RescueTime has been a part of my working life for more than 6 years, but I’ve never sat down to write a RescueTime review until just a few months ago.
A few months ago marked my first full year of self-employment. I took the time to re-evaluate all my tools and working processes to make sure I had a solid time balance among all my priorities.
After all – whether you are paid hourly or not, your time is your only non-renewable resource. If you are going to manage anything, it should be your time.
Since almost all my professional priorities are on a computer – time management software (ie, RescueTime) is a core part of that.
Here’s my RescueTime review with pros, cons, use cases and next steps based on my experience.
What Is RescueTime?
RescueTime is a time management & productivity software company founded in 2008. The RescueTime app runs in the background of your devices tracking, measuring and automatically categorizing your activity.
RescueTime is a free app with a premium upgrade that allows more specific reporting and features like offline time input. It offers a reporting dashboard with all your data sliced, diced and sorted into useful charts to help you manage your time.
The app is based on Peter Drucker’s (the famous management consultant) maxim that “what gets measured, gets managed.”
RescueTime takes the manual tracking of time and makes it painless and automatic so that you actually track your time so that – you can be aware of time use.
That said, there are dozens and dozens of productivity & time management tools on the Internet. What are the actual pros & cons of RescueTime? Here’s what I’ve noticed over the years.
Disclosure – I receive referral fees from companies mentioned on this website. Any data and/or opinions are based on my experience as a paying customer or consultant to a paying customer.
Pros of RescueTime
Here’s some of the advantages of using RescueTime over other solutions.
At its core, RescueTime does one thing – track time. If you look at it that way, it’s not super special. Technically, you could do that with a spreadsheet or any of the dozens of free apps online.
But RescueTime’s feature set is special because of how it tracks time and what it does with the data (aka, one you’ll actually use).
RescueTime watches which windows currently have activity, looks at the window name, and times the activity in that window. It’s always running in the background – always watching.
Unobtrustive, 100% automatic tracking makes RescueTime worthwhile. There is no friction or hurdle to tracking time.
Since RescueTime’s tracking feature solves that problem, you’ll have data that is complete, correct & useful.
RescueTime’s other features focus on making their core feature better. They don’t try to add on complementary features like time-tracking & billing for freelancers. They don’t try to get into any side businesses.
They do have a few features that use the tracking feature in an interesting way. For example, the Get Focused! feature blocks distracting sites and/or apps from running when selected.
They have goals and alerts that allow you to decide what you want to happen when X happens – and RescueTime will do that based on what it’s tracking.
I also love how RescueTime does Offline Time Tracking. Instead of having to search and add it in 100% manually, you select a time period that is unlogged and fill in the blank.
You can even customize the buttons to make logging offline time quick and simple.
It’s a minimalist feature set – but that’s exactly what makes it great. It’s simple, straightforward and well-done.
RescueTime runs on a Freemium business model. It’s free to use with paid upgrades funding the software. I love this business model for a few reasons.
- There’s no ads cluttering up the experience.
- The software is actually funded and actually making money – so it is less likely to go away.
- It’s free to use over a long period of time.
- You decide to pay only when it’s benefitting you.
- RescueTime has an incentive to build in useful upgrades.
- So RescueTime is free to get started but even the Premium plan is only $9/month or $72/year.
The Premium plan creates several useful upgrades, but my favorites are –
- More detailed reports – I can drill down to the *most* productive/distracting times.
- Unlimited report history – I can compare this time to a year ago and look back on changes.
- Add Offline Time – I can add offline activities; it’s not typical for me, but useful to have.
- The Get Focused! feature isn’t as useful to me (I’ll cover in the Cons section), but it’s usually a favorite of other customers.
Either way – RescueTime is a no-brainer pricing-wise. It’s free to use.
And if the reporting/advanced features save you only one hour per month then it’s paid for itself even if you are only making US minimum wage.
RescueTime is an investment that makes sense.
A common problem with tracking apps of all kinds is that they always have to be on. The “always on” feature can cause performance issues on laptops & desktop computers. It can cause battery problems on mobile devices.
But in my experience, RescueTime causes neither. It’s running from startup on my Macbook Pro, my Windows PC, and my Nexus 5x phone. I’ve never tracked any performance or battery issues to the app.
It’s lightweight and well-built.
I like the fact that the mobile app doesn’t demand dozens of ridiculous permissions. It requires access to usage data, but doesn’t try to track location, contacts, emails, or any of the typical privacy violating permissions other apps ask for.
It’s quick to install and syncs with an online dashboard. It pulls in data from all sources at the same time, and crunches the data quickly if you’re on the Premium plan or by next day on the free plan.
What’s the point of data if you can’t interpret it or put it to use?
RescueTime’s reports solves that problem – and in many ways is the whole point of using the app over a spreadsheet.
RescueTime’s Dashboard uses colorful bar graphs and pie charts to show exactly what you are (and are not) doing.
You can opt to receive emails reports every day, week or month.
And best of all, you can dig deep into the reporting with various filters and overlays to find out your habits.
It’s really eye-opening to see the actual amount of time that each task takes.
When I working for a marketing agency in Atlanta – the time tracked to Instant Messages and Gchats was astounding. It changed processes not only for me, but also my project managers.
Now that I’m on my own with no full-time employees – I can see the exact time that I devote to tasks that matter. I can build my day around those.
And just to reiterate – all the reports are built-in to the software. The Dashboard is on my default – and even advanced reports are pre-built.
It’s all fast, seamless and effective so that you aren’t ironically wasting time while analyzing your time.
One of the key selling points of RescueTime is their feature set minimalism. They do one thing and they do it well.
That said – most all people using their product have time-based software needs. Whether it’s project management, billing, team time tracking or something else – your time needs usually don’t stop with tracking, measuring and categorization.
To solve that problem, RescueTime’s software integrates with a huge range of other software. They have an open API and direct integrations with common software.
Whether you are a freelancer trying to integrate time tracking into invoicing software like FreshBooks or a project manager that needs to collate team member’s time, RescueTime will probably integrate with it.
Cons of RescueTime
Like any software though – RescueTime is neither perfect nor is it the best fit for everyone. Here’s some disadvantages that I’ve noticed over the years.
Default Get Focused! Categories
In general, RescueTime’s categories are pretty good. Sites like Reddit, Facebook and Twitter are “Very Distracting”…for most people. And for general tracking, RescueTime’s categories are quick & easy to fix.
But RescueTime’s categories can be off with general news, research sites and distracting sites’ subdomains.
I can’t use the Get Focused! functionality for any task that requires research (aka visiting a bunch of different websites).
Ironically, the time that I need smart blocking functionality is when I’m doing research for a post
There’s a fine line between this is productive and this is distracting when I’m researching. It’d be great to use RescueTime, but the categories aren’t accurate enough for it to work.
The root problem is that the Block Sites function is not available in reverse (ie, add specific sites to block). I can only add sites to unblock.
And if I’m visiting several dozen blocked sites – manually adding them quickly becomes time wasting.
If you are looking for an app that will block only specific distracting sites – RescueTime is not it.
Effectiveness vs. Efficiency
RescueTime (or any time management software) heightens the bias towards efficiency over effectiveness.
If you do the wrong thing for 18 hours per day, every day with perfect focus – you are still doing the wrong thing.
The most important factor in time management is to work on the right things – the core 20% of time input that will generate 80% of your outcomes.
And that’s a factor that is 100% on you. RescueTime can’t solve that problem.
In fact, in some ways, RescueTime can hurt your efforts by pushing you towards better efficient doing over strategy, research and planning.
If effectiveness is your core issue, then RescueTime is not for you. It’ll only make things worse.
Instead, I’d recommend reading some of these books.
Conclusion & Next Steps
RescueTime has been an invaluable tool for me. It’s not for everyone and has some feature quirks and disadvantages.
That said, the best thing it’s provided is perspective. It’s easy to think that you “work a ton” or are “not addicted to your phone” or “spend so much time writing” or are “hardly ever on Facebook.”
But the data doesn’t lie. And using RescueTime to get accurate time data on your digital time can help you literally rescue your time and put your life in perspective.
If you think RescueTime sounds useful – go check out their plans here.
If you are looking for a good alternative to RescueTime – go check out Y-Productive here.
If it sounds too in-depth or not what you’re looking for, check out these books or check out this podcast episode on my project management system.
RescueTime is a classic time management tool that pioneered the "automagical" tab tracking & categorization feature. It's worth a try if you spend your days working on a computer.