Two Tools To Boost Your Web Development Workflow

If there is one aspect of my professional life that I need to improve upon it is tracking my time. What? Track time? If a client, or my boss, wanted to know exactly how much effort I’d put into a certain project I’d be lucky if I didn’t have to give an educated guess. If […]

If there is one aspect of my professional life that I need to improve upon it is tracking my time.

What? Track time?

If a client, or my boss, wanted to know exactly how much effort I'd put into a certain project I'd be lucky if I didn't have to give an educated guess. If it was a project that I hadn't worked on in a long time I'd be in trouble.

Worse, I have no idea how efficient I've been and no way of knowing how to improve.

Out of the frying pan

Recently we had a few big projects come down the line at work and I found myself turned into a bottleneck. There were a lot of good reasons like inaccurate time estimates and scope creep. But bottom line was me working like crazy while the rest of the team twiddled their thumbs. Not a good situation.

What's worse is that I was stuck in the thick of it. I was trying to catch up, without the luxury of being able to take a step back and see how I could make it better.

I was so busy running around putting out fires with a bucket that I was unable to go and find the hose or figure out how to prevent the fire in the first place.

Luckily I recently stumbled upon two different web apps that have come to my rescue. :-)

Rescue Time

Rescue Time is my new favorite web app. It automatically tracks just about everything I do when I'm on the computer or using my phone. I can tell exactly how much time I spend using a certain program or browsing a certain website.

Instant Magic. I feel like I have always made pretty effective use of my time. But installing the app and just being aware of exactly what I am doing has made it much easier to keep focus.

One of my favorite things about the app is that the UI is so simple I can tell at a glance how effective my day has been. This screen show shows exactly how much time I recorded, when it was recorded, and how much time I spent in various preset categories. All this activity is distilled into one big, bold number that tells me how productive my day has been.

Rescue Time Dashboard

Rescue Time also records in detail so I can look and see what my top websites have been. Not only is it pretty interesting to see my tracks all across my desk top and the web, but it's also incredibly useful

Rescue Time Spotlight

I haven't yet sprung for the premium version but at this point I think it's inevitable. It's just too powerful a tool not to.

Wakatime

Wakatime automagically tracks how much time I actually spend in my code editor making things happen. It integrates with all the major code editors.

Wakatime Supported Editors

Sublime Text is my go-to all-purpose editor. But, when I'm working on something particularly complex, I often find myself in PHPStorm or one of the other Jetbrains IDEs. I like Brackets a lot and I use it for some Javascript stuff but it hasn't quite reached the level of Sublime Text. Adding the plugin to each of these editors was as simple as a few clicks.

As soon as everything installed, Wakatime started tracking.

Wakatime Dashboard

Just one glance at the dashboard told me a lot about what I was working on. Like the fact that I somehow managed to spend the exact same amount of time working on my two projects that day.

But that wasn't the only insight. I was able to see which tasks I could just blast through and which ones have taken a little time to work out.

For example I can look at the gaps in my reelgrobman project and figure out just what they were. The biggest gap was my lunch break and a 30min meeting right after I got back. But the other gaps are either times when something in the office distracted me or when I was not working inside the code editor.

The Punchline

What really gets me pumped about these two apps is how they work together. I can login to Rescue Time and see which programs/websites I was using during the time gaps I found in Wakatime.

If Rescue Time tells me I was on Facebook that's obviously not a good use of time. But if it tells me I spent all my time on stackoverflow or google then I know I was probably troubleshooting some code or digging around for answers.

How awesome is that. Now if I go back to my task list I can see which tasks were simple and which ones required a little more work. I can also tell exactly how much time I spent coding as opposed to searching for answers.

This is super valuable for a number of reasons.

First, I can give much better estimates. Because I can see exactly how much time I've spent working on a particular file I know exactly how long it takes to build certain elements of a website. This is invaluable information for our sales guys. Now when they are putting together a proposal they know exactly what to charge for certain things rather than just making a guess.

Second, if you have ever worked with a designer then you know they can either be your best friend or your worst enemy. With the type of data granularity we get with these two apps I can tell exactly what parts of the design were challenging. If I spend 10 min working on a homepage element and then the next 40 min are spent on stack overflow I know that I just ran up against a challenging piece of design or functionality.

Bottom line, Wakatime and Rescue Time tell me exactly how much time I am spending working on a homepage or an interior page or a header. This leads to more accurate estimates, and better feedback for designers on how much time designs take to code.

I've just gotten started using these tools but I'm excited to see what new things I can learn. I've you haven't yet tried either of these apps you definitely should. They are pretty awesome in their own right. But with their powers combined…

Edited: Added a few points I missed earlier. Also, if you want a more practical breakdown of the method check out my comment below.

6 responses to “Two Tools To Boost Your Web Development Workflow”

  1. Hi Rob,
    you say ‘Now if I go back to my task list I can see which tasks were simple and which ones required a little more work.’ But how do you see which tasks took what time, if none of the apps (Waka/Rescue) track time spent on tasks?

    • Great question Michal. Although neither functions like a task/time tracking app, like toggl or harvest, because I know the nature of the task I can look at what the apps do track and easily figure it out.

      For example, Let’s assume my task is to code the homepage of a WordPress website. I begin the task without starting a timer. When the task is completed I can go to wakatime and see that I spent 1.5 hours in Sublime Text working on font-page.php and 2 hours working on front-page.scss. Now I know that I spent 3.5 hours writing code. But If I look at Wakatime I can see that there is a gap in the time I spent coding during the morning before getting sucked into meetings and interviews all afternoon.

      Here is a screenshot of my dashboard from yesterday.
      Wakatime dashboard screenshot

      What was I doing during that gap? Rescue Time has the answer.
      Rescue Time dashboard screenshot

      I can break things down by hour and see that Rescue Time only recorded 45 min during that hour. This means I was away from my computer and likely on a phone call or in a meeting. I can also see that all the time I spent on other sites was directly related to the task I was working on. Stackoverflow, google, and the wordpress codex are all references for what I was working. I also checked an email. Took some notes in Mou. Checked out a service (workday) looking for an API integration for a client. And spent 1 min 22 sec looking at Facebook. Shame on me. :-)

      All in all, it was a really productive hour.

      Now I know exactly what I was working on during the time I was doing the task. I didn’t have to start or stop a timer. Or forget to stop it and let it run all during my afternoon meetings until the next morning at which point I have no idea when I actually stopped working on the task.

      Does that answer your question?

      • In a way yes. I use Waka+Rescue Time as well, but then I also start/stop my tasks.

        I get it that you don’t have to start a timer, but then the downside is you have to go digging to see how much time you actualy took to complete a task, which begs the question – isn’t it better to just start a timer?

        I like to see what I’ve done for the same reasons as you do, but then if I work on something for a few days there would be no way I’d go digging for the total hours that task took.

        I guess it boils down to whats your goals, so I bet your app combo works for yours :)

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