Since July I have been using an application called RescueTime to track my computer usage habits. It records how much time I spend using each application and visiting websites. This information is useful for me to monitor how much time I am blowing on Twitter and how much of my 8+ hour work day (when I was working) I was actually spending on programming.
One of the features of RescueTime is that it lets me set efficiency values between -2 and +2 for my Apps. So for example, I marked TextMate as being +2 efficiency, Adium and Skype as -1 efficiency, and Facebook as -2 efficiency. Then RescueTime aggregates all of my usage data, and generates an overall Efficiency Score based on the efficiency values I assigned. If my overall efficiency score is above 0 than I have been productive, if it is below 0 than I have been generally unproductive.
So far I have assigned all of my “most used” applications and websites and efficiency value…except for my email client, MailPlane. When it comes to rating the efficiency of my time spent writing and reading emails I am conflicted. While email is necessary to getting many things done, it is a lot of time not spent working towards my main objective which is programming.
Writing emails is what particularly kills me as it consumes far more time than reading emails does. Writing good emails that provide actual value is difficult and I can easily spend 20 minutes writing and rewording an important email. If the amount of email I dealt with was low this would obviously be less of an issue but I estimate that I send an average of 40 emails every week, half of them being during the weekend.
I know that this amount of email writing is nothing compared to what many people deal with but for a college student who writes code on the side, writing 40 emails every week is a significant time sink. According to RescueTime, I have spent 110 hours using my email client since RescueTime started monitoring on July 21st. Making it my most popular application (Adium is second, followed by TextMate).
So the problem I am left with is, how do I rate the efficiency of a necessary evil? I can not stop writing email because then I would not be fulfilling my other responsibilities, like my role as ACM President at UCI. If I give MailPlane an efficiency rating of +1 than time spent writing emails is going to boost my overall efficiency score so that even if I’m not writing any code RescueTime is still going to tell me I have been efficiently using my time. If I rate it negatively and give MailPlane a rating of -1 than I am never going to be able to dig myself out from negative territory on the overall efficiency scale. I already have Adium, VLC, and Facebook bringing me down enough as it is.
In the end, I feel that 0 is the most appropriate efficiency rating for a necessary evil. Thus it does not hurt you to be doing it but it does not help you either. I think a good solution would be for RescueTime to add a goal type where I can specify that on any given day, my goal is to use TextMate for longer than I use MailPlane. RescueTime deals in tags and categories so really it would be to use things tagged “dev” for longer than things in the “Comm (Email)” category but it is the same principle. That way I can challenge myself to spend more time writing code than emailing without having all my other activities interfere.