Rescuing Time

I currently mentor a small software development team composed of a project manager, one mid-level developer, a junior database administrator and a quality assurance specialist. For the last month I’ve been exploring methods to increase their productivity using RescueTime.

Start with Goals

If you are not making the progress that you would like to make and are capable of making, it is simply because your goals are not clearly defined.   - Paul J. Meyer

I started out with a very modest goal: have the team spend at least 6 hours per day doing actual work.

My back-of-the-napkin computation was that that given an eight-hour work day with 75% efficiency, I’d get 6 hours. Now, admittedly this is not the best way to come up with a measure of efficiency since task times don’t always coincide with efficiency.

By accounting for productivity, RescueTime also gives you the option to be allot time for un-productivity. Un-productivity is termed as “all distracting time”. This math leads to 2 hours per day. Now justifying ¼ of the day allocated to distracting activities is hard, but the optimist likes to see it as ¾ of the day going to productive tasks.

Since this is an initial setup before the actual collection of data, the numbers here don’t need to be very accurate and a ballpark figure is enough to get you started.

Scheduling and Team Setup

Adding team members is easy, simply go to Settings -> Users -> Add Users. Enter their email addresses and send off the invites. When they receive the invite, there’ll be a link of verify and complete the sign-up process. After signing up, they’ll be instructed to download a tracker.

The RescueTime tracker is a very low-resource tracker that monitors the front-most application. This allows music players to reside in the background and not interfere with the data collection. The collection focuses on the application name, web address (if a browser is used), and the document name (for office applications). You also have the option to restrict the collection and focus on a white list.

Offline Time

Not all time is spent on a computer, and RescueTime provides a way to track it. After 5 minutes a prompt shows up asking your team to record the event. You are given 6 custom fields to track these.

The other benefit of RescueTime is that the data collector will work without an active internet connection. Once it detects a working connection, it’ll sync the data back up to the cloud.

Managing Categories and Schedules

There are 11 main categories tracked:
  1. Business
  2. Communication & Scheduling
  3. Social Networking
  4. Design & Composition
  5. Entertainment
  6. News & Opinion
  7. Reference & Learning
  8. Software Development
  9. Shopping
  10. Utilities
  11. Un-categorized
Each Category has a list of sub-categories. You can also add custom sub-categories. At the moment, I haven’t found a way add custom main categories, however the 11 categories above seem to capable of tracking all the activities of my team.

Schedules allow you to setup custom schedules for your team members. This is particularly useful if you have different work schedules. Alternatively, I found it easier to setup a general 7am to 8pm schedule and track all 8 hours of activity within the time range.

At First Collect Data, Then Rank & Categorise

By design, RescueTime will immediately start giving you feedback about your team. It’s very tempting to start hyper-organising the Categories and start calling out un-productivity. But remember, you set up goals initially. So let the data come in, and give your team the opportunity to start understanding their own productivity.

Once you’ve collected at least a week of data, start off by fixing up the categorisation. Depending on your teams tasks, different categories and sub-categories are attributed weights.
  • Very Productive: +2 for productivity
  • Productive: +1 for productivity
  • Neutral: 0 for productivity
  • Distracting: -1 for productivity
  • Very Distracting: -2 for productivity

You can go further and rank individual tasks. For example, if your team does social media work for a particular Facebook Page, that can receive a Very Productive score, while browsing in general will give them a Very Distracting Score.

Then Analyse

Once all the ranking and categorising is completed, it’ll start giving an idea of how productive your team is, where they can improve. It’s very important that from the beginning that you encourage an environment of trust. RescueTime might feel intrusive, but the idea is to give them a tool to help track their time. I set out a general rule that I wouldn’t use this data as a way to implement "big-brother” like conditions, but rather as a way of allowing them to understand their own time management.


The results have been incredibly fantastic. I started noticing a ~20% increase overall within a week of rolling it out. Tasks assigned are now completed on time, proactive work is being done more often, and most surprisingly I found team members would now prefer to consume more development related a content, including tutorial videos, over using distracting sites.
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