SWET Toolbox

This column reviews tools that writers, translators, and editors can use to improve the quality of their work, as well as their time spent working—from indispensable reference books and handy apps to life-changing office furniture. Please contact Winnie at winifredabird[at]yahoo.co.jp to suggest items for review, comment on the reviews published here, or volunteer to be a guest reviewer. We launch the column this month with a discussion of three online tools intended to increase productivity, rated below.


Three Apps for Improving Productivity

This January 1, I sat down with my journal and resolutely promised myself to achieve work-life balance. This is becoming something of a New Year’s ritual for me. I work from home as a writer and translator, and I don’t have kids, so work tends to spread over my life like an out-of-control kudzu vine. Every year I attempt to hack the vine into submission, and every year I fail. Recently, I spent three days sampling some of the free online programs aimed at helping distractible desk workers like me become more productive. Here’s what I found.

Day one: Tracking
Saturday, 11:00 AM: Lured by the claim that the program is “so easy you’ll actually use it,” I start my journey into greater efficiency by signing up for Toggl, one of many time-tracking tools now available online. The free version of the program allows users to monitor time spent on various projects through its website, desktop app, or mobile app; essentially, it is an automated time sheet.  Getting started is indeed easy. All that is required is an email address, a password, a click on the green “Go” button, and the timer starts to tick on my first project of the day, the SWET bulletin.

11:08 AM: The relentless ticking of the timer in my web browser is beginning to unnerve me. It feels like a visualization of life slipping away, second by second, hour by hour, in front of a computer screen. Is existential crisis the necessary cost of increased productivity?

4:00 PM: Toggl notifies me that I have worked a grand total of 16 minutes today. Feeling a pang of guilt—was it really only 16 minutes?—and panic over looming deadlines, I settle in for another session.

8:00 PM: The program is starting to grow on me. I like the ease of tracking each project and the brutal honesty of the ticking clock. Plus, I notice I’m less likely to check personal email, forage for a snack, or throw in a load of laundry when the clock is running. I click over to my “weekly summary,” which shows a bar graph of hours worked per day, along with a ring graph breaking down time spent on different projects. It is surprisingly enlightening to see a simple image of how I use my time. Granted, I am using it on a Saturday, but I feel I have taken a definite step towards greater efficiency.

Day two: Blocking
Sunday, 2:00 PM.  I start the Toggl timer ticking and decide that if I’m going to get serious about focusing on work, I’ll need to eliminate my favorite source of online procrastination: Facebook. There is no shortage of digital tools to handle this particular weakness. I finally find one that’s free and works on my aging Mac. It’s called SelfControl and has a skull-and-crossbones logo, as if to suggest it will engage in battle to the death with my actual, much weaker, self-control.  Several online reviews warn that the program makes permanent changes to operating systems and can cause problems with network access, but these issues seem to relate to one feature, called the “white list,” that allows users to block access to all websites except those that they list as exceptions. I’m interested in the opposite feature, called the “black list,” which will allow me to block specific sites. I set the timer for 4 hours of Facebook freedom and settle in to the day’s work.

6:00 PM.  I’m relieved to find that I’ve suffered no pangs of withdrawal throughout the afternoon. I hardly even notice when the SelfControl timer runs out. Still, there’s been a subtle clarity to the day that I vaguely recall from the pre-Facebook days, and I decide to increase the setting to 8 hours tomorrow.  

Day 3: Stretching
Monday, 10:00 AM: Now that I’ve found several ways to sharpen my focus, I need something to interrupt it. Abundant research tells us that sitting too much is basically the equivalent of committing slow-motion suicide.  In lieu of getting a standing desk—the best solution—I download Awareness, a free program that rings a Tibetan singing bowl after every hour spent on the computer. Keeping my hands off the keyboard for five minutes resets the timer (I can adjust the intervals to suit my desired break schedule).

11:00 AM: The bowl rings, loudly (I have the volume set to “elephant,” as opposed to “grasshopper” or “frog,” to make sure I pay attention). I click on “break ideas” and am urged to make myself a mug of hot water, closing my eyes to inhale the steam as I do so. I ignore this good advice and return to work. Unfortunately, the program offers only five break ideas altogether. This is a major strike against it, so to speak.

3:00 PM: The bowl is unfortunately becoming quite easy to tune out. I make an effort to get up and stretch at each ring, but I question how long my resolve will last.  I suppose this is one situation in which genuine self-control, as opposed to the digital variety, is still required.

**** Toggl: An extremely simple tool for tracking time spent on multiple clients and projects. If, like me, you just want to understand where your time goes, this website gets the job done. Apps for iPhones and Androids, as well as for Mac and Windows desktops, are also available.

***** SelfControl: An effective program for blocking your own access to any website you choose for a set period of time. The block cannot be undone until the timer runs out. For Macs only.


** Awareness: This program for Macs is intended to encourage users to take regular breaks, but it’s hardly more effective than a timer set to ring every hour.