Review of RescueTime: Free Time Tracking Software


When discussing my decision to hire a cook, I briefly mentioned that I chose to do so because an analysis of my week showed that cooking and the activities surrounding it was a significant drain on my time.  I similarly search for drains on my time online as well, and my favorite application by far is RescueTime‘s free time tracking software.

My Favorite RescueTime Features

  • Background Time Tracking – RescueTime tracks everything in the background – and not just web browsing, chatting, etc, but also which specific websites I visit (you can opt out of this feature if you want).
  • Automatic Idling – Rather than starting and stopping RescueTime, like some other time tracking applications, I just let it sit in my system tray and collect data. When I walk away from my computer to take a break, workout, etc, it automatically detects that I’ve left – and stops tracking. When I sit back down, it starts tracking again.
  • Multiple Computers, Single Collection for Reporting – I have RescueTime installed on multiple laptops at home.  Sometimes I feel like working on my primary laptop in my room, while other times I’ll take my Acer Aspire One netbook to a coffee shop (or just to my living room).  No problem for RescueTime – as I switch between computers, RescueTime automatically picks it up and keeps tracking my work.
  • Gadgets! – I like having RescueTime easily accessible.  They have a fantastic little RescueTime Google Gadget which I have installed in iGoogle, which provides me daily, weekly and monthly summaries.  Unfortunately, I added to GMail account using Google Lab but it does not appear to work . Also available as a Netvibes gadget or desktop widget with Yahoo desktop. For these and more, see the full list of RescueTime gadgets avaiilable.
  • Tags and Categories – It’s fine to tell me that I spend time in my GMail account and some time in Outlook, but it’s even better when I can group these sites together in tags and see where my time is going. For example, I’ve added tags for EMail, Social Networking, News/Media and Videos (YouTube and TED mostly, along with my media players on my computer).  This allows me to view where my time is going at a high level, while still keeping the ability to drill down to specific websites and applications.  Think it’s too much work? Don’t worry – RescueTime has a bunch of defaults for many popular applications and websites.
  • Points for Activities – I love turning my personal productivity and efficiency into a game.  By allowing me to assign points and weights to each task/application, RescueTime allows me to compete against myself for personal bests.  For example, I’ve assigned positive values to applications that tend to be productive tasks (Google Documents and for example) and negative values to websites where I was wasting too much time, such as Twitter and Facebook.  Just knowing that RescueTime is out there tracking motivates me to change my behavior.
  • Powerful Web Based Reporting – It slices it dices it…just kidding.  Seriously though, it does allow me to slice the data just about any way I can think of.  For just one example, I love the hourly efficiency reporting it does.  I can look across a graph of my entire day and see the times I was most productive and least productive.  This helped me identify, for example, that early to late afternoons tended to by my least efficient times of day.  These reports affected my behavior, and I began paying extra attention to my activities during those hours, knowing that I was prone to time wasting from 4-6 p.m.  My most effective times?  Early mornings, which helped me steer my decision to wake up early and pay myself first with my time.
  • Daily and Weekly Efficiency Email – I don’t always check my RescueTime stats, so I enjoy the weekly efficiency summary via email. There’s nothing really fancy here, but it’s a nice touch – some websites require you to log in to view reports, update your data, etc.  With RescueTime collecting my information in the background, and emailing me weekly reviews, I don’t have to visit their website if I don’t want to.  The biggest benefit to me is the weekly email then works itself into my regular workflow, so I am always aware of how effectively I am spending time at my computer.
  • Free – I’m a sucker for a good service provided at a good price, and it doesn’t get much better than free. They have business accounts that they charge for, but I have no experience with those.

RescueTime Features I Think are Cool, But Don’t Use

  • Goal Alerts via RSS and SMS – I haven’t tried this feature out, but it sounds cool. You can set up goals inside RescueTime for where you would be ideally spending your time (e.g., minimum 2 hours per day in Microsoft Word writing, maximum of 30 minutes per day on CNN reading).  RescueTime will then alert you via RSS and SMS about your status.
  • Publicize it on your blog – Another feature I don’t use, they have a variety of RescueTime widgets available you can put on your blog to pubicize how you’re doing. I like to keep site design clean, but I imagine others would enjoy bragging or having it publicly available to make themselves more accountable.
  • Track Your Time Away From Your Computer As Well – Some users have created their own applications to allow manual inputs of data into RescueTime for non-computer asks as well (phone calls, meetings, etc).  I don’t use them myself, but I see the utility in having all your work efficiency data collected in one place – regardless of whether the tasks take place on your computer.  You can check out the  RescueTime widgets page for download links.

The Results – Tracking My Time Raises My Awareness

Calendar Pencil Time TrackingAs I’ve become aware of where my time goes, I’m conscious not to spend time on websites that drain my time – because I have constant feedback via the RescueTime “efficiency review” that is emailed to me every week.  By reviewing the reports, I discovered a few patterns in my own behavior, and used that to eliminate or limit websites I was spending too much time on.  The websites in question? Typically social networks, communication channels and information gateways/news sites.  

If you feel you’re wasting time online, the first step is to track where it goes, and RescueTime does a great job with that.  If you have been searching for a time tracking solution to track time at your computer, I encourage you to download RescueTime‘s software and give it a try.  It’s totally free for individuals and backed by some smart people, including Tim Ferris, author of The Four Hour Work Week.

If you’re interested in RescueTime, you may also be interested in my article about how to stop wasting time online.   If you’re easily distracted online, you may also enjoy this start page about valuing your time.

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