The Problem with Rescue Time

Last June I wrote a post outlining my typical day, with the post-end call to action to bring more balance into my life, specifically by not working so many hours. Back then, I was typically sleeping 4-5 hours per night, working 7 days a week (that was a very unhealthy 120 hours per week), and very rarely taking time out to spend time with family or friends.

I haven’t solved the problem — far from it — but it has gotten a little better. On average these days I work about 80 hours a week. I try to make sure that involves taking at least a little time off over the weekend to get outside away from the computer. Having my mom live nearby now makes this easier: 1) if she calls and asks me to do something with her, I feel guilty saying no, and 2) if I drive to the store I often stop to say hi since she lives across the street. So that forces me to get out a little more. Starting the WordPress meetup group in Savannah also creates a little enforced interaction, though it’s not exactly a break from work to spend 2 hours helping people learn to use WordPress. I also started using Rescue Time, and I try to force myself to stop working before I hit 80 hours. There’s a problem with measuring yourself with Rescue Time, though. Several problems, actually. Here’s the chart for me for the past week:

My efficiency compared to othersMy efficiency throughout the day

The first problem is not that big a deal. My job involves reading, commenting, and writing on a lot of blogs. hosts more than 100 private P2s for the company, and though I don’t track all of them, I’m in and out of quite a few. By default, Rescue Time thinks blogs are Very Distracting, so unless I go in and change the status on individual sites that are work-related, a lot of my work blog stuff gets inaccurately rated, hurting my efficiency rating.

The second problem is the thing that really bugs me. Mornings are really efficient for me. No one else is awake usually, since I start working at 6:30am right after I make Morgan’s lunch and send her off to school. My routine involves playing whatever TV downloaded the night before while I blast through the accumulated emails and P2 posts from work blogs (this is also the default for a chunk of my weekend work time). I get an email with every Trac comment/commit, every P2 post from the team blogs that I do follow, plus all the email I get from WordPress community members.

Trac and P2 emails don’t usually require my full attention to skim through, deleting the stuff that doesn’t require follow-up and saving the stuff that does. I spend an hour (or sometimes 2, depending on how busy the other side of the world was while I slept) doing this initial skim propped up in bed with my laptop while half-watching some show or other. Because I use a Mac, I have the handy ability to act on the mail and/or browser windows with two-finger scroll, even when that window is not in focus, just by hovering over an area of display. This means, for example, that I can make the Quicktime window be bigger by having it in focus/on top of the mail/browser chrome, so that my peripheral vision picks up more of the visual story while I power through the inbox, deleting away though it’s never brought into focus.

Rescue Time tracks the in focus window. So despite clearing though a hundred or two emails and reading through a few dozen P2 threads, Rescue Time thinks I’m just watching Very Distracting video, not doing any work.

This also hits me if I grab a sketchbook to draw some ideas for a UI or to make lists. If I’m doing that, I’ll often put in focus so that if I don’t like a song I can skip it more quickly, or I’ll pull up one of those downloaded TV episodes so I can listen while I draw (I try to have ambient sound at least half the day, so I don’t go into hermit mode more than I already do).

Does it really matter that the tracking isn’t completely accurate or representative? No. Whether it thinks I’m 80% efficient or 60% or 30%, I know how much I get done in a day. And I still need to ratchet down the number of hours I work, and rather quickly if I’m going to get down to the equivalent of one full-time job before the Jitterbug opens. Still, I’m enough of a Type A that getting an email that downplays what I’ve done rankles just enough to matter. So I might stop using Rescue Time. Right after I get the weekly summary down to 50 hours per week or less.