PhD Tools: RescueTime for Time Tracking

[This is part of a series on the tools I used to write my PhD. Check out the other parts here.]

RescueTime is a passive activity tracker for what you do on your laptop (or Android phone -- limitations in Apple's iOS mean that it's not possible to have the same detail in app usage tracking from iPhones and iPads). It sits in the background, watching where you spend your time. You can visit the website to see your stats, or it also sends you a weekly summary of what you did.

I've experimented with various kinds of activity and time trackers in the past, and my experience is that if you have to actively turn it on and off when you start and stop what you're doing, you'll probably forget. Also, that method of time tracking isn't particularly good at noting when you go down a hole of Youtube distraction that one time you have to search for something online. With RescueTime, you can be sure to be delivered an accurate summary of all the ways you are inefficient and wasting your time. (So much shame).

So it's good for tracking the amount of time you're writing (tasks are rated from very unproductive to very productive on a 5-point scale) and it's good for tracking what sites you're visiting during the day. This can be linked up to other sites, like Beeminder, to enforce some kind of time limit. RescueTime also has a version of site blocking where you can say, for example, if I spend over 1 hour on "very distracting time" or "watching videos", block all my internet for the next 3 hours (or something like that). Or you can hook it up to Beeminder and say, as I did, if I'm not writing for 2 hours every day (as in, actually typing and adding words to the page (it knows when you're staring at a page versus actually typing, by the way) ) then take my money.

A lot of your PhD writeup and research will probably be digital-based, so RescueTime is ideal for keeping you honest as to exactly how much work you're getting done. It's easy to have a false sense of all the hours of work you're supposedly doing.

You can keep a little window open somewhere on your screen that shows your real-time 'productivity score' (also compared with the previous day or week). That way, if you're at all competitive, you'll try to beat your own score and try to keep your score high. It may seem stupid, but these little tricks are unfortunately necessary in some cases, particularly when dealing with a long multi-year project. You don't get any marks for having developed a useful workflow that allows you to get your work done, but still, PhDs are as much a test of your ability to carry out this kind of long-term research as they are a test of your specific research skills and argumentative/analytic capability.

One other thing I used from the RescueTime features: internet autoblock first thing in the day. This was before I discovered Freedom App (more later on this), mind, but it was a good substitute. I found that if I somehow managed to hold off from using the internet in the mornings, then my work day would be measurably better (better meaning I actually wrote things and got engaged in the tasks at hand instead of falling down some rabbit hole of distraction, or responding to some "urgent" email). So I set up RescueTime to turn off the internet for 2 hours once my computer had been on and active for 1 minute each day. That way, by the time my laptop had started up and I was ready to do things, the internet was already off. I'll talk more about how it's useful to turn off the internet in a separate whole post on "Deep Work" in a few days. Another good setting: allocating 30 minutes or 1 hour to "very distracting" sites per day. That way you have some leeway to waste time, but not enough that it's going to markedly ruin your ability to work that day.

RescueTime is free for most of the features I described above. Anyone working as a writer/academic etc of some kind ought probably to have it installed, I think, if only to be more aware of how they're spending their time. Go try it out! It's free so you have no excuse!