In Which I Gush Effusively About RescueTime

Forgive me, regular readers, but I’m going to wax evangelical today.

Two days ago I installed RescueTime on my writing computer and phone, planning on using it as a resource when I start some heavy-duty process tracking next year. I honestly didn’t expect to be back here blogging about it two days later, but…holy fucking shit, I love this program.

The impulse for installing it was pretty simple – I was having a low word-count week and I was interested in tracking exactly how long I spent at the keyboard in order to get those words. My sense of self is pretty-well bonded to writing productivity these days, and days where I don’t write a lot hit me pretty hard. I know this is a bad idea for all sorts of reasons, my subconscious cleaves to this philosophy despite my best efforts to change it. You are not working hard enough, it whispers. You should be doing more.

So, fuck it. I’ll work with what I’ve got.

I didn’t expect much. I picked RescueTime ‘cause I’d heard a bunch of people talking about it and I knew it would do what I really needed it to do – accurately track the time spent at the keyboard without me thinking about it. The first few hours were spent figuring out how it worked, setting it up. The system rates various programs/websites as “productive” and “non-productive,” and from a writing point of view a lot of those ratings were…ineffective.

I basically set everything to neutral, then went through with a fine-toothed comb to target the stuff I wanted targeted. I honestly don’t care how many hours a day I spend on social media in total (although its more than I thought), but I will obsessively check stats when they’re avialable, so both the RescueTime site and my blog stats got tagged as “non-productive” usage. Scrivener, which is only used for the current writing project, got tagged as “productive.”

That done, I went away and did some stuff, figuring the system would pay off in a few weeks when I had the beginnings of some data.

Turns out I was wrong.

It paid off within 48 hours.

Case in point: write club yesterday.

I knew I wasn’t going to get much done, ‘cause it has been five weeks since the last time I caught up with Angela Slatter and in that time she’s met with her publisher, gone on a three-week holiday, and won a world fantasy award. My weeks have been less eventful, but stuff happened and I will bitch about stuff at an Olympic level given half a chance.

That’s a a whole bunch of things to talk about before we get into our traditional “so this is what’s going on in writing” conversations that tend to kick things off.

But we did sit down to write, eventually, for a good two and a half-hour block. In which I wrote about seven hundred words. Pretty good for the kinds of word-count I’ve managed over the last week, but not as much as I’d usually expect to get done in that kind of time. Usually I can get about seven hundred words done in an hour without breaking a sweat, and I base my expected word count per day on what I can usually get done in two writing shifts of about an hour each.

I spent the whole drive home trying to figure out what I was doing wrong with this project that was causing me to write like a snail.

I dislike writing like a snail. It messes with my head.

Then I fired up the RescueTime stats, just to see how it handled periods where I was working away from an internet connection. There was a slight lag in the update times, but when the data did show up, holy fuck.

I discovered that the two and half hours spent “writing” only had about an hour spent on the manuscript. The rest of the time had been spent futzing around on email, checking things on the internet, logging in to check facebook/twitter comments, updating my notes in Google Docs, or just generally staring into space instead of hammering words into a keyboard.

This was…educational.

Ordinarily, after a day like yesterday’s write club, I’d look at the block of time I spent at the computer and assume that I’d worked steadily for two hours or so. I’d mark my day as a failure, on the word-count front, without actually giving it another thought.

Instead, I fired up scrivener after seeing the stats and spent another hour working on my manuscript. Hit the 1,200 words I aim for every day and went to bed a happy, cheerful writer.

I am never a happy, cheerful writer.

And so I’m a convert. The appeal of RescueTime is always the close tracking of data, but the way in which it breaks things down is a revelation for me on the writing front. I did not think of myself as a person who gets terribly distracted when I’m at the keyboard, but self-image is often a horrible measure of what’s actually going on. Half the reason I wanted to try and spend a year gathering data about my writing habits was so I could actually address those gaps in my expectations, since they’ll often lead me trying to pass cheques my writing habits can’t cash.

So I sat down with Rescuetime and did a bit more poking at the options. Discovered there’s a goal-setting system attached to the program, tracking hours associated to certain tasks/programs, that will automatically count up the number of days you’ve hit that goal.

It’s now set to measure my hours-at-keyboard on writing projects time, so I can back up my daily goal of 1200 words with a time-frame that is actually equal to the task of writing that much. If I don’t devote that much time, I’ll know, and the failure won’t be with the project or my process, it will be with my failure to adequately apply butt to chair in the manner that works for me.

It’s also convinced me that I should upgrade to paid version as soon as I have the discretionary cash, as it has added functionality that will allow me to distinguish time spent on individual projects rather than simply tracking the hours spent in a particular website or application.

Knowing how long it actually takes to write a book or story, in a general sense, is appealing.

The system is not without its flaws. In the back of my head, I’m very aware that I’m generally handing over a whole bunch of information to a third party that doesn’t necessarily need to be done. On the other hand, I’m also spending over an hour a day on Facebook, and it’s a far less important tool that hoovers up personal information like no-ones business.

In the end, I pretty much end up thinking: Data FTW, yo. Data FTW.

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