Thanks for visiting my blog. Hope you find some helpful hints for organizing your time and space. My passions are to help you make home a refuge instead of a crisis center, and to help you function in peace rather than chaos - at home or at work. I have switched my main blog to 1-2-3 ... Get Organized on WordPress, so please visit me there.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Tools to Track Your Computer Time

Need to track your billable hours or want to be more accountable for how you spend your computer time? Alina Dizik reviews software options in her article "Services to Help Us Stop Dawdling Online," which appeared in the Wall Street Journal on 1/28/2010, p. D2:

"Even after spending hours behind a computer screen, we're often surprised by how little we get done during a workday.

Indeed, frittering time away is epidemic in the office: A 2007 survey of 2,000 workers from Salary.com Inc., a Web site that provides compensation data, found that Americans waste about 20% of their time at work; with 34.7% of those surveyed saying surfing the Internet is the biggest distraction.

An emerging crop of software now aims to make individuals more conscious of how they spend their screen time. Previously meant for free-lancers looking to keep track of billable hours, software developers are realizing that time-management applications are useful for anyone who wants to track which Web sites they visit and how much of their day is spent on certain work tasks or computer applications.

Some services record and categorize users' computer activities—often allowing workers to classify chunks of time as either productive or unproductive. Other services operate by having users set goals for how much they'll get done in a set period of time.

While it is easy to see how hours spent on YouTube or Facebook can crush your productivity, time-management experts say one of the biggest culprits is the constant transitioning from one computer-based task to another.

"Multi-tasking is a complete myth," says Peter Bregman, a time-management expert and chief executive of Bregman Partners Inc., a management-consulting company. "We lose time in the switch from one task to another," since it takes time for the brain to adjust to each project.

Tony Wright co-founder of Seattle-based RescueTime Inc., a time-tracking software company, agrees. In an October data audit, Mr. Wright found that RescueTime users switch to an instant message window 71 times per day, which means every 5.2 minutes or 11.5 times per hour. Users to the site visit an average of 57 Web sites or applications per day, he says.

To track our productivity, we tested four online services for a week each: RescueTime, Slife, Klok and ManicTime. Each site provided an eye-opening look at our workday without too much of a hassle. We also found that just knowing our activities were being watched made us a bit less likely to dawdle on non-work-related sites. But the services themselves required some upkeep—which, ironically, took time away from our work.

After signing up for a free two-week trial of RescueTime Pro (usually $5.30 per month), the software downloaded quickly and showed up on our task bar. The site recorded our activities accurately, assigned them to categories and put them into graphs. Some of the findings were surprising: When looking at the day's graph on a random Friday, for example, we realized we spent about 10 minutes of every hour reading the news.

But we thought some of the category titles—such as "Business"—were a bit vague. "We're still chipping away to distill this stuff into something actionable," says RescueTime's Mr. Wright. We liked the feature that let us designate individual sites and applications as productive or unproductive. Additionally, each time our computer was idle and we returned to our desk we were prompted to say whether our task away from the computer was work related, like a phone call, or something that shouldn't be recorded, like a trip to the fridge for a snack.

Klok doesn't automatically track what you do on the computer (so no Internet connection is required). Instead, it asks users to set tasks for themselves throughout the day to help manage projects. Then users note when they start and stop each project, making it easy to compare your goals to reality. One morning, for example, we saw that a writing assignment took 3½-hours instead of the two we thought it should. We also realized we did far fewer tasks than anticipated each day.

Overall, the service helped us get more tasks done because setting goals required us to think through how we would build our days' work. Tasks can be broken up into subcategories, making larger projects seem more manageable. But it was a bit of a pain to remember to notify the service every time we stopped and started a task. And even when we did make sure to mark our stop time, the service sometimes didn't register it, making our data inaccurate. Rob McKeown, co-founder of Mcgraphix Inc., which developed Klok, says this issue will be resolved in the next version.

Next up was Slife. The service costs $5 per month, but a 30-day trial is free. To sign up for the trial, however, we had to provide a credit-card number. (A redesign will soon enable users to log on without one, says Edison Thomaz founder of Atlanta-based Slife Labs LLC.) After a quick download, we could see an icon on our task bar. Clicking on the icon took us to various time-management graphs, which were easy to read. The software lets users customize their own categories, such as news or research. You can also add labels to specify your activity even further, such as detailing what kind of research is being done.

During one particularly unproductive day, the service showed us that we spent 22 minutes on Twitter, 40 minutes on Facebook and almost three hours on email. There was also a "private" mode that turned the tracking function off, allowing us to browse frivolous stuff guilt-free.

One big headache was that we were often randomly bounced off the Slife service, causing it to miss some of our activities and requiring us to repeatedly log in. (Mr. Thomaz says Slife is working on fixing the problem.)

ManicTime, a desktop program that only runs on Windows systems, was next. Our computer usage was tracked with line and bar graphs; we could color code activities and tags to better understand how we spent our time. That made it clear that email was our biggest time waster. (Though the service doesn't distinguish between work and non-work related emails.)

One nice feature: The service spit out a summary showing what percentage of our total time was spent with each application (like a Microsoft Word document) or Web site. The graphs also showed when our computer was idle, which helped us see how many little breaks we tend to take throughout the day.

All in all, the services really helped us get a handle on how we spend our work time. And having a written account of where our minutes went pushed us to modify our work habits—and get more done. The guilt element was motivating, too: Just knowing that the length of our Facebook session was going to be recorded made us think twice about lingering.



$5 per month; Mac, Windows, Internet needed.Web site tracking; categorizes activities; allows additional notes; displays activities with graphs.Need credit card for sign-up; "private" mode for non-work-related use helped us more accurately measure work time.
RescueTime Pro


$5.30 per month; Mac, Windows, Internet not always needed.Allows productivity alerts; tracks time away from computer; tracks applications and sites with graphs.Simple task bar made it easy to frequently monitor our productivity.


Free download; Windows only; Internet not needed.Graphs are color-coded by activity; tagging system to designate productivity; tracks time away from computer.Clean interface made it easy to see our daily workload; tagging system was a bit complicated.


Free download; Windows, Mac, Internet not neededCan drag tasks onto calendar; tasks have subcategories so can be easily broken down into manageable pieces; doesn't track the Web sites you've visited. Simple organization; It was tough to notify the service that we had stopped a task."

More on time management:
Trivial and Strategic Interruptions
Increasing Your Effectiveness at Work
Three Steps to Time Management at the Office