I've been on a productivity kick lately, trying to figure out how I manage so few hours of hacking on my projects and so many hours wasting time web surfing. I mentioned a failed experiment offloading web surfing to the iPad. The other thing I've been doing is running time tracking software, the web based RescueTime and the Windows app TimeSnapper. They're both useful.

Both programs watch what what software you use on your computer during the day and then give you reports of your usage classifying time as productive or non-productive. TimeSnapper's special feature is recording screenshots every 10 seconds and letting you review your day. RescueTime's special feature is community-based classification so that it already knows that github.com is productive time whereas 4chan.com is not. Thanks to these tools I now know (for instance) that I spend nearly an hour a day on Metafilter. Ouch!

The virtue and the failing of these tools is they are mostly passive recorders; they are great for monitoring behaviour, not modifying it. A lot of productivity guides suggest some sort of action to say "I am working now"; punching into a time clock, starting a 30 minute timer, etc. That works for me at times but it also makes hacking feel like more of a chore than I would like. (I envy Ben Franklin.)

One thing I dislike is the monitors often report bad news. TimeSnapper's primary report is a "Productivity Grade" where some days I rank 20%, 30%: talk about a failure! RescueTime's report shows the average user is "0.52 efficient", not a very auspicious goal. It's just a language problem but it seems important.

Another drawback of these tools is privacy: they record every program and website you use. There's ways to mitigate disclosure: temporarily switch monitoring off, encrypt TimeSnapper screenshots, tell RescueTime not to record specific websites. RescueTime has found a market as a tool to let managers snoop on their employees (with disclosure). Useful, but also a bit creepy.

My free month of TimeSnapper is up and I won't be paying $25 for it. It's a good tool and the screenshots are nifty and occasionally useful. But it takes a lot of disk space and the reports aren't so useful. I'm going to invest a bit more time (and $6/month) into RescueTime, I think I have more to learn from it.

  2011-04-17 17:25 Z