Rescue Time

I wrote on Friday about Beeminder (post and website) that I’ve been playing around with for tracking progress towards goals. Today I want to write about another tool, Rescue Time, I’ve been playing around with that’s about tracking your productivity.

Note: I have mostly been playing around with the free version, which means I don’t get some of the extra features, and can’t talk about them. 

Rescue Time works by keeping track of what application on your computer currently has user focus. For applications like Firefox or Microsoft Office, it can also keep track of what tab/document you are actively looking at/working with. Online, you can see how much time you are spending on various activities and in various categories. Rescue Time also works on both Macs and PCs and can be used as an individual or set up to watch a group of people.

Rescue Time tries to guess ahead of time the type of application and productivity level. It is generally accurate, but seems to be more accurate for applications that are more common and office work related. Some of the tools I use it didn’t recognize and would incorrectly classify. There are 5 productivity levels – very productive, productive, neutral, distracting, very distracting.

However, it’s suppose to be very simple to change how it rates and categories activities. I say suppose to, because I found the user interface quite awkward to use at times. In order to change the productivity level, you click either a plus or a minus, with plus being more productive. And depending on the page you are on, this works as expected. But if you are looking at the activities that were labelled “very distracting” and try to do this, you don’t see any changes until you leave the page and either come back or look somewhere else. And what should happens is a little ambiguous, as you are only suppose to see “very distracting” activities. However, I think it should update there so at least you know you’ve changed the productivity setting.

The categories is something else I find awkward. For one, the categories don’t work with how I would group my work. This is probably because they were designed more for a business worker than for a student/academic. While I can add new subcategories, I can’t (or at least haven’t figure out how to) create new main categories and redistribute the subcategories within. And because of how categories work, I needed to be very careful about labelling specific activities. For example, going on Twitter or Facebook should count as “very distracting” but working on my blog should count as “productive” so I needed to make sure it realized the differences.

Rescue Time lets you set up goals – like spend >4 hours a day being productive and <1 hour a day being distracted (the suggested ones). I generally have my computer on and may be on it for 10-12 hours a day (easy and sadly). Those goals would mean 9-11 hours of productivity in order to satisfy less than 1 hour as distracted. Which isn’t going to happen – I’m just not that focused. While I can adjust the numbers, I can’t change the goals to be based on ratio’s – like spend >70% of my time on productive and <30% distracted, which would better fit my work habits/lifestyle. You can set a goal to track either 24/7, Mon-Fri (6am-8pm), afternoon, morning, Sat-Sun. To me, these are odd groupings. I’d rather track my productivity Mon-Fri, but all day, not just from 6-8. I’m often working between 8-11pm.

But to be honest, here’s my biggest complaint about Rescue Time. You can either track for specific hours or you can track all day. Which sounds good and reasonable and there’s nothing really wrong with those. But, the problem is that as a student/academic, my hours are all over the place. Which means that in order to catch when I do work, it needs to track all day. However, that means it also catches all the time I’m on my computer, time when it’s perfectly okay for me to be not working. But this time then starts skewing all the graphs and makes it much harder to get useful data out of the charts. And it tells me I’m generally unproductive and so on.

Of course, you can fool the program a bit, but keeping a productivity application in focus while a distracting one is in the background (like a video playing in a corner, where you can watch it, but not have the application in focus. But, the only person you’re cheating by doing this, is yourself, so there ends up being no real benefit if you want to be able to get reasonable and accurate data to analyze.

Now this may make it sound like I don’t like Rescue Time and you shouldn’t use it. But that’s not the point of my review. I wanted to point out where I feel the flaws are when using this application from a student/academic point of view. A lot of the downsides I list above could be fixed and many of them easily. Since I’ve had it installed, I  spend a lot more time thinking about whether or not I should be on application A or B and what I’m spending my time on. I think this is very useful for me, since I spend way to much time on my computer. Thinking more critically about what I’m doing, and whether or not I need to be on my computer is worth while, especially if it cuts down on my usage.


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