Rescuing my time

I won’t say I get distracted too much during the workday, but I’d like to know how productive I am without having to manually track my time. So for the past few months, I’ve been using RescueTime.

RescueTime logoIn essence, RescueTime tallies the time you spend using specific software. Once you install it on your Windows or Mac computer, you set it to start every time you turn your computer on, and it runs unobtrusively in the background, sending results back to a server on the web. You can view your results any time you want to, but I wait for the weekly update emails.

The results, at first, were somewhat distressing. RescueTime’s weekly email reminded me that I’m not a video game, YouTube or FaceBook type of guy, but  I did already know about my predilections for news websites, HootSuite, LinkedIn …. and email.

Configuring RescueTime activities and goals

When I was done cringing, I put various activities into the correct categories and classified them as productive, neutral or unproductive. The amount of reclassification you need to do diminishes over time.

Still cringing after reclassification, I set goals for myself, like a minimum amount of time spent writing each day and a maximum spent on all unproductive time. I also to spend about 30 minutes each Sunday reviewing how I spent the previous week. I’m glad to say that my productivity has increased, though I don’t attribute the improvement entirely to RescueTime.

RescueTime’s shortcomings

RescueTime isn’t perfect, but I admit I don’t have any suggestions for most of the shortcomings I’m about to list.

RescueTime does not track off-computer work like journaling (productive), phone calls (productive), magazine or book reading (neutral, though necessary for a business writer like me) revising articles on printouts (productive) or just plain goofing off.

I haven’t found a method to manually enter time spent on such activities, though various pomodoro timers do let me do so.

RescueTime seems to track time that a given application window is open, which artificially inflates time tracked if I step away from my computer. My solution: put my computer to sleep. That seems to pause RescueTime tracking.

I spend a lot of time using email for different purposes. Preparing a client proposal is productive, while catching up on email from friends isn’t. RescueTime can’t differentiate between the two, and – did I mention I use email a lot? – this creates a lot of opacity in my usage of time. For now, I qualify email usage as neutral, an unsatisfactory compromise.

It would be handy if RescueTime could distinguish between different messages the way it does between open tabs in a browser. Of course, this leads to the Catch 22 of continuous classification of activities, upping the time it takes to measure productivity, which in itself isn’t the most productive way to spend your time.

To keep myself going down this rabbit warren, I keep “uncategorized” activities to a minimum (right now, under two hours each week). RescueTime helps by not tracking activities on which I spend less than 5 minutes each week.

I can’t explain this bug: When I choose “Categorize Activities” and then “Show only Uncategorized” I get an error message saying “For the week of (Month, Year) there is no time logged. That’s weird, because it does log time.

Next steps

RescueTime offers both free and paid services, and I’m leaning towards paying to get certain extras:

  • alerts when I go over a set amount of time in a day for things like news websites
  • a “get focused” option
  • filtering time by morning, afternoon and workday

I’d love to hear from anybody who uses RescueTime. Any tips, corrections and further insights welcome.


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