If you've ever wondered how many minutes a day you spend using Microsoft Outlook, Mozilla Thunderbird, or Gmail; or how much of your day is "wasted" by community Web sites such as Digg, Slashdot, or MetaFilter, a free application called RescueTime (also available for Mac) can track that information for you, while providing several other valuable features to monitor your time.
Monitoring productivity in the Internet age has become more complicated than ever, especially if you work online. E-mail, instant messaging, and multitasking keep many of us switching constantly between projects or contacts. RescueTime combines a local application with complementary Web-based software to track the time you spend with specific applications and Web sites, down to exact minutes and seconds.
Getting started with RescueTime is simple. You'll need to download and install the data collector and then sign up for an account on the RescueTime Web site in order to start tracking your productivity. The local software monitors your application/site usage, communicates with the Web service, and lets you manage your privacy and other program settings. The Web service provides the meat. That's where you can view your usage statistics (as well as slice, dice, and tag them), set productivity goals and alerts, and grab HTML widgets for monitoring your time without even visiting the RescueTime site.
Once you get the RescueTime monitoring software up and running, it will take about an hour for your statistics to show up on the Web site. As soon as you can manage your application/site data, it's smart to tag your applications and Web sites to create some meaning from the raw data. For example, I tagged the CNET blogging tool and my favorite text editor, NoteTab Light, with the tag "text," which means "hey, I'm writing here." Next, I tagged the Web-based Download.com catalog tool with "catalog" (duh), SnagIt and Adobe Photoshop as "images," and Outlook with "e-mail." You can see a snippet of my usage data from the RescueTime widget below.
For example, if you're concerned about sharing your Web browsing habits, you can enable a domain whitelist for tracking in the Privacy tab of the local RescueTime app. A domain whitelist is simply a text file with a list of Web sites. If you visit one of the sites on your whitelist, RescueTime will track it. All other Web sites will be grouped together in the data under "Other Web sites," which could be useful for browsers concerned about sharing their private surfing habits. You can also use the RescueTime Web service to exclude any specific applications or sites from its monitoring.
Similarly, you can ask RescueTime to only monitor domain-level URLs. That option means that the app will record that you visited Download.com, but not specifically the Kelly Clarkson Sex-E Screensaver. For security reasons, you can also set RescueTime to send updates to the Web service using the SSL protocol.
The communication between the local RescueTime client and the Web service is also completely transparent. To see the exact information that the software is sending online, visit the RescueTime.com folder in your Application Data directory within Local Settings. For XP users, the path is usually "C:\Documents and Settings\username\Local Settings\Application Data\RescueTime.com\logs\." For Vista users, it's generally "C:\Users\username\AppData\Local\RescueTime.com\logs\." The "uploaded" directory holds all logs already sent to RescueTime; the "pending" directory holds the logs waiting to be sent.
Most importantly, you can always turn off logging by either quitting the local RescueTime application, or right-clicking the RescueTime icon in your system tray and disabling logging. The default keyboard shortcut for enabling/disabling logging is Ctrl-Alt-L. In my specific case, I have corporate monitoring and remote-access software on my work machine anyway, so I have no PC privacy to lose. Those users who consider installing and using RescueTime on their home PCs may want to consider the pros and cons, and contact RescueTime directly if you have specific concerns.