Wondering Where The Time Goes? Try RescueTime [App Review]

February 14, 2012 | by Jamie Maltman

Android App Reviews, Android Apps, Productivity


Evaluated version: 2.2.1

Pros: Awareness of Time

Cons: No Distraction Blocker for Android

Smartphones are amazing devices and put so much power into your hands. Power that can be used productively, to learn, to connect, or to have fun. With all this choice, and all the potential notifications lurking, it is also exponentially easier to get distracted.

How many times have you picked up your Android device to do one quick activity, and half an hour later you’re scratching your head trying to figure out what that was after reading three e-mails, responding to a Tweet, checking Facebook and your RSS feeds, updating three apps from the Market, and maybe rounding it out with your favorite new casual game.

I’m lucky that I have my wife to sternly remind me that I completely forgot to do whatever it was I intended in the first place, but that still doesn’t get me my 30 minutes back. Multiply this cycle – what some people call “the loop” – once an hour or several times per day and you’re losing a lot of potential productive time. So what are we to do with all this power, but a complete lack of self-discipline? How do you reclaim your precious minutes?

Enter RescueTime with their solution to this over-abundance of choice and connectedness. An automatic time and attention tracker, it helps you figure out where you’re spending time, and change some of these habits to get more focused and productive.

The desktop version has been popular for a while, and the Android version extends that capability to your mobile device. They work together within one account that you can review from either device. You choose which of the categories you consider most productive, most wasteful, and neutral. These affect the color-coding in the reports and drive the efficiency score.

Once enabled, it tracks how long you spend in each of your apps and on phone calls, and actually reports back to you with:
- an efficiency score
- your top distractions
- details by application of where you have spent your time by app or by day
- and gives you the ability to drill deeper or create custom reports

One interesting feature is the ability to set up alerts with specific rules to nudge when you spend too much time on distrations or applaud you when you hit a focus goal. You can also use a built-in stopwatch to manually track how much time you spend in offline activities like meetings or excercise, and choose how to categorize that activity. In case you were worried, you can put it to sleep for a set amount of time or overnight, so it doesn’t skew your reports if you want to focus solely on your work day.

The Pro version of the service (which you can try for free for 14 days, and $9/month thereafter) adds:
- Detailed reporting down to the specific contact for phone calls or documents (PC version)
- Data history unlimited rather than 2 months with the free version.
- (PC) Offline time tracker and opt-in FocusTime distraction blocker

You may have heard about this kind of distraction blocking software from some productivity gurus, who have finally admitted to themselves that they need help to cut out the distractions. On the desktop version you can actually turn on FocusTime which restricts you from opening certain applications or visiting certain websites. You can even set up breaks where it will alert you when its time to get back to work. They certainly try to market this to companies, and you can imagine why, and is very useful for independent creative workers of any kind.

One limitation in the Android version that people want to see changed is that no matter which browser you use, it cannot track how much time you spend at particular websites. In the desktop version you can classify sites as productive vs non-productive. If you use the internet productively but also count it as your biggest weakness in terms of time spent on your mobile device,
then you won’t be able to get the full picture. The desktop version will be the better fit for you.

Many of you would probably be wondering how much battery and data usage is required by this kind of background app, and the developers have been continually working to make it more efficient on both fronts. You can set it to sync only over WiFi if you’re worried about your data plan, or even to track only phone calls.

One quibble is that when I installed on my handset, it took me several iterations of clicking on the confirmation e-mail before things came through properly. Once past that hurdle it it has happily run in the background without any noticeable additional battery drain, nor did it show up in the list of battery hogging background apps. The footprint was reasonable, about the same as Google Maps running in the background.

Ironically, I would say that after using it for a few days that my biggest gains in time and efficiency did not come from looking at the report to analyze my time, but come as a result of knowing that I can be looking over my own shoulder. The fact that the app is there made me more aware of my time, and pause and think twice before going into some potentially time-wasting routines. Have I been more productive? This post got finished, didn’t it?

Would you find an app like this useful? If you have used one, how much time have you been able to reclaim?