How to increase your productivity

One year with the blink(1) USB LED light

July 20, 2016   ·   Productivity

July 20, 2016   ·   Productivity

How to increase your productivity as a designer or developer?


Why?

Last year I bought a blink[1] because I was tired of being interrupted by my colleagues when I was focused working on a task, and I wanted to start a little experiment to see if I could change that…

What?

blink(1) is a cute little USB LED light made by ThingM. You can plug it into one of the USB ports of your Mac, PC, Raspberry Pi or some other nerdy mini-computer and make it shine with bright colors…

How?

Using the control app you can launch crazy color patterns and make it pulse like a disco dance floor. That’s cool!
You can also connect your email or your IFTTT account to trigger the light when you receive an email or a mention on Twitter. That’s great!
But above all, you can use the easy API and build some simple scripts to do almost anything you want. That’s awesome!


Productivity 101

As soon as I got this light I wanted to use it to display my busyness status and tell my colleagues (without words) if they could interrupt me or not. Because, as you may know, being interrupted for 2 minutes just to ask you one question does not make you lose only 2 minutes to get your focus back… Depending on what you’re working on and what type of task you are doing, sometimes it can take you several minutes to get really back on track. And it can be even worst if you’re woking in an open space (like most of us I think).

Jason Heeris made a nice post about “Why you shouldn’t interrupt a programmer”… and it also works with a designer! ;)

Illustration saying 'Hey, so I just sent you an email about that thing'
Illustration : Jason Heeris

Pomodoro Technique

That’s why I love to use the Pomodoro Technique: focus on one task for 25 minutes (without any interruption) and then a 5-minute break to stand up and stretch your legs, check your emails or your Twitter feed, make a phone call or even brew a good coffee.
But the problem is still the same, how to tell the people around you not to disturb you when you’re “in the zone”?…

My good friend Andy McFee liked to use the “headphone rule”:

  • No headphones, you can talk to me.
  • One headphone, you can talk to me if i like.
  • Two headphones, do not talk to me.

The “headphone rule” is cool, but does not really fit my behavior. I can be focused without having my headphones or I can listen to music even when I’m not busy on a task.
That’s why I needed another mean of passive communication…


Display patterns

My idea was simple: display several different colors to communicate my status. “Available” and “busy” (the two main ones) but also “in a meeting” or “having coffee”, when I’m not at my desk.

The blink(1) is perfect for that, because you can set almost any color. The obvious choice was using green to say that I’m available, using red to say not to disturb me, and then using orange to say I’m busy in a meeting, and finally blue when I’m having a coffee.

But, unfortunately, the control app supplied with the blink(1) and sitting in the status bar of my Mac was not the most efficient way to quickly switch from one color to another (and it was even quite buggy at this time). That’s why I decided to code my own little apps to easily do what I wanted.

Shape your own tools

When I’m not happy with a tool I use, I always want to improve it. And when it’s a software (here linked to a hardware device), it’s often even easier, especially when the developers are publishing open sources and APIs…

I’m not really a developer anymore, but I still like to “hack” and look for simple ways to achieve what I wanna do. And after digging into the blink(1)’s docs I found how to talk to the light, using simple commands.
So, using the easy AppleScript editor, I just build small scripts using the URL attributes of the blink(1).
And then I just had to export the 4 different scripts to have “native” apps and put them in my dock.

Simple scripts
Apps in the dock
Apps in the dock


And that’s it! Now I have 4 different simple “switches” to easily change and display my status and tell my coworkers if they can interrupt me or not!


But… we can go even further!

Not being disturbed “IRL” is good, but if you still have notifications from your email, Slack or Twitter, you won’t be really focused… So I pushed the scripting one step ahead, and added some useful commands: when I switch to “Busy” (red) my little script also tells all these apps to quit/logout/mute (Slack’s API is cool for that too) and when I switch back to “Available” (green), it launches back Mail.app, Twitter and sets me to active in Slack.

I’ve also plugged these scripts into my good ol’ Pomodoro app, so it switches my status automatically each time I start and end a session.
And that, my friend, is really useful! :)

In case you need it, I put these scripts/apps on my GitHub

The LED and the sign explaining the colors

And one year later…

I went through different iterations, to see how to place it on my desk (position, height, angle) to finally end with a nice support (made with Lego bricks) I put on my desk lamp.
I’ve even added a sign explaining the different color/states, after seeing that some colleagues wasn’t smart enough to understand only the colors… ;)

And after using this little tool for more than one year now, the first conclusion is: it works! :)

But… it does not work with everybody…
I saw that most of my close colleagues (i.e. my fellow designers and developers, and some project managers) understand it and almost always respect it. But some others still don’t get it, especially higher in the hierarchy…

And finally, the second conclusion (and maybe the most important) is that using this kind of tool can help you change your own behavior, and put you in a pattern. The people using the Pomodoro technique already know that: using cycles and habits helps you become more productive and focused. And with the help of this visual reminder, I am able to stay the course…


And then, now?

This experiment became an everyday habit, and now I could not abandon it. My idea now would be to improve it (yes, again), and maybe use my skills in electronics to add a tangible interface, like some physical switches or something like that… We’ll see! :)


Takeways

Animated GIF of the movie “WarGames”
“WarGames” movie

Edit from October 03, 2016

I’m now happy to see that some of my colleagues were inspired by this article… ;)

The LED of my colleague
The LED of my colleague