How to choose the best time tracking software for you (and get the most benefit from it)

Some of the most successful people in history rarely put in more than 3–4 hours of work a day. So why are the rest of us slogging out 40+ hour weeks? “Working smarter” like this starts with knowing where your time is going. And the best way to do that is with time tracking software.

Time tracking software gives you an accurate picture of how you spend your day so you can get honest about the time wasters sucking away your productivity. Not only will this help you get more done, but it can also help you work less.

Optimizing your daily schedule gives you a compound return on your time. Instead of filling in long days, you’re able to intensely focus and get things done quickly.

But what time tracking software is right for you? And once you choose your tool, how do you set it up to get the most benefit?

Let’s dig into the different types of time tracking software tools you might use and how to properly use them to measure where your time’s going, cut out the bloat from your daily schedule, and optimize your hours.

Already have a time tracking tool and just want to learn how to make the most out of it? Jump to our guide here.

The best time tracking software available (and how to choose what’s right for you)

Let’s start with some of the tools you can use to measure and analyze your time.

When it comes to looking for the best time tracking software a simple Google search will bring up a ton of different options. Generally speaking, however, all time tracking tools fall into one of four camps:

Project-based time tracking tools

Harvest timesheet
Project time tracking in Harvest

These tools are designed to track the time you spend working on specific projects or clients—a must have when your paycheck depends on accurate time tracking. Their primary focus is to help you accurately bill for your time. Or alternatively, to see if you’re going over your allotted hours for a contract.

Unfortunately, many are based around self-reporting, manual time tracking, and require a healthy dose of upfront investment to accurately track your time.

Examples: FreshBooks, Harvest, Timely, Toggl

Pros: Project-based time tracking tools are great if your primary concern is billing and the health of your business. Each option has a specific niche (freelancer, small business, team collaboration, etc…) and there are price points for everyone. Many also double as invoicing software, which means you can directly tie time spent to money made.

Cons: As mentioned before, with these tools you are responsible for categorizing your time and keeping track of manual time trackers (making it just another tool to keep track of). Additionally, these sorts of tools incentivize hours worked over output. Non-billable time is usually important for the success of any project, but it can easily slip through the cracks.

Project management tools

Timeline in Asana
Timeline tracking in Asana

Many people aren’t as concerned with tracking their individual time and would rather see how that time relates to larger projects. In this case, project management tools are an option for not only tracking what you need to get done, but also to attach timelines to them, track deadlines, and scope out resources.

Examples: Trello, Basecamp, Asana, Redmine

Pros: If you’re working as a team, it’s important to have a tool that allows you to track projects, assign tasks, and see where you’re being blocked. The added time tracking functionality in some project management tools also helps you see where your resources are going and more accurately scope future work.

Cons: Unfortunately, these tools don’t necessarily give you insights into how you’re actually spending your time. Their focus isn’t on helping you optimize your time or be more individually productive. At best, they let you scope out what you think your time commitment is going to be and attach hours to different parts of a project.

Personal productivity time trackers

Rescuetime time tracking software
Time tracking and daily productivity scores in RescueTime

If you want to make any major changes to your habits, routines, and workflows, you need to know what you’re currently doing.

Personal productivity time trackers automatically and invisibly log your actions on digital devices and give you key insights into the tools you use the most, how productive you are on a daily basis, and track your progress toward goals. They’re designed to give you real-time feedback and help nudge you toward optimizing your time in everything you do during the day.

Examples: RescueTime, Moment (iOS), Timing, Manictime

Pros: Instead of relying on manual time tracking or screenshots, these tools automatically track how you spend your time and give you powerful reports on your actual behaviors. This way, you have an honest baseline you can use to build new habits and optimize your working time (tools like RescueTime even let you set goals and give you real-time alerts when you go over them each day).

Cons: You might not like what you see. Not necessarily a con, but many people find it unnerving to discover how much time they spend on social media or that their productive working hours have dropped in half. Also, with the focus of these apps solely on time spent, you run the risk of optimizing for the wrong thing. Effort doesn’t always equal output, and you need to put this data into the context of your own workday to make the most of them.

Employee monitoring tools

Employee time sheets in Hubstaff

Lots of companies want to know how their employees are spending their time when they’re on the clock. That’s where employee monitoring software comes into play.

These tools track how you spend your time and send reports to your boss, while many also act as “slacking off” detectors by using your camera to take screenshots of you while you work and measure keystrokes at specific intervals to make sure you’re still typing away.

Examples: Time Doctor, HubStaff, ActivTrak, Teramind

Pros: From a non-cynical perspective, it makes sense for managers and business owners to understand how their employees are working so they can help them manage their time, optimize their efforts, and avoid burnout. And from a commercial perspective, time is money.

Cons: It will always be a hard sell to convince your team you should be able to monitor every little thing they do during the day (unless you’re the consultants from Office Space!) And while the intention of these tools isn’t necessarily nefarious, implementing them comes at a pretty high cost of trust if expectations aren’t properly set or it’s not done in a transparent way.

RescueTime for Organizations gives you key insights and reports into your team’s productivity without sacrificing their privacy. Find out more and see if it’s right for you

What time tracking software is right for you?

So what time tracking software works best for you? While it will always depend on your unique use case, we think we can make a strong case for a personal productivity tool like RescueTime.

Why’s that? Well for one, you’re solving for the right problem: Doing more meaningful work.

The more you can understand and develop your personal habits, routines, and productivity, the better you’ll be at your job. Meaning no need for employee monitoring tools and less need to spend time tracking exactly how you’re working on individual projects.

You get to the root of the problem instead of wasting more time trying to solve for just one symptom.

If you’re curious about what tools to use, the team at Lifehack has put together an awesome list of the best time management apps and tools for 2019.

How to set up and optimize your time tracking software in 7 steps

Once you’ve chosen the best time tracking tool for your needs, it’s time to set it up.

While most options will be ready to go out-of-the-box, a little bit of upfront investment will make sure you’re getting the best data as well as a customized experience based on how you actually work.

Let’s run through the basics of setting up time tracking software to show you what you can do using RescueTime as an example.

Step 1: Customize your categories for more accurate reporting

Personal productivity time trackers like RescueTime provide you with a ton of raw data. But you’ll get more out of them if you customize how that data is categorized early on.

Categorize in RescueTime

In RescueTime, activities have a default category as well as a productivity rating ranging from Very Distracting to Very Productive. This means that the second you start tracking your time you’ll be able to get deep insights into not just what you’re doing, but how your behaviors affect your day.

Of course, you can edit, update, or delete any activity you want to give you a more accurate representation of how you work.

Step 2: Set time filters to see how you act during working hours vs. outside of them

Along with the right categories, you want to be able to see how your digital habits change throughout the day.

In RescueTime, you can set specific time filters to see how you spend your time when you’re at work vs when you should be taking breaks.

work hours setting

This way, you can tell if you’re doing too much work outside of work hours or being too distracted during the work day.

Here’s what your main dashboard report will look like once you have custom Work Hours setup:

work hours detailed

With Work Hours set, you can also create goals specifically during them. For example, I have a goal of writing 3 hours during working hours I try to hit each day. Seeing the alert pop up when I hit that goal is a great feeling and lets me know I’m being productive with my time.

Step 3: Create goals to start tracking your progress

Speaking of goals, the aim of any good time tracking software shouldn’t be just to track your time but to also help you change how you spend it.

With Goals in RescueTime, you can set limits on certain activities or alerts for when you hit achievements to help shape the way you spend your time each day.

For example, you might want to know when you’ve hit 5 hours of productive time in a day so that you can keep track of your daily work.

Time tracking software Goals - productive time

Or maybe you want to set a goal for less than 1 hour on your phone during working hours.

Goal - mobile time

Setting goals is a powerful way to nudge you towards doing more of what you want and less of what pulls at your attention during the day. In our experience, the best goals share a few criteria:

  • Outcome: Know what specifically you’re trying to accomplish
  • Intention: Understand why you’re choosing that specific goal
  • Realistic: Is this something you can hit on a regular basis?
  • Doable: Start small and build off your success

Step 4: Get a baseline of your productivity

With your basic setup done, some goals set, and time being tracked, it’s time to see how you’re doing.

Using time tracking software properly comes down to answering a few questions: How do you want to spend your time? How are you actually spending it? And how can bring those closer together?

Let’s start with the first question: How you’re actually spending your time. Your main RescueTime dashboard answers this on a high level and lets you dig even deeper where you’re curious.

RescueTime dashboard

On your dashboard, you can see:

  • Total time logged
  • Productivity and usage by hour
  • Productivity pulse (your score based on the amount of time spent on productive vs. non-productive activities)
  • Your top categories

You can also change the date and time filters; Look at trends across weeks, months, quarters, and even years; and check how you spend your time during work hours, just during the mornings, or even on weekends.

Date range gif

All this information all at once can seem overwhelming at first. And that’s ok. The goal is to start reflecting on how you spend your time and get an accurate picture so you can make meaningful changes.

Without going into too much detail, one of my favorite things to look at is my daily energy curve (i.e. When am I most likely to do my best work every day?)

By looking at my Daily Productivity Report from the most recent month, I can start to see the outlines of a clear ebb and flow of productivity throughout the day.

For example, here’s my report for January 2019:

Productivity by day
I do my best work in the first few hours of the morning and then get distracted after lunch.

Here are some more ideas for trends and information you can get from your reports:

  • What does an average day look like?
  • When are you most likely to take breaks?
  • What category of work do you do the most of? (And what apps or websites do you use the most?)
  • When are you most likely to be distracted?
  • What do you do during your offline time like meetings, calls, and breaks?

Step 5: Dig into where you’re being distracted

Alright, it’s time to get painful. You can’t optimize your time for productivity if you don’t know what’s getting in the way.

While we’d all like to think we’re productive throughout the day, most of us spend our day fighting distractions (and sometimes they win).

Distraction could be the pull of social media, YouTube, or checking the news. Or it could be spending too much time on email, Slack, and other “busy” work instead of doing more meaningful tasks.

A personal productivity time tracker like RescueTime gives you an honest answer about what the worst offenders are.

Let’s look at a few examples.

First, let’s talk about the typical distractors that take your time. Social media. Entertainment. Shopping. News.

You can dig into each of those categories individually to see how much time you spent, on what days, and when during the day.

For example, here’s my Social Media report from January 2019:

social networking time

According to this report, social media took up 11% of all my time that month. Ouch.

I even set a goal to try and reduce my distracted time each day to less than an hour, but it’s something I’m still working on:

distracting time trends

Now, what about email and Slack?

These aren’t necessarily bad distractions, but too much of them can take over your workday. Let’s start by looking at my Communication & Scheduling Category report:

Comm time totals

Only 15% of my total time and mostly during work hours. Not bad. But it doesn’t tell the whole story.

Let’s go deeper and look at this report by Time Of Day.

Comm time by day

Ouch. Looking at this compared to my Productivity by Time of Day report above I can see a clear connection between too much time on communication and lower overall productivity. That’s something I don’t like to see but can now address.

Step 6: Update goals to change your digital habits

Now that the bandaid’s been ripped off, we can start to take action.

We know how we want to spend our time and how we actually do. Now, we can start to bring those together.

This means setting effective goals. As we already discussed, in RescueTime you can set Goals and Alerts around how you spend your time. But now that you have more information about how you spend your time, you can make more informed decisions about your goals.

Here are a few different time-based goals you’ll want to think about:

Daily quotas (time-based goals during the day)

The most obvious place to start is setting goals around how you want to spend your time.

Want to be more productive? Set a goal for more productive time.

Want to try to spend at least 2 hours on graphic design every day? Set a goal for that!

Goal - graphic design

These goals are good to start sculpting your time. But the problem with them is that time spent doesn’t always equal productivity.

Just like checking off to-do list items doesn’t equal getting more done, be sure that you’re spending your time the right way through regular reflection on your reports.

Limitations (spending less time on distractions)

What about the opposite end of things? With a clear understanding of your biggest distractions, you can choose to limit the time on your worst offenders (for example, “spend less than 30 minutes on social media/news sites/youtube/etc…”) or set a goal on total distracting time each day.

One of my favorite ways to do this is to filter goals to just work hours (I don’t want the time I spend emailing my parents to skew my work email time).

Here’s one of my goals, which is to spend less than 30 minutes on emails during working hours:

Goal - email

Time-constrained goals (tracking behavior during specific parts of the day)

Finally, think about what other time constraints you can use to help build better habits.

For many people, their most productive time is in the morning. So why not set goals around more productive time and fewer distractions during the early hours?

Goal - morning focus

You can even put in a reminder that will show up with your alert telling you why you set that goal in the first place.

Step 7: Set up more productivity experiments to keep learning about and optimizing your time

What else can you do with time tracking software to help you be more productive?

Because time trackers like RescueTime give you raw data, you can use them to test all sorts of experiments around how you spend your workday.

Simply use your baseline and see how changes to your habits, routines, and even work environment impacts your daily productivity.

Here are a few you might want to try:

  • Go phone free for the day: What happens to your productivity when you leave your phone at home for the day?
  • Work in different locations (office vs. home vs. coffee shop): Does your work environment impact your productivity?
  • Try getting up earlier (or starting later): Are you an early riser or a night owl? How does working at different times change your productivity pulse or time breakdown?
  • Block distractions for a chunk of time: Do you need help with distractions? How does a website blocker impact your productivity? Can you use it at specific points in the day (like during the dreaded afternoon slump?)
  • Don’t check email until the afternoon: Can you skip email for part of the day? What does that do to your total time spent on productive work?
  • Leave at noon: What happens if you give yourself a time constraint? Try leaving early for a week or working a 4-day week.
  • Take more breaks during the day: Do you lose steam during the day? Try taking more breaks and seeing if you can even out your productivity score across the day.
  • Split your workday in half: Do you work better if you take time for yourself in the middle of the day? Try working your full day with a 2–3-hour break in the middle and see if that changes anything.

Of course, not all of these will make sense given your job, responsibilities, and company culture.

The key here is to find what works best for you. There’s no one-size-fits-all answer for how to be more productive. Instead, you need to test, measure, and adjust until you start seeing the results you want.

Reflection + Action = How to be more productive

While “work smarter, not harder” has become a productivity platitude, the truth is that the people who get more done don’t work more. They’ve just discovered how to do more with the time they have.

As management consultant Peter Drucker famously wrote: “What gets measured gets managed.” And the same goes for your time. With 90% of people saying they don’t feel in control of how they spend their day, there’s so much room to optimize.

So give a time tracker like RescueTime a shot.

It’s free for basic plans while you can get a 14-day free trial for the full Premium version (including website blocking, unlimited and more in-depth reports, tracking offline time, and real-time alerts on your goals).

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Jory MacKay

Jory MacKay is a writer, content marketer, and editor of the RescueTime blog.