Maintaining Focus with Keyboard Maestro

About a week ago, I decided to move Instagram to the second page of a folder on my iPhone. I didn’t really think I had any sort of problem with Instagram. I just wanted to be more intentional with how I used my phone after seeing my weekly Screentime reports. Little did I know, just seeing the Instagram icon (even the tiny one inside a folder) had become an incredibly strong cue to unconsciously open the app whenever I picked up my phone. A week later, and Screentime is already reporting my phone usage is down 36% just by moving the app!

Features like Screentime and Downtime are great for iOS devices, and that 36% is huge, but the 19 hours I spend on my iOS devices pale in comparison to how much time I spend on my Mac. I couldn’t help but not think of how many cues on my Mac were stealing my precious time without even realizing it. For now, there is no Screentime for Mac, but services like RescueTime work similarly to give you a good idea of where you’re spending your time so you can start seeing where you need to cut back.

That being said, breaking bad habits requires more than just knowing where you’re spending time. If you want to actually change those habits, you also need to disrupt your behavior patterns. Plenty of apps can block apps and websites during specific times. Unfortunately, most of the ones I found require subscriptions, and as much as I want to support developers, paying for another subscription is just not in my budget right now.

As I thought through my options, I realized I had already broken a pretty well-conditioned habit of compulsive email checking using a fairly simple Keyboard Maestro macro paired with Marco Arment’s Quitter app. The Keyboard Maestro macro just gave me an alert every time I opened my email client just to remind me I was opening it. Usually, the notification was jarring enough to make me stop and realize what I was doing. The Quitter app quit my email client after 20 minutes of inactivity. Within days, the combination opened my eyes to just how often I was opening my email client throughout the day and also kept me from being pulled back into email when I forgot to close it.

It worked so well that I’ve gotten checking my email down to 3 times a day while at work (8AM, 12PM, and 4PM). In fact, I had to create a new Keyboard Maestro macro that opens my email client at those times because I often forget to check my email. For added fun, I recently added an option to the macro that lets me delay opening Airmail for 5 minutes if I happen to be occupied with something else.

With how well this worked for breaking compulsive email checking, I figured I could apply it to other applications, so I set back to work in Keyboard Maestro. Having recently learned how to incorporate times into my macros, I was able to come up with a vastly improved macro that lets me “limit” certain apps during certain hours. I’m using the term limit loosely because I didn’t want to be completely blocked out of an app if I didn’t need to be. If a predefined app activates during the hours I’ve set, I get a notification reminding me I probably have more important things to do, along with 2 options – to quit the app or accept the notification and open it anyway. More often than not, just as with my email app macro, just the alert is enough to snap me out of my muscle memory.

I’ve only been using it for a week or so, but it’s been working so well, I wanted to share it with you. The macro first sets the variable Time to the current hour. If it’s between the hours set, it will pause briefly to allow the app to load and then prompt you with a notification. Clicking Quit continues to the next action of quitting the frontmost app. Clicking the other option cancels the macro.

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Of note, instead of referring to specific apps within the macro, I made use of the variable %Application%1% which refers to the front application. I’ve created macros to refer to the “Front Application” in the past, but until recently, I didn’t know you could pass the front application’s name as a variable as well. This lets me avoid hardcoding any of the applications into the macro’s actions and dialogs so that adding new apps just a matter of adding a new application trigger at the beginning.

Have you set up anything on your Mac to keep you on track? I’d love to hear what others are doing.

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