How I Used RescueTime to Baseline My Activity in 2014 and Set Goals for 2015

Since early in the year, I have been using Rescue Time on all of my computers to track how much time I spend in various applications, websites, and documents. Rescue Time is great because you install it, and it runs in the background, without ever needing me to take any action. Like a FitBit device, it just collects data as I go about my day. Rescue Time has a nice reporting interface, but it also has a very useful API that allows me to pull specific data and look at it interesting ways.

Tracking the time I spend writing

For instance, I’ve always wanted to get a good measurement of the time I spend writing each day. That said, I didn’t want to have to remember to “clock-in” or “clock-out.” It seemed to me that Rescue Time could help with this because it is constantly tracking my activity, and Rescue Time should therefore be able to tell me how much time I spend writing. After some exploration of the API, I found out how to pull the information I needed from Rescue Time, and now, I have scripts that can automatically produce a chart of the time I spend writing each day. Here’s an example of the last 60 days of my writing:

Time Spend Writing

The top 10 tools I’ve used in 2014

As part of my effort to simplify the tools and technology I use, and to automate as much as I can, a baseline of what exactly I use would be a helpful starting point. Fortunately, RescueTime captures all of this data and has some canned reports that show just where I’ve spent my time in front of they keyboard. I started using RescueTime in January, so this data covers a period of January to the present, nearly a full year. Here, then, are the top 10 tools I’ve used on all computers during that time.

RescueTime - All Activities
Click to enlarge

Twitter is number one on the list, and while that surprised me at first, I quickly realized that I am constantly jumping in and out of Twitter, in an effort to keep up with those friends and colleagues that I follow. (I rarely post from Twitter. I use Buffer for that.) Still, 221 hours for the better of the year is quite a bit of time spent in Twitter. Red items are those that Rescue Time considers “unproductive.” Twitter can certainly be a distraction, but I wouldn’t consider all of it unproductive.

Next on the list at 219 hours, much to my dismay, is Microsoft Outlook. This is what I use at the day job, and it is among the worst email programs I’ve encountered. The thing is, I’ve also been using it since it first existed, and there’s no way of getting away from it. What it tells me is that a great deal of my job–too much, I think–is spent dealing with email messages, and calendar appointments.

Google Docs is next on the list at 205 hours. The vast majority of this time–probably 90% or more–is spent writing. Ideally, I’d like to see this move up to number one over the next year.

Gmail follows at 169 hours. It’s still a lot of time to be spending reading and writing email messages, but that number is almost certainly down from what it would have been the previous year, thanks to a great deal of automation I’m able to do with Gmail using tools like Boomerang, for instance.

From there, things begin to drop off pretty rapidly. Facebook shows up in 7th place, but even that seems like too much to me.

Using the RescueTime baseline to find more time to write

With actual numbers in hand based on my behavior, I can begin to change my behavior and measure that change over time. First and foremost on the list is a tradeoff: more writing time for less social media time.

My Twitter and Facebook time totaled 310 hours in 2014 to-date. My writing time totaled under 200 hours. I could easily get more time for writing by cutting back on social media. Cutting back doesn’t necessarily mean no participating. Tools like Buffer have allowed me to schedule tweets and Facebook posts head of time. Whenever I post to my blog, it gets automatically posted to various social media outlets. What I think I need to do is make better use of the time I spend reading my social media feeds.

Right now, I read stuff throughout the day in a very fragmented fashion. I only follow people on Twitter that I am interested in keeping up with. I know that conventional wisdom is that if you want more followers, you follow everyone. But I honestly don’t know how people with 17,000 followers and who follow 19,000 people can keep up with it all. Probably they don’t even try to. Yes, there are lists that I could build, but that takes time to create and manage, and I’m looking to spend less time here, not more.

It seems to me that a fair number would be to spend half of the time in social media that I spend on writing. This year, the hours for both categories gives me a total of about 500 hours. So if I have 500 hours to spend between social media and writing, and I want to spend double the time writing than on social media, then let’s assume w represents the time I want to spend writing:

0.5w + w = 500

This simplifies to:

1.5w = 500

And solving for w, we find that,

w = 333.3

So in 2015, if I aim for a 333 hours of writing, I need to keep my social media time down to about 167 hours. Going from 310 hours to 167 is a pretty big drop. On the other hand, 167 hours equals about 27 minutes each and every day of the years.

And so, I now know that I need to keep my social media time down to about 25 minutes per day. Doing this frees up enough time to allow me to increase my writing time from 200 hours/year (about 32 minutes per day on average) to 333 hours per year (about 54 minutes per day).

What’ the difference between 32 minutes of writing per day and 54 minutes per day. My writing metrics over the last 625 days tells me that I write about 1,500 words per hour. Writing an average of 32 minutes per day comes to about 795 words per day. Writing 54 minutes per day means writing about 1,365 words per day.

That might not seem like much of a difference, but look at it spread over a year:

  • 32 minutes/day = 228,125 words per year
  • 54 minutes/day = 498,225 words per year

Going from just under a quarter of a million words per year, to a hair under half a million words per year seems like a good trade off of time, especially given that I am not giving up social media, I’m just cutting the time down to a more reasonable level.

The great thing about using data for this solution is that it demonstrates that I already have the 500 hours/year to spend between social media and writing. It’s just a matter of how I want to spend it.

I’m not worried about the discipline of it. As of today, I’ve written for 481 consecutive days, and 625 out of the last 627 days. Spending less time on social media virtually guarantees more time spent writing.

Starting small

There are other obvious places I could tackle. I was surprised that Google Analytics appeared on the list. I hadn’t realized I was spending so much time in the tool. But I’ve found that what works best for me is to start small. Pick one thing to change and work on that change steadily. In my case, that change is to become more efficient on social media so that I spend less time there, and more time writing.

The need for a baseline

Having a baseline is critical for this. The baseline allows me to continuously monitor my progress over time and make adjustments as necessary. And the baseline has to be accurate. When I look at the actual number of words I’ve written so far in 2014, I see that it comes to about 266,000 words. My baseline says it should be around 228,000 words, a difference of about 14%, but still fairly accurate, especially when adjusting for the time in January when I was not using Rescue Time. Certainly, I trust my numbers, and since my writing stats are collected automatically every day, I can keep track of both time spent writing and word counts. Meanwhile, Rescue Time will keep me informed of how much time I’m spending on social media.

I couldn’t have figured this out without first spending nearly a year allowing RescueTime to collect data about how I work. The time period is long enough to capture me through all of my different phases of work, when I’m hot and when I’m cold, and everything in between. I have no doubt that I have 500 hours to work with and I can make better use of that time.

The problem with a baseline is that it does take time to gather, but the information that I’ve gather from it, had proven invaluable to me.


    1. Michael, I made my writing tracker scripts freely available on GitHub to anyone who wants to use them. Since I do all of my writing in Google Docs, they are optimized for that, but recently I made changes that allows them to work with text-based files (.txt, .csv, .md, etc.) stored on Google Drive. And I am slowly working on a version that will also support Scrivener files. The major downside is that it is a little tricky to get setup. But once setup, you can write and forget about it. The scripts track everything automatically. If you use RescueTime, there are instructions for how to capture time-spent writing through the RescueTime API.

  1. This is great, Jamie! I’ve been using RescueTime in the background for a few months, and haven’t really taken the time to dig into the analytics of my actions. I feel better about that now, because at least I’m building up a baseline I can work off of later on. Thanks for sharing your process!

  2. Jamie, do you keep MS Outlook open all of the time? If so, are the MS Outlook numbers from Rescue Time counting the time the app is open or just when you focus on the app? If it only collects data when an app is focused, wouldn’t duel monitors skew this data as well?



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