On Using RescueTime To Monitor Activity and Increase Productivity
I recently talked about how I use Kanban to stay organized and optimize my productivity flow. Today I want to touch on another really important tool I’ve used to optimize flow and actively work on identifying then overcoming distractions and bad habits: RescueTime.
What is RescueTime?
RescueTime describes itself as follows:
RescueTime helps you understand where your time is going while working on your computer or mobile device. It lets you keep track of the time you spend in various activities so you can have an accurate idea of where your day goes. Understanding your time allows you to take control of it, and find a balance that works for you.
The way RescueTime works is by using a program downloaded to your computer/s and/or mobile device (note: as of right now this is only available for Android products but they are releasing an iOS version this year). Once installed the program tracks your activity online (and offline if you have a paid subscription) and makes it (relatively) easy for you to categorize items into one of 5 categories:
- Very Productive (Dark Blue)
- Productive (Lighter Blue)
- Neutral (Grey)
- Unproductive (Lighter Red)
- Very Unproductive (Dark Red)
For example, in my RescueTime preferences Facebook is rated Very Unproductive, whereas WordPress is rated Very Productive. Why? Because nothing in my current home or work life requires me to be on Facebook, so if I am on Facebook I am automatically wasting time. WordPress, however, is how I run this blog. So if I am drafting a blog post I consider that to be a Very Productive usage of my time. This gets slightly problematic depending on if I’m at work or home, but I’ll touch on that in a bit.
Note: Categorizing can take some time if you’re using a lot of different websites and programs, but it’s really worth it to customize this so you have an accurate view of your data.
Once you’ve categorized activities and used RescueTime for a period of time, you can look at your time spent and “Productivity Pulse” (a rating that tells you how productive you’ve been over time on a scale from 1-100) by Day, Week, Month, or Year (I show this by year and month below). RescueTime also provides many different kinds of statistics such as time spent on each activity (IE how many hours did you spend on each site/program/etc), hourly usage trends, online vs offline activity usage, etc.
Paid Vs. Free Version
There are both free and paid versions of RescueTime. In RescueTime Lite you get the very basic usages: tracking time, setting goals, weekly email reports. In RescueTime Premium, which I use, you have access to a lot more useful tools such as: Offline Tracking, alerts when daily goals are met, ability to block distracting websites, ability to log daily accomplishments, and more detailed reports. Because my job requires so much offline work, the premium version best suits my needs, but if you work in a position that requires primarily computer usage, you can get away with using the free version (albeit with less report options).
My RescueTime Stats
I initially signed up for RescueTime in September of 2012. I can’t really remember much about how I found it or how much I explored the site and utilized it but I CAN tell you that I installed it on my work computer, my personal laptop, and my personal desktop. And then I did something that was bad for 2012, but really great for future analysis: I completely forgot about it.
This is good because it gave me an uninfluenced look at my productivity over a year’s time. However, it’s important to note that this isn’t a complete picture, because most of the work I do in the lab is offline work (more on that in a sec) and I hadn’t categorized all of my sites and programs yet. It was still useful, though, because it did give me a (horrifying) look at my social media usage (Facebook usage in 2012: ~83.3 hours; 2013: ~300 hours; 2014: ~136 hours. WOOF.) and other internet habits.
Fast forward to September 2013, I re-discovered RescueTime, again I am not quite sure how but it likely had something to do with a Philadelphia Self Quantifiers meetup. I logged in to use RescueTime and realized I had been unknowingly using it for a year. This is the point where you can see the productivity (in blue) spike and unproductive time decrease significantly. This happened for several reasons: 1. I was actively paying attention to my productivity and activities on a day to day basis. 2. I began logging my Offline time in addition to computer usage. 3. I started categorizing specific websites according to level of distraction or productivity.
The following chart is my productivity scale for 2014. As you can see, productivity stays pretty high, while unproductive time is still low, but fluctuates. I can actually explain the fluctuations pretty easily. In the beginning of 2014 I hit a breaking point with my unhappiness at work and started seriously looking for new jobs. TL;DR: I interviewed for and was offered a really fantastic position, only to then have the owner of the company tell his team they couldn’t hire me for it because he wanted me to take another (lesser) position that I hadn’t applied for or expressed interest in. The entire situation was disheartening, somewhat infuriating, and left me really broken down and disappointed.
Afterwards, I was so depressed it caused me to fall into a major slump in all areas of life, and my (usually strong) work ethic definitely suffered as a result (as seen below between January and April). Part of this unproductive time was my applying for more jobs while at work, and part was being too burnt out/depressed/etc to keep myself from slacking off. I’m not proud of this, but I am thankful I can look at this from a statistical standpoint and work actively not to let personal situations change my work habits in the future.
As you can see, come summer I felt so guilty for not working to my highest potential that I made a conscious effort to quit slacking and really start pulling my weight again, even if I wasn’t entirely happy at work. By the end of 2014, there are a few unproductive spikes during lulls in the lab (sometimes there’s a ton of work to do, and some weeks I have absolutely nothing) but for the most part it isn’t so bad. Overall, I’m not super thrilled with a 68%, but seeing this number is pushing me to work harder to have my 2015 productivity pulse number be closer to 100. Remember folks: Progress, not perfection.
Below is a view of my logged time so far in 2015, by month rather than year so you can see the information more clearly. There isn’t much to it so far, but this has been the most productive month I’ve had in a pretty long time (more at home than work). And it feels awesome.
Using RescueTime for Work and Home
That brings me to my biggest/only problem with RescueTime: How do I accurately track my productivity at work vs. at home using the same account? When I am working at home my goal is generally to make art or to do research for blog posts/etc. So my goals and priorities are much different. For example, if I am learning a new skill I look for reference images. I also read a lot of blogs of artists I find inspiring/motivating, but if I am doing this at work it means I’m slacking off, whereas if I am doing this at home it’s a productive usage of my time. There’s no way (that I know of) to differentiate between the two, so some of my statistics will always be off. This is something I’ve struggled with since I first started actively using RescueTime and I still haven’t figured out a solution. (If you have one, please let me know!)
Overall, RescueTime has been really helpful for me as far as time management and productivity go. I haven’t utilized all of it’s features yet (and hope to try more this year), but even using the most basic functions of RescueTime has helped me target problem areas and work on streamlining my workflow.
I plan to talk about RescueTime again in the future, touching on more specific usages. This will probably be once I use some of the other features. In the meantime, I suggest giving it a try. Let me know if you have any questions!
References & Additional Resources
- On Using Personal Kanban to Organize Your Work (and Life!)
- Philadelphia Self Quantifiers meetup group
- Tip: Use RescueTime to sidestep your forgetfulness and remember to update your to-do list
- Meet the new RescueTime – the big list of new features