We all struggle with procrastination from time to time, especially when overwhelmed with the size or scope of a project. There have been a number of studies and books written lately about the benefits of working for shorter periods of time, with regular short breaks in between. In combination with setting specific small goals to accomplish, this technique is supposed to help you stay focused on the task without getting overwhelmed, and makes you less likely to procrastinate.
The developers of Vitamin-R aimed to create an unobtrusive menu-bar app to help you manage your “time slices” and breaks, while encouraging you to stay focused on small tasks. Vitamin-R integrates many of the ideas described by these new productivity techniques into its functionality, but can it really help you stay focused?
The Philosophy behind Vitamin-R is based on how the brain naturally functions. Most work environments lead us to focus on large tasks for long periods of time, while dealing with multiple interruptions and being forced to multi-task. The brain, however, works best when focusing on a single task without interruption, for shorter periods of time. Vitamin-R refers to these short periods of work as “time slices,” which should ideally be 15-25 minutes.
Large tasks can scare us into avoidance and procrastination, literally triggering the “fight or flight” response in our brains; if you instead divide large tasks into smaller sub-tasks, they goal becomes too small to scare us and we can get started.
Vitamin-R lives in your menu-bar, and pops out unobtrusively when clicked on. To start working, the first step is to define your objective, which is supposed to be a small chunk of the task, defined very specifically.
Next, decide how long you want your “time slice” to be, and decide what to do about other apps that may distract you. There is an option to either hide or quit a custom selection of apps that are open, which impressively managed to quit all my checked apps super fast.
Once you start working, a countdown timer appears in your menu bar, and clicking on it will bring up the Vitamin-R interface displaying your objective, with the options to end or pause the time slice. There are many customization options to keep you on track, like a ticking noise every minute (which I found really irritating) or having a computer voice tell you how long you have left every so often.
Personally, I don’t like the audio reminders, I found them distracting and they often startled me. I’d much prefer to see a growl alert occasionally, with a custom message.
I used Concentrate when I was in school and loved being able to set custom Growl alert with a computer voice that would read out my messages (I set it so it sounded like Stephen Hawking was berating me). Another thing I liked about Concentrate was the ability to create numerous reminders or alerts, so I could have “motivational” messages play every 15 minutes, but a growl alert reminding me to save my document every 3 minutes.
You can also set Vitamin-R to play a constant noise throughout, like a ticking noise, or white noise. I can’t imagine anyone using this feature, but you never know.
When you finish a time slice, you’re prompted to rate your concentration level, then you can decide whether to take a timed break, open-ended break, or continue straight to the next time slice.
Now & Later Boards
The philosophy behind Vitmain-R recommends “memory dumps,” sets of notes that you quickly jot down before they leave your mind. Because we can only keep a couple “chunks” of information in our working memory at a time, Vitamin-R allows you to write down notes or ideas on either the “Now” or “Later” boards.
The Now board is for items you’re going to need while working on this time slice, like something you’ll need to add to the next paragraph of text, or perhaps a phrase you’ll need to copy and paste. The Later board is for writing down important things that need attention after you’ve completed your time slice, and don’t want to forget. By writing it down, you get it out of your mind and are able to focus better on the task at hand.
You can access the Now & Later pads (and a “Scratch pad” for what doesn’t fit in now or later) through system-wide keyboard shortcuts. I think a lot of us already have systems for keeping track of these kinds of notes, for example, I use Evernote to keep track of things that are important now, and add tasks to Wunderlist, so I don’t think I’d use this feature.
I found the most useful part of the Now & Later pads to be the FastType syntax, which allows you to create common formatting (like bulleted lists and horizontal lines) using easy to remember shortcuts, like typing * for a bulleted list, — for a horizontal line, etc. This is the one feature that had me tempted to switch from Evernote, but I’m hopeful Evernote picks up a similar feature soon.
Logs & Statistics
Each time you complete a time slice, Vitamin-R records information about length, objective, and concentration level. You can find this information under Tools>Logs or Tools>Statistics, and can view the information in RTF format or as a graph in the Statistics view.
Vitamin-R features some pretty extensive customization options, allowing you to skip or customize dialogs, set defaults, set alarms and sounds, and keyboard shortcuts, allowing you to create your own custom workflow.
Does It Work?
So, the philosophy sounds appealing and reasonable, but does Vitamin-R actually increase productivity? If you use it right, and it suits the way you work, then it probably will.
Working in “time-slices” is ideal for people who are easily overwhelmed by large tasks, or who constantly have too many things to do. Personally, I’m more of a “Hell yeah I’m gonna get this thing done in 8 hours straight so nobody talk to me until tomorrow!” type of worker, which suits me fine. I found that whenever a time-slice ended, I just wanted it to go away so I could get back to work.
However, the literature on this topic would tend to suggest that I’m the exception not the rule, and I can certainly see how this app could help a lot of people to overcome procrastination. The philosophy behind Vitamin-R is solid, and the functionality is very usable and customizable, despite a bit of a learning curve.
If you’re curious about the philosophy behind apps like Vitamin-R, check out the Pomodoro Technique.
Conclusion: Worth a Download?
Is it worth $20? Like I always say, that depends. Could you accomplish the same thing with a pencil, paper, and egg timer? Absolutely. But if you do most of your work on the computer, it’s certainly handy to be able to set everything up from your computer, and I doubt the patrons at your local cafe will appreciate your egg timer.
The developers of Vitamin-R frequently update the software, and released an update as recently as May 17, and a reliable update schedule is one of the main things I look for in a paid app. Vitamin-R is a well-designed app that accomplishes its goal, but its functionality may be superfluous to some people.