Here’s a question most of us can probably answer, at least approximately: How many hours do you spend in front of your computer every week?
But here’s a trickier one: How much of that time do you spend doing productive work, and how much of it do you spend watching cat videos? RescueTime ($9 per month) is an online service that tries to answer this question, and sometimes even succeeds.
To use RescueTime, you need to set up an account and install a tiny client application on your computer.
RescueTime tracks Web sites, documents you access
The RescueTime client sits in the system tray (by the clock), and collects information about what you do with your computer. This information can include every window, every document, and every Web site you access–and it all gets reported to RescueTime for slicing and dicing. There is also an Android app that links to your RescueTime account for tracking time not spent in front of the computer.
If you are uncomfortable with that level of detail, you can use the RescueTime Web interface to tell RescueTime not to collect window and document titles, not to collect Web site URLs, or not to collect email and webmail activity information.
You can also switch on a domain whitelist, so that RescueTime only tracks time you spend on a subset of specific Web sites. RescueTime also has a setting for ignoring adult Web sites. With this setting on, RescueTime ignores any adult-related Web sites you visit (as long as it recognizes them as such).
After you decide how much information RescueTime should receive, you can just sit back and use your computer as you normally do. RescueTime will sit quietly in the system tray, watch you, and report back to HQ. After a while, you can log into the RescueTime Web interface and look at the extensive dashboard outlining your work habits.
RescueTime works by classifying activities on a scale of -2 (very distracting) to +2 (very productive). It can guess how productive many activities are based on collective data from its user base. For example, it gave my YouTube browsing a -2 score without me having to tell it how distracting YouTube is for me. It doesn’t recognize all activities, and you may need to tweak some of those it does recognize (for example, maybe you need YouTube for your work).
If I had to describe the RescueTime dashboard in a single word, I’d pick “confusing.” Many Analytics solutions, like Google Analytics, use dashboards, and it often works out great. But the RescueTime dashboard uses some unorthodox graphs, which can be difficult to understand. The “All Activities by day” report is shown as a stacked graph with a hodgepodge of colors, and does not include zooming controls. The Efficiency Summary feature is supposed to show you what time of the day you do best in, but for me, it pinned Afternoon as both the most productive and least productive time.
Once you start drilling into the data, you can come up with interesting insights. For example, I can now tell approximately how much time I spend on email every week. And I can tell how long it took me to write a particular review. But even the lower-level reports, such as Activity Detail, leave much to be desired: Even when you view this report By Hour, you still can’t tell when you did what. For example, RescueTime can tell me that sometimes between 10 am and 11 am I went to the RescueTime Web site, and also used WriteMonkey to write this review, but it can’t tell me what I did first, nor whether I went back to the RescueTime Web site after I started writing the review. Having a sequential log of computer activity could provide some important insight, but unfortunately, that’s not something you can do with RescueTime.
RescueTime’s Pro version also offers a Focus feature for blocking distracting Web sites. You click a button, pick how long you’d like to focus for, and RescueTime makes it impossible for you to access distracting Web sites for this duration.
RescueTime is a neat concept, and a crack at a problem that definitely needs solving: If we could be more focused when we’re in front of the computer, we might be able to spend less time “working” and more time enjoying life. Imperfect as it may be, it is still one of the best personal monitoring solutions available today.