RescueTime: What Have You Been Up To?

At the end of the week, creative people often wonder how much they actually accomplished. They tell their friends they only spent 40–50 hours on the computer working when, in reality, it’s more like 60–70 hours. Staring at a screen most of the day isn’t great for your eyes, so why not lessen the amount of time you spend using a computer? That’s not as easy as it sounds, because you first have to find out how much you are spending on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube each day.

There’s now a different type of time tracker available. It’s called RescueTime. Rather than requiring that you manually clock in and out, it monitors everything you do and sends you a report at an interval you choose. When I first heard about the service, I was cautious about the privacy implications and whether it even did a good job. After using it for nearly two months, I have a bit more to say about it.

Effortless Setup

Setting up the app takes just a few minutes.

Setting up the app takes just a few minutes.

RescueTime takes minutes to install. The app comes in a DMG and takes a quick drag and drop to Applications to start using. Once you open it, the app will ask for your permission to use OS X’s accessibility options so it can track what you’re doing. If you’re unable to give the app access to your Mac, head to System Preferences > Security & Privacy > Privacy > Accessibility and check the box beside RescueTime. After that, you’ll have to sign in or create an account, with only takes a few seconds.

Effective Tracking, Lousy Automatic Filters

Categories in the Dashboard.

Categories in the Dashboard.

The main problem with something like RescueTime is you’re always conscious of it being there, and until you forget it’s monitoring your every move, you may use your computer differently. I had so much to do when I first installed the app that I forgot about it after about a day. At the end of that week, I received an email summarizing how productive I was based on the automatic categorization of the websites and apps I had been using.

Unfortunately, it had most of the important things in “uncategorized” or “very unproductive”. This meant that I had to visit the Dashboard, a hub that lets you configure everything in your RescueTime account. There you can change a task’s category and productivity level. I’ll talk more on this later, but for now lets just say it isn’t convenient to configure everything manually. I’d be much happier if the app actually knew whether or not an app was productive right away.

The entertainment category.

The entertainment category.

This is a very present issue with RescueTime, too. It doesn’t learn what a good or bad task is in an intelligent way. Rather, it seems to use a limited database for reference and add it to one of three lists. If it at least read the name, queried Google, and then added it based on some keywords, that’d be nice. But no, not even my math homework at mathxl.com was interpreted as productive. It simply threw it into uncategorized.

Worse, the service thinks that iTunes, Rdio, and Slack, a messaging service we use for the team at AppStorm, are not productive. I listen to a lot of music while doing work, as do many people, so the app should monitor what I’m doing while iTunes is open rather than saying I use it too much. Speaking of apps being open, the only time RescueTime monitors activity is when an app is active. This is much better than simply assuming all the apps running are open because it provides a more accurate number.

Pause, Scheduling, and Focus

RescueTime in the menu bar.

RescueTime in the menu bar.

You probably don’t want tracking on all the time, so naturally there’s a way to disable it. In the menu bar app, you can pause RescueTime for 15 minutes, 1 hour, or 1 day. This is nice if you’re taking a quick lunch break, but what if you want monitoring off when you’re watching Netflix in the evening? In the Dashboard’s privacy settings, you can set what time you would like the app to start and stop tracking your activity, making room for personal tasks at the beginning and end of work days and maybe eliminating weekends entirely. It’s very useful.

If you just need to focus on a task, RescueTime offers a way to help you, but it’ll cost. The service is free to use with basic features, but premium ones, like Focus, will cost you $72 a year. What does this fancy feature do? Block distracting websites, like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Reddit, and anything else you’ve marked as unproductive. It’s very handy, but there open-source app SelfControl offers this functionality for free. If you buy RescueTime Premium, it should be for one of the other features, which I’ll discuss later.

Organizing What You’ve Done in the Dashboard

Back to the Dashboard, RescueTime’s control center. Here you’ll find all the pie graphs and charts detailing how productive you’ve been lately. You can switch between the day, week, and month view, and the service’s history goes back 2 months. On the main screen, there’s a helpful list of the 5 top categories. Mine for this week is 14 percent entertainment, which could use some improvement. Then, when you scroll down, you can look through what apps and services are in your top categories for the time period. Further down yet are your lifetime totals and top days.

The main Dashboard page.

The main Dashboard graph.

The main screen is very easy to navigate and I never had any trouble with it. The app’s pitfall, as I mentioned earlier, is revealed when you start to look at individual categories, especially Uncategorized. To find these, hover over the Reports button and click Categories. You’ll probably see Uncategorized on the graph since it’s often filled with “everything else”. Click it to begin organizing. Here’s where things get interesting.

Adding a goal.

Adding a goal.

Everything in Uncategorized has been given a a neutral productivity level. Changing it isn’t as easy at it should be. First, there’s no bilk categorization, which is something the service needs, especially with a user as heavy as me. Second, changing the category on one thing is more clicks than it should be. You have to hover over the item, click the pencil icon to the right, click the productivity level, and select a new one. It’d be much easier if you could just click Neutral and select a new one, but no. Due to the way RescueTime automatically organizes things, you’ll be spending a lot of time in Uncategorized. It’d be nice if that weren’t such a tedious task.

Milestones.

Milestones tell you how you’ve done.

On to Goals, which are designed to help you do work or other projects that demand completion. There’s a “Set a goal” button in every page of the Dashboard, so it’s pretty easy to get started. The one downside of goals is their alerts. They aren’t free. As with Focus, alerts is a Premium feature that you probably don’t need. After all, you can set reminders within OmniFocus, Calendar, on your phone, or just in OS X’s Reminders app. It doesn’t make sense to pay for this feature unless you believe it will convince you to work more effectively.

The Dashboard has a bunch of other features, but I don’t have time to go over them all here. It works well to keep you up to date on how your work is going, for the most part. I just wish it was smarter.

RescueTime Pro Isn’t Really Necessary

Selective monitoring is free.

Selective monitoring is free.

This is one of those services that keeps running using monthly payments from users. If you really enjoy it, they expect you’ll pay eventually. I haven’t found the need for any of the fancy Premium features though. It includes more detailed reports, time tracking when you’re not at the computer, website blocking, notifications to help you focus, “daily highlights”, faster access to monitored data (3 minutes instead of 30), and access to your entire history. They’re all very useful, but only if you’re a very heavy user who doesn’t already have ways of organizing his digital life. Even then, traditional to-do lists or OmniFocus reign superior.

Privacy

Before I started using the app, I made sure the developer had a solid privacy policy. Their six-point summary gave me confidence in their integrity.

  1. We will never sell, rent, or share your personal information without your explicit consent, with or without personally identifying information.
  2. We may share information about user behavior in the aggregate only. For example, we could share information like, “which day of the week do people spend the most time in front of their computer?”
  3. You can delete your data at any time — all of it, or just a slice of it. You can also delete your account at any time. Deleting your account deletes all your data from our database.
  4. We won’t spam you, ever. We might occasionally send one-time messages about important RescueTime news. We will likely continue to introduce ways that you can optionally have RescueTime contact you with data that you care about, but you will always be able to turn this on or off.
  5. For individual accounts, no other user can see any of your data or personal information. In the future, we may introduce features to allow sharing of data, but this will be voluntary and opt-in only.
  6. For team accounts, sharing of data is controlled by the administrator of the account. No one outside of your organization will have access to any of your data.

A Helpful Way to Look at Time

The basic interface of RescueTime.

The basic interface of RescueTime.

I’ve found RescueTime very enlightening in the days I’ve used it. I receive reports on Sundays and typically aim to spend less time on the computer the next week. I like that the app has lots of notifications available in the Premium version, but none of the other features seem necessary. The best part of this app is the way it shows you what you’ve been up to. That may seem creepy, but their privacy policy clearly states they will not sell any of your information. If you put trust in RescueTime, you’ll be surprised how much time you spend doing unproductive things or “thinking about doing things” while watching a YouTube video, commenting on Facebook, or aimlessly browsing. The app gives you confidence that you can overcome these obstacles.


Summary

Find out why you're not being as productive on your computer, then overcome it on your own or use the app's Focus feature (which costs) to block distractions. This is one of the best background time trackers out there, and its weekly reviews are very useful.

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