Life is short and time is tight—none of us can afford to waste it. But with so many distractions competing for our time, it’s all too easy to fritter away priceless hours without even realizing you’ve done it. If you want to become your most productive self, you need to understand how you spend your time. There’s no better tool for doing that than RescueTime. This service, which works mostly behind the scenes, has been one of our favorite productivity app for years. It gives you insight into where the minutes and hours of the day go while you’re on your computer or Android device. A free version is more than sufficient for most people, while a somewhat pricey Premium version gives more in-depth analysis. RescueTime continues to impress us after many years of use. It’s a wonderful tool for the modern workplace.
PRICING AND PLANS
RescueTime offers two tiers of service: Lite (free) and Premium ($9 per month or $72 per year). Businesses or organizations that want to use RescueTime across a group of people pay the same rate as Premium subscribers.
RescueTime Lite offers plenty for someone who has never tracked his or her time before. The app monitors which websites and applications you use, and how much time you spend on or in each of them. You can categorize each app and site you use on a Productive/Unproductive scale, and RescueTime generates a few basic reports showing how you spend your time. Lite members can set weekly goals, such as “spend X hours per week on productive tasks and fewer than Y minutes on unproductive items.” You can get a weekly report email to you. For reports, you’re limited to a three-month history, however.
Paying subscribers get everything in the free Lite plan, plus extra features and reports, including an unlimited report history. Premium also comes with alerts you can enable for when you hit daily goals. You can more accurately log time spent away from the computer, noting whether you were in a meeting, on a phone call, or just out to lunch. Additionally, there is a Get Focused option, which lets you block distracting websites for a period of time you set.
RESCUING YOUR TIME
To reiterate, RescumeTime is a productivity tool in the sense that it helps you improve your time-management skills. It collects data about the apps and websites you use, and then generates reports based on that information.
To get started, you create an account and install a desktop app on your computer(s) and optionally a mobile app on Android devices. There is no iOS app because the operating system prevents RescueTime from collecting the data it needs to perform its function. Those apps quietly and invisibly track which apps you use and which websites you visit, as well as the amount of time you spend on them.
The tough nut to crack is how to make sense of all that information. To get the best results, you must customize your account from the RescueTime website and tell the app more about what you consider productive versus unproductive activity. The more you fine-tune it to your particular circumstances, the better your results. For example, someone who works in the finances industry might classify reading financial news on sites such as MarketWatch and FT.com as a productivity task, whereas for me, that’s an unproductive use of time.
You can categorize every app and website on a 5-point scale of very productive, productive, neutral, unproductive, and very unproductive. You can also categorize activity into work categorizes. For example, I list Google Docs as very productive, and I categorized it as Writing, which is a subcategory of Design and Composition. Looking at Redfin.com is very distracting when I’m trying to work, and I’ve categorized it as such.
From the desktop app, there’s a simple set of controls that lets you pause RescueTime for 15 minutes, one hour, or until tomorrow, giving you easy access to switching the app off for breaks or days when you wrap up early.
Much of the value you get from RescueTime comes from what you make of the data and how you use that information to influence your own behavior. Changing behavior is hard, but getting rich insights doesn’t have to be.
One of the ways RescueTime makes it easy to understand how to interpret all the data it collects is with a Productivity Pulse score. This daily score, shown as a percent, comes from calculating the percent of time spent on very productive, productive, neutral, unproductive, and very unproductive tasks. To be clear, no one is advocating you aim for a 100 percent Productivity Pulse score.
A RescueTime blog post explaining the productivity score notes that the average score is 67 percent, and the in-house average is 79 percent. Most people need to do some work that isn’t considered “very productive” during their day. The whole point of using RescueTime is to help you figure out how to focus on productive and very productive tasks when you need to and perhaps save less productive activities for times when your ability to focus was waning anyway.
Less productive tasks are not the same thing as distractions. RescueTime has a simple and smart feature for curbing unwanted behavior, such as getting sucked into distracting websites, too. A feature called FocusTime, when enabled, blocks your ability to access certain websites for a period of time you specify. It takes a little setting up and customization, but once it’s ready to deploy, it’s quite effective. As an example, let’s say you want to to finish a report, and to make progress on it, you really need to focus hardcore for at least the next 30 minutes. Switch on FocusTime, and it can block you from looking at email, posting on Twitter, checking sports scores, or whatever other sites and activities you deem distracting.
The RescueTime mobile app has a setting that will automatically silence your phone whenever you enable FocusTime. Likewise, you can set up other automation with the help of third-party services IFTTTFree at iTunes Store and Zapier to block or silence other distractions. For example, you can create a rule using IFTTT (it stands for “if this, then that”) that says, “If I enable FocusTime, then automatically set my Slack status to busy.”
RescueTime also gives you the option to log time computer idle time. Any time RescueTime notices the computer has been idle for several minutes in a row, it pops up a dialog asking if you were at a meeting, on the phone, taking break, and so on, and lets you classify the idle time accordingly.
I’ve used RescueTime for years, and I don’t check my productivity reports every day. I like to let the service run in the background so that when I do want to get a better picture of how I’ve been spending my time, a good amount of information is waiting for me.
When I do go through the reports, however, they are magnificent. I love the variety, giving you get multiple ways of understanding your productivity and habits, from bar graphs and pie charts that show lump sums of activity, to line items of applications you used.
One simple but effective piece of information RescueTime provides is an analysis of when during the day you tend to be the most productive. I wasn’t surprised to see that my brain peaks in the morning and slacks off after 2:00 p.m., as that fits pretty well with what I know about my habits. If you’ve never analyzed your productivity, however, that might be a useful revelation for you, one that might help you schedule your days more productively.
The longer you use RescueTime Premium, the more useful the data becomes, because you can view your statistics by day, week, month, or year. And as you might expect, you can toggle which days and times RescueTime records your activity so that it turns off automatically on weekends, for example.
When faced with RescueTime’s proposition—We’ll track everything you do and give you insights about your habits!—some people may, justifiably, worry about their privacy and the security of information on their hardware. If you work with sensitive information online or store sensitive information on your computers and mobile devices, you’ll want to read RescueTime’s privacy and security statements closely.
If your concerns are more relaxed and you simply don’t want RescueTime tracking you on the weekend, you have control over the days and times the app monitors your behavior. You can easily set it to only watch your activity from 8:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. Monday through Friday, or whatever schedule suits you.
PROTECT YOUR PRODUCTIVE TIME
RescueTime is an outstanding tool for anyone who wants to make the most of their time. Whether you’ve got a Twitter habit you need to kick or you just want insight into your habits, and time-management skills, this is the tool for you. RescueTime is a rare five-star product and one of the best productivity tools I’ve ever tested.