In A Special Theory of Productivity, I mentioned that I that I didn’t think RescueTime worked as a time management solution. That’s too broad and unhelpful of a statement, so I’ll spend some time reviewing RescueTime so you can see how I came to that conclusion.
What is RescueTime supposed to do?
I’ll give two explanations, one from the company site, and one from Tony Wright, co-founder of RescueTime. The company site says:
RescueTime is a web-based time-management tool that allows you to easily understand how you spend your time. One of the coolest things about RescueTime is that there is NO DATA ENTRY. You install a doohicky on your computer and we magically track all of your time usage.
Tony Wright says:
Right now, we’re (RescueTime) the time management equivalent of a cholesterol test – we can tell you you’re not quite healthy and we can let you know when you’re making progress. But we don’t have a ton to offer to get you fixed up!
(Tony: thanks for visiting and leaving the comment – I intend this to be an extended reply to you. Sorry for the delay.)
Here’s how it works: RescueTime installs a orogram on your computer and monitors the programs you use and updates those with an online server. You go in on your user Dashboard and tag the programs with the type of activity that you do with the reported programs. After you tag them, you’re done – from that point forward, RescueTime associates that program with that activity.
The webpages you visit are handled much the same way. For instance, if you visit this blog, you may tag it as “blog reading” and “personal development.” For the rest of the time that you run RescueTime, it’ll log time spent on this site as blog reading and personal development. I have to say…that’s pretty nifty.
So, what happens to all that information? It is compiled and beautiful graphs are outputted that shows where you’ve been spending your time (much like the one the used above-update: I tried to embed a chart from my dashboard but I kept getting 404’s from RescueTime. I’ll try to get that fixed, as the chart is informative). Other nifty reporting features include the ability to assign point values to activities – i.e. writing, as an academic and as a blogger, is probably the most valuable thing I do, and internet surfing one of the least valuable – so that you have beautiful charts that show you how productive you are based on the value of the activities you’ve been doing. RescueTime will also alert you when you have met goals that you have set – so, if you want to spend two hours writing a day, it will let you know via email, SMS, or RSS.
All of these features are easy to set up and work as stated. The last and probably most compelling feature of RescueTime is that it’s free! Yes, all of this time tracking and reporting goodness for free.
In conclusion, RescueTime is a free, easy to use time management system that displays beautiful reports of your activities that allow you to quickly evaluate your productivity. It simply provides the best looking graphs and charts that I have seen from any product in this niche.
So, what’s not to like about RescueTime?
You may be thinking that something’s gone awry, since I’ve both praised RescueTime and said that I don’t think it works as a time management solution. My main critique about RescueTime is regarding its usefulness and cohesiveness.
Before I begin to evaluate it, remember the framework that I’m using to do so. The functions of Time Management Systems are to help you Plan, Execute, and Evaluate your work, and the principles that make these systems better are Simplicity, Usefulness, Aesthetics, Connectedness, and Cohesiveness. (If none of this makes sense to you, read A Special Theory of Productivity for more information.)
I’ve already commented that RescueTime is simple and aesthetically very pleasing. Good work on that front, guys. But I do have some major concerns about the program…
One Tag to Rule Them All
My major concern is how useful RescueTime is. It’s often the case that there is some tension between simplicity and usefulness, and RescueTime is a brilliant case in point. A real world example is in order.
I write almost everything in Textmate. When I visit another blog and start writing a longish comment, I pop open Textmate, do the writing, and then copy back to the site. When I’m drafting blog posts, I do it in Textmate. I’m even drafting my academic papers in Textmate. That amounts to a lot of writing, and RescueTime has perfectly tracked that.
But it has tracked it as “writing.” The problem: not everything I write has the same productivity value. My academic writing has far more weight than my blog writing, though my actual habits may prove otherwise. Furthermore, RescueTime doesn’t track what I was writing, so to figure that out, I’d have to refer to some other Time Management System, which hurts it on the cohesiveness front.
I may be anal, but it’s useful to know what days and times I was working on certain projects. Knowing that helps me see trends and helps me plan future tasks. As it stands, RescueTime outputs beautiful graphs and charts that, while interesting, aren’t useful. Using RescueTime, then, is adding another layer to all of the other Time Management Systems that I currently employ…all for beautiful charts and graphs.
The Textmate example is just one of many that have the same feature. I read the same sites often times for different reasons. For example, sometimes I read Lifehack just to see what Dustin Wax is baiting me with. (Okay, he doesn’t even know I exist, but he baits me anyways.) Other times, I’m reading the site to see whether they’ve written about something I’m writing about. One of the activities involves just blog reading, whereas the other is research. Other site activities include networking and marketing.
Unfortunately, RescueTime sticks with the original way I’ve tagged it. You can go back and change your tags, but then it will stick with those tags. It can’t see the difference between reading, research, networking, and marketing. But there are very important differences between those activities that are directly related to productivity.
Of course, one option would be to use different programs for different functions. I don’t have the tagging problem with Mellel, for I only use it to polish academic papers. So, I could conceivable split tasks, but why trade using one tool (Textmate) that helps with my productivity just so I can track what I’m doing?
The Care and Feeding Of RescueTime
Directly related to the tagging problem is the fact that I’m a linkhopper. When I read blog posts, I jump to people’s blogs when they leave good comments (I’ve found some of my best blog buddies that way.) That means that when I go to my RescueTime dashboard, I have to tag all of those new sites. If you do it often enough, it’s pretty easy to do and only takes five or ten minutes. Forget to update your Dashboard, though, and you end up with a few scores of sites to tag, which takes considerably longer and is not really that accurate, since I often can’t remember what I was doing there.
I also test out a lot of different software for both personal and blogging interests. So that gives me yet another bunch of applications to tag, which leads to more productivity seepage as I’m trying to figure out what I was doing.
What I’ve found is that my options using RescueTime is either to spend 10-15 minute a day of productivity overhead tagging what I’m doing or to have a high amount of untagged activities. But, for the program to be remotely useful, you have to tag what you’re doing.
What about Off-Computer Tasks and Projects?
Another major concern I have is that RescueTime can’t (without third party solutions that marginally help) track off-computer work. Phone calls, meetings, book research, yard work, errands, etc. all are things that are productive and could bear some tracking. Unfortunately, there’s no way to get them into RescueTime’s system, so to track your real productivity, you’d have to use RescueTime plus some other solution. To be fair, the creators of RescueTime don’t claim that it can do this, so it’s not as if they’re being misleading – it is, nonetheless, a critical component of our productivity that RescueTime does not help with.
Does RescueTime help you plan how to use your time?
Does RescueTime help you execute your tasks?
Does RescueTime help you evaluate what you’ve been doing and provide useful information for future planning and execution?
What is RescueTime intended to replace?
To a very small degree, yes. I say that because if you find that how you think you’re using your time and how you’re actually using your time is quite different, you can use RescueTime to help you adjust your time. Presuming you can discern different activities by tagging them properly, which I’ve yet to really manage to do.
Only to the degree that your planning subverts unproductive habits. Also note that the care and feeding of RescueTime may not be a good return on investment of time.
Not by itself. The system would require you to have some other system that’s tracking the tasks and projects that you’re doing in order for its information to be really useful. If you have that other system, and you’re able to sync the information that it and RescueTime are producing, RescueTime may prove to be useful as a reporting tool.
This is not really part of the framework I listed in A Special Theory of Productivity, but I take it that RescueTime is intended to replace the manual input of time a la Freshbooks. It’s a pain in the ass filling in time sheets and keeping track of where you spend your time as you’re doing it, and having a system that does this without data entry would be incredibly helpful. However, as I’ve stated above, you’re going have to track your projects and tasks some way or the other, so the only point I see of RescueTime on this front is as a reality check. But that reality check would have to extrapolate what you’re doing (i.e. tasks and projects) from how you’re doing it (i.e. the sites and applications you use).
The Way Ahead For RescueTime
I hate when people just critique a product without making suggestions. Complaining is easy…providing solutions is far harder and much more useful. RescueTime is a work in progress, and they are adding new features to it monthly. Here are some things I think would make the program better – there will be some redundancy here since my critique has already listed what I don’t like about RescueTime. (I’m shooting myself in the foot here, as some of these are what I’d do if I were currently building software, and if Tony takes the suggestions to heart and implements them, I will then be fighting him for patent uses once I generate enough revenue to get those projects going. Ah well – maybe he’ll be nice if that becomes an issue.)
Implement a Tagging Filter
Implement an Alert for Untagged Activities
Implement an Off-Computer Applet
I couldn’t think of a really catchy way to say this one. Right now, RescueTime uses the applications and sites that the user visits or uses as the filter to determine what that user was doing. Rather than doing it that way, you could allow the user to specify times that the user was doing a certain tasks.
So, for example, I could allocate the block from 0600-0900 as “Working on RescueTime Evaluation.” All of the different sites and applications that were used during that time block then provide the information of how I accomplished that task. As a project manager, I could then see that, while my employee claimed they were working on Project X, they were actually on MySpace.
I could then tag that task with different metatags that indicate what area of work it fell under. The above task would fall under Blogging, and all of the subtasks indicate the different actions required to sustain that metaproject.
It may be helpful to alert the user that they have a certain number (say, 10) of untagged activities that need to be tagged. That way the user can work natively without the thought of “man, I need to remember what this is and go tag it.” Perhaps a report could be emailed saying “between X and Y times you were using these untagged applications and visiting these untagged sites. What were you doing?”
This one should be fairly easy given that there are already some third party applications that allow you to have up to three offline activities. Using the ideas from the solution above would make this pretty seamless.
Different and More Positive Perspectives on RescueTime
James from Men with Pens writes:
The beauty of Rescue Time is that with least effort on my part, I have a beautiful graph of my work habits and within minutes of installation, if I feel like it. I’ll be able to see exactly where my time goes (and not where I think it goes) and I’ll see precisely how much of my time I spend on individual tasks.
If you’re into productivity, then you can’t go wrong with Rescue Time. It’s a damned nifty lifesaver – or should I say timesaver?
T.W. Garrett from TheTechBrief says:
RescueTime is set to offer a time management goal tool and the option for comparison against others in your industry for those who are serious about increasing their efficiency and finally getting a handle on their technology-driven life. I give RescueTime and A+ and I look forward to the full product release.
Scott from WebWorkerDaily says:
RescueTime is great for examining my overall productivity and helping me make sure that I am putting the proper amount of time into those areas that require my attention. I use it for big picture analysis but the tools for more detailed examinations are certainly present.
I thought it would be good to add their perspectives, since they’re a bit more positive in their reviews than I am.
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