We're all occasionally guilty of a little time-wasting (hey, distraction can be a good thing), but if your day keeps ending before half your work is done, you probably need to manage your time better. Here's how, with a simple time-tracking tool and just seven days, I reclaimed my work time and significantly decreased my stress level in the process.
You probably waste more of your workday than you realise, whether it's goofing off watching YouTube videos, socialising on Facebook, or just spending too much time on the wrong tasks. I've struggled with this a bit myself, realising that once the day was over, I didn't get half the stuff done I wanted to -- but I had no idea where all that time had gone. I realised that before I could fix the problem, I had to figure out where I was wasting all that time in the first place.
So, I turned to time tracking application RescueTime, which records how much time you spend in certain programs and on certain web sites, and found it kept me accountable to how I was spending my time. I could see how I was spending every minute of the day, and point out where I was wasting more time than I realised -- whether it was a half hour on Reddit I didn't intend, or a half hour tweaking one paragraph in a post when other, more important work was calling. The great thing about RescueTime is that it requires barely any work to set up, and you can have a pretty efficient system churning in about a week, most of which you'll spend doing what you normally do -- working. Here's how I did it, and how you too can get that wasted time back in just a week.
Day One: Set Up RescueTime
You can't start organising your time until you've had a day or two's worth of data, so the only thing you'll do on day one is install the program. It only takes a few minutes, after which you can get back to work.
Just head to RescueTime's website, hit the Get Started button, and choose your account type. A free account is fine for most people, though for a few bucks a month a pro account will get you extra features like web site blocking, alerts, and individual document tracking (RescueTime free will track individual web sites, but not individual documents within programs like Microsoft Word). We won't go too deeply into the pro features today, but know that a free account comes with a 14-day trial of the pro version, so you can give those features a shot in the meantime.
After you've chosen your account type, give it a username and password, and download the installer when prompted. The wizard will ask you for a few activities you'd categorize as "productive" and "distracting", but I found this was a bit too general and didn't mean much in the long run, so you can skip it -- we'll come back to it later. Install RescueTime onto your machine, and start it up. It'll sit silently in your system tray, tracking your work until you turn it off. At any time, you can right-click on it and pause it for 15 minutes, pause it for 60 minutes, or pause it until tomorrow.
You probably don't want it running all day every day, so right-click on it and hit "Dashboard" to go to your RescueTime dashboard. Hit the Settings link in the upper right-hand corner, and go to the Monitoring tab. Here, you can tell it what days and times you want it to run. For example, I have it set to monitor me Monday through Friday from 7am to 5pm, since that's when I'm usually working. You can also set a few other miscellaneous settings here, if you prefer. I like to have all of the "Detailed Settings" checked so I get the most accurate results possible.
That's it! Save your settings and get back to work. Let it do its thing for a few days before you head back to the dashboard. You can pause it from the system tray when you go on your lunch breaks and whatnot, but other than that just leave it alone and let it do its job.
Day Two: Keep On Working
You could jump right into RescueTime on day two, but I like to have more than a day or half a day of data before I start messing with stuff. You're going to have to tweak a few things in your RescueTime dashboard once you accumulate data, and the more you've accumulated before you start tweaking, the less likely you'll have to go back and tweak it a second time later. Keep on doing what you do today, and come back on day three to start digging into RescueTime.
Day Three: Make Sense of Your Data
Now that you've got a few day's worth of data under your belt, it's time to make it actually mean something. Depending on your job, you might not have to make a few tweaks to RescueTime's settings to make sure it's accurate. Head into your RescueTime dashboard and take a quick look at the graphs and charts on the main page. You should see a few graphs and widgets that show you how you've spent your time this week. You can see more detailed versions of the graphs by clicking the tabs on the right-hand side of the screen, under "Time Reports". Here are some of the reports you can view:
- Overview: This is a simple graph of your activity based on very general categories. RescueTime organizes your activities into two sets of categories: we'll call them tier one ("Communication" or "Entertainment") and tier two ("Instant Messaging" or "Video"). The Overview page only breaks down your activity by tier one categories, colour-coding them by their productivity level -- blue for productive, red for distracting. We're going to tweak the productivity levels of each category in a bit, so don't worry if they're incorrect.
- Categories: This is a slightly more detailed version of the overview, separating the graph bars by tier two categories, like "Meetings", "News/Opinion", "Calendars", or "Social Networking". Again, each bar is colour-coded by that category's productivity level.
- Activities: This is the most useful section, showing you exactly what programs you use and web sites you visit, and how much time you spend on each. Once again, each is colour coded to show their supposed level of productivity.
- Efficiency: This chart is just a single bar with your "efficiency" percentage on it -- that is, the percentage of your time spent doing productive things. I generally ignore this, since it doesn't really "mean" anything -- it's more important to see how you're actually spending your time rather than viewing an obscure measure of how "productive" you are.
- Goals: This section lets you set goals for yourself, like "Spend less than 1 hour a day on distracting activities". You can add more complicated goals, though, too -- like "spend less than 1.5 hours a day on graphic design" if, say, you're spending too much time on that portion of your work and not getting enough done in other areas.
From each report's page, you can view the graphs over different time periods, like by day, week, month, or year. Just click on a time period in the upper right-hand corner to change it. You can also look below the graph to see more detailed descriptions of each category or activity RescueTime has logged.
As you look at the Activities section, you'll probably notice that RescueTime is mislabeling a lot of your productive activities as distracting, or vice versa. For example, I found that a large portion of my time was spent in IM and chat, which makes sense -- since that's how I communicate with most of my coworkers -- but RescueTime kept reporting this as "distracting", which is really incorrect in the context of my job. To change this, hit the "Categorize Activities" link on the right side of the page. From here, you can change an activity's productivity level with the plus and minus signs on the right side of each row.
It also might have no idea what a specific application does. Previously mentioned site-specific browser Webrunner, for example, could be anything -- in my case, it was our editor chat room. So, to tell RescueTime what this was, I had to change its category from the dropdown menu in the middle, in addition to its productivity level.
If you're noticing that you're tweaking a lot of stuff within one category -- for example, if your job requires the use of social networking, but it's labelling all social networking sites as "distracting" -- then you can tweak entire categories from the Settings menu. Hit Settings at the top of the page, then go to the Categories tab. From here you can add your own categories and change the productivity level of existing categories. You should see your graphs on the front page immediately reflect any changes you make here, so your TweetDeck, Facebook, and Google+ activities will all change without you having to edit them individually.
Once you've gone through and made some tweaks, you should notice that your graphs on the front page are a bit more indicative of how you're spending your day, how productive you're being, and where your weak points are. Take note of your most distracting tasks and see if it improves your workflow tomorrow -- knowing where you waste your time is half the battle. Heck, I've found that the little RescueTime icon in the corner of my screen is motivation enough to stay off Facebook.
Days Four-Six: Keep Working; Tweak if Necessary
Once again, there's no reason to rush here. Keep working for the rest of the week as you normally would. If you want to check back in with your dashboard on day five or so, that's probably a good idea -- to make sure you didn't miss any miscategorised items on day three -- but overall, just keep on working. The key is to see what the patterns in your work are, and it's hard to do that after only a few days. We'll come back on the last day to see what we can extract from 7 days worth of data.
Day Seven: Tweak, Review and Reassess
Of course, all this will mean nothing if you don't review it from time to time. Once you've got your categories straight and your graphs are starting to look somewhat accurate, start reviewing your dashboard every few days. Generally, I'll look at it once or twice a week, though if I've had a day where I felt particularly unproductive, I'll pull it up at the end of the day to see where I went wrong. Just make sure you're going over it on a regular basis if you want it to be effective.
As you review, there are a few things you'll want to watch out for. Obviously, you want to keep distracting activities to a minimum. Sure, a bit of personal web browsing can keep you energised and productive, but if Facebook is one of the more visited sites on your graphs, then you might want to make a mental note of that and cut back on the Facebooking. If you need extra motivation, you can even use the pro version of RescueTime to block it, or alert you to when you've spent too much time on that page.
More important, though, are the deceptive time-wasting activities that disguise themselves as work. Perfectionism is just as bad for productivity as distractions are, and spending too much time on one task can waste your entire day before you even realise its gone. When you review your dashboard, look closely at the activities list and see if certain "productive" items are higher on the list than they should be. I noticed, for example, that Flickr was a bit too high on the list some days. On these days, I was spending so much time looking for the "perfect image" for one of my posts, to the point where I was wasting time. In just a few minutes, I could have had an image and moved on, but kept looking to see if there was something better. Again, the sentiment is nice, but perfectionism is a big detriment to productivity.
The whole point of this is to make you more aware of how you're spending your workday, and if you're wasting time on tasks that should only take a few minutes, that's important to know. That way, the next time you're knee-deep in an unimportant task you can snap yourself out of it and move onto something more worthwhile.
Note: Pay close attention to your RescueTime system tray icon. I usually keep mine visible at all times, by clicking "Customize" in the system tray and setting RescueTime's icon to "Show Icon and Notifications". That way you always know when it's running. If you're jumping away from the computer for a bit, pause it -- otherwise it might log whatever program you've left open until it goes to sleep, and that can mess with your data.
We haven't delved into every single thing RescueTime can do, but this should get you started and help you see where you might be losing time during the day. It might seem a little intense to track your every move during the day, but in the end you may find (like I did) that you're more productive, more efficient, and that work is much less stressful. Have you ever used a time tracking application? Let us know what it did for you in the comments.