Sunday, November 8, 2009

Tried out some Time Management Tools

The great Peter F. Drucker, master of all things management, commanded "Know Thy Time". It was the title of chapter 2 of The Effective Executive and he emphasizes that it is difficult or impossible to become truly effective without this step.

I decided to go in search of time tracking tools for the Mac to see if I could find anything that would help. The short story is, although there are many choices out there, I found very little that met my personal requirements. Most existing time tracking tools are integrated as part of a larger project management suite and provide lots of great tools that got in my way since I am not a project manager.

Here's a quick review of the tools I looked at:

RescueTime is a program that sits in the background and watches what programs you use and what web sites you visit. I used it for a while, but I didn't find the output to be actionable. It could measure, for example, how much time I spent doing email vs. web browsing. It even allowed me to lump email, IRC, and IM applications together into a "communication" category. However, it did a very poor job allowing me to record off-computer time. There's a basic "add time" interface and that's about it. Worse, it's model didn't really fit my usage patterns. As a web developer, I spend pretty much all my working time either in a terminal or a web browser. RescueTime did not allow me to differentiate between developing code, debugging production issues, performing QC testing, writing documentation, etc, all of which take place in the same two programs. Likewise, sometimes when I'm in my IRC client, it's scheduled work collaborating with coworkers. But if I'm supposed to be doing something else, then it's a distraction. RescueTime can't really make that distinction.

Harvest is a time tracking and invoicing tool for freelancers. It's a web-based tool, and the service costs $12 a month. These two factors eliminated it from my consideration without a test drive. Too much money to pay for features I will never use, and too much inconvenience trying to track offline time.

Nozbe is a GTD-style personal productivity tool that includes a time tracker. This is another web-based for-pay tool, although there is a free version that you can use indefinitely. Again, for this task I find web-based tools inconvenient, and this one had too many features that I simply didn't need.

Fanurio is a commercial cross-platform Java time tracking and invoice application for freelancers. This one had potential, but the proof was missing from the pudding. I found using it to be a hassle. Just getting started was a wicked pain, because it forces you to enter a Client, Project, and "Service" before you can begin tracking time. This makes it entirely unsuitable for tracking small bits of time. The interface is bizarrely counter-intuitive, displaying completed time but not the current timer by default. Finding how to enter notes for the current timer is like an Easter egg hunt, and the tool managed to lose some of the notes I entered in the few hours I was using it. Strongly NOT recommended.

Time Tracker (what a unique name!) is an open-source time tracking application for the Mac. It performs the basics of tracking your time, but it was not at all easy to switch between tasks. I rejected it because it commits the worst sin: closing the window will close the program and stop tracking your time. That's just dumb. A time tracker should, almost by definition, be unobtrusive and should run in the background by default.

Finally, OfficeTime probably came closest to being usable of those I tested. It was reasonably easy to switch between tasks once I had set them up, and the idle timer was both clever and very useful. Unfortunately, OfficeTime also stops tracking time if you close the window (though it does not quit the program). It lasted longest on my desktop, but I seriously doubt I will still be using it when the free trial runs out.

What I want in a Time Tracking Tool

What I'm really looking for is a strange hybrid between OfficeTime, RescueTime, iCal, and Twitter.

I already have a schedule in iCal that knows what I'm supposed to be doing. My time tracker should start with that. Then it just needs to ask if I am on-task at the beginning of each calendar event so I don't have to re-enter anything.

OfficeTime's idle time pop-up did a reasonable job of substituting for what I call "interrupt mode". There's the thing I'm supposed to be working on, and then someone walks up to my desk and asks a question. Ten minutes later when I turn back to my screen, the idle pop-up asks "You went idle, what have you been doing?" It gives me the option to keep the time on the current task, or allocate it somewhere else (or ignore it entirely, but don't do that). I'd like to add a hot-key that would put the tracker into "interrupt mode" manually. This would help prevent accidentally restarting my scheduled work after an interruption without resetting the timer properly.

RescueTime's ability to know what program I'm using would be a fine addition, to enable tracking hidden distractions. It could warn me, "Hey Vince, you claim to be doing web development right now, but you're in your email client. Are you really still developing or have you switched to communicating?" RescueTime already allows categorizing programs, it would be a short leap from there.

Finally, the user interface for all this should be as simple to use as answering Twitter's "what are you doing" question. Allow me to set up projects, categories, and tasks, but don't force me to! Often, I don't know what category a particular block of time should go into at the moment I'm recording it, and trying to think about it then is distracting me from my real work. Let me add all that metadata after the fact, if at all. In fact, just leave me a delicious-style "tags" field, and later I'll tell the time tracker which tags represent clients, projects, categories, or something else.

At the end of the week I'll do my weekly review. At that time I would like to check scheduled vs actual time on task and get an idea of when and where my interruptions are coming from. RescueTime-style graphs of time by category would be extremely useful. So would a temporal graph displaying activities and interruptions linearly by time.

As it stands today, none of the time tracking tools I have seen do what I want. Nearly all of them are focused on tracking projects and/or billable hours, and as such they are biased against the very feature that I want, the tracking of distractions and small amounts of off-task time. Does anyone out there have a tool for me?


Anne said...

Qlockwork ( would probably be ideal, unfortunately it's an add-in for Outlook, so no Mac support, though we are working on a web version, which will make it easier to provide Mac support in the future.

Good luck with your search.


jjriv said...

Also take a look at Intervals for time tracking, especially if you need task and project management layered in.

Rune said...

Hi Vince,

If you instead of closing the window minimizes or hides it, OfficeTime won't stop tracking your time. And you can still pause/start/stop timers across multiple simultaneous Projects from the OfficeTime status icon in the Menu Bar, even when OfficeTime is hidden/minimized.

Please don't hesitate to contact me if anything else comes up during your testing. :)

- Rune, OfficeTime support

Franco said...

Great post Vince thanks for sharing these time management tools. I also use some of these tools like Toggl where it can be use anywhere on anything; Pc, Mac,iPad,iPhone,iPod, and Android. It also automatically syncs with Fresbooks and Quickboks. There are different time management tools that can be use and different approaches. It depends on what we desire to use and what we need most. I also found here comparative reports about Rescuetime and an alternative tool that might serve as guide to others.