next thing when you switch activities or stand it up to stop tracking altogether.

It has some integrations, so you could probably get reminders if seeing the tracked time isn’t enough push.

(It’s the best I’ve found for me as I can’t for the life of me click somewhere on a tracking app and click again when I stop doing something, but even though flipping to another side is easier for me than hunting for where to click and clicking somewhere, I don’t use it consistently.)
posted by meijusa at 9:45 AM on January 24, 2022 [2 favorites]

A few months ago I quit social media (FB/Instagram) basically cold turkey and it has been great for me. I didn’t do it specifically to save time, but to let go of my parasocial relationships there were consuming my time and attention but not actually giving me support. It took a bigger epiphany than just wanting to quit social media (an anecdote from a friend that highlighted how social media has created an expectation of broadcasting our lives to people we’re not actually close to), but you may be able to reframe your perspective to help break that.

Another left field recommendation - the Mental Bank Ledger system. It’s got a lot of prosperity-woo in the 2 hour seminar on YouTube (also self-hypnosis woo!), BUT I found it very useful for a) evaluating what I value in my life/how I spend my time and b) creating a structure for reflecting on how I spent my time on a given day. The cost is free, other than a few hours of your time to get started, then 5-15 minutes at the end of each day. They sell official books and such, but I just used my own blank notebook.

Based on your question and comment, I think you may want to try out an end-of-day system of journaling/updating an app rather than any in-the-moment tracking system. This will allow you to look at your days in a more holistic way and give you specific chances to reflect on friction points, failure points, recurring opportunities, etc. “how did I do today? What can I set up to make tomorrow better?”

I know it’s really tempting to want to outsource willpower and habit forming/breaking to a technology solution. And there probably are technology solutions to some is your issues! But I think you’ll have more success if you use a pen and paper journaling method to tackle your high-level time management, then find the specific cases where you need timers/alarms to stay on track.

Re:timers- I used to have an app on my phone which would chime/vibrate every 15 minutes between 9am and 9pm. It was the right level of obtrusive where if I was focusing on the right thing, I could dismiss it as “yep, time is passing” and stay in flow, but if I was off on the wrong kind of rabbit hole, it would remind me that time is passing and I had a chance to pull back to reality. My phone stopped supporting the one I used before, but the nice side effect of it is I’m a bit desensitized to basic push notifications on my phone, and I don’t instantly check every message (unless it’s work hours and I’m on call)
posted by itesser at 1:34 PM on January 24, 2022 [2 favorites]

Both the apps I recommended will easily let you block off longer periods of time without interruption. PCT makes it a lot quicker to do that than FTD, because it's always asks you to confirm the length of the work session each time you start one, so it's extra easy to set a custom duration. But FTD lets you start a task for which you've allotted a custom duration instead of starting a standard pomodoro and that also ensures you won't be interrupted.
posted by MiraK at 4:33 PM on January 24, 2022 [1 favorite]

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