3 Ways to Automatically Track Your Time

Many web workers need to keep track of the time they spend on various tasks. If you’re “on the clock” for someone else, they’ll generally want you to fill out a timesheet of some sort. If you’re working for yourself, you may still need an accounting of your time to properly bill your clients. There are hundreds of timecard applications out there, but for the most part, they require you to enter your time as you’re filling it. This can be a problem if you tend to get to the end of the week and then try to remember what you were doing.

Why not let the computer keep track of your activities for you? That’s a seductive idea; after all, it already “knows” what you’re doing. And like most ideas in the computer world, it’s been implemented. I took a look at three applications that promise to automatically track your time:

ScreenshotSlife is a nice-looking OS X application. After installing, you get a little icon in the menu bar that lets you manage things, and a larger window to see what’s been recorded. After installation, it automatically records the title bar of the active window every fifteen seconds (you can change this on a per-application basis). You can then view this information in a variety of ways, including by day, month, or application. It’s easy to filter the view and to drill into details for any task. A timeline makes it easy to graphically visualize your activity.

You can also use the Slife menu to assign your time to “activities,” which could be client projects or simply self-defined things like “reading news.” Looking at your summary page you can pick out time by activity, making it simpler to fill out a timecard. There’s also an online Slifeshare social network associated with the application.

Unfortunately, in my testing I was unable to get Slife to perform reliably. Some applications had their window titles scrambled in the recording, and it refused to recognize others entirely. With a $34.95 price tag, I’d like to see something a little more bulletproof.

ScreenshotTimeSnapper takes a visual approach to tracking activity on your Windows PC. Every few seconds it takes a snapshot of your PC screen, then compresses it and saves it to the TimeSnapper archive. Any time you like, you can play back a series of these snapshots in accelerated form, giving you a browsable movie showing what you were up to with your day. You can filter the timeline to find times that you were using a particular application, and even use OCR to extract text from any screenshot.

TimeSnapper is also application-sensitive; you can tell it which applications (or web pages) you consider productive, and it will provide statistics on what percentage of your day was spent doing productive things. You can configure it to pop up reminders to add notes to the timeline every so often, so that you remember to write down salient points about what you were doing. For time reporting, you can add flags to the timeline recording tasks and customers, making it possible to assign your time to projects – which can then be pushed automatically to a timecard application, if you’re using a timecard application that speaks ODBC.

TimeSnapper has been around a few years, but it’s been steadily evolving and now provides an excellent mix of features. Basic features are available for free, but to get the productivity calculator, filtering, flags, and reporting you’ll need to purchase a $39.95 professional license.

ScreenshotRescueTime offers an almost entirely online solution, except for a small application that records application usage on your PC and forwards it to the RescueTime server. By default it scans for new activity once every two seconds, and uploads the data to the server once every thirty minutes, but you can adjust those intervals if you like.

Once it arrives online, RescueTime presents your information in a variety of ways. You can get bar graphs showing how much time you’ve spent in each application and web site, or (after assigning tags in the online application) filter by tags. You can also add goals (specifying that you want to spend more or less than a particular amount of time on a specific application) and get RSS and SMS messages tracking your performance against goals.

RescueTime also offers an API. This allows them to embed graphs of your data as widgets in other sites, and it also enables people to develop extensions to RescueTime, such as a meeting recorder or an iGoogle widget. RescueTime itself is free, though they’re planning a team-oriented RescueTime for Business in the future that will likely be a commercial application.


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