This post will form part of a series (‘Cool Tools’) where we will provide some information about the software that we use to get things done here at PRWD. First up, two pieces of software: Slimtimer and Mozilla Prism.
The problem that Slimtimer attempts to solve is the problem of time-tracking. When you’re doing a mixture of in-house project work, billable client work and travelling to meetings, events and workshops, it’s important to keep a track of how long you spend on these activities. The uses of this data can be varied – perhaps you want to know which clients require the most time spent in meetings, or you want to compare project estimates with time logged – but the most obvious reason is to keep track of time spent for billing purposes.
Slimtimer aims to solve all of that, by providing a good general-purpose time-and-task management system. It’s entirely web-based, meaning that there’s no software to install and you can access it from anywhere. It enables you to track – down to the second – time spent on individual activities, and it allows you to place comments and tags on these activities for later review. This makes organising your tasks very flexible. You could have a ‘Coding’ task, with different tags to reflect the different projects, or you could do it the other way around – tasks for each project, with tags indicating the type of activity undertaken. It all depends on what you find to make the most sense.
Upon logging in to your Slimtimer account (accounts are free, though premium accounts are available) you can go straight to the ‘Manage Tasks’ page. This gives you an overview of the tasks that you have added and how many hours you’ve spent on them. Before you can record any time on a task, you need to add it here.
You can also add default tags to a task – for example ‘billable’ might be a good tag for all tasks which relate to billable work. ‘Personal’ might be used for personal tasks, and so on.
Once you’ve added some tasks, you can start tracking your time. There’s an ‘Edit Entries’ interface which allows you to input details of how long you spent doing something – great for recording activities that took place away from the computer, such as meetings or events. But one really useful feature is the ability to start a live timer which counts time as you spend it. Right now, my timer is ticking away on the ‘Blogging’ task, recording how long I’m spending writing this post (once it’s done, I might add a comment to the task entry with a link to the post I’ve written, so I can see exactly where the time went). From within the timer window, just click the name of the task and the timer starts immediately and continues until you click the ‘stop’ symbol or click another task.
Now, this is where things get interesting and where the second part of this post begins. Slimtimer does allow you to open this timer up in a new browser window, but there are a few pitfalls here: what if you close the browser? What if it crashes? What if the timer keeps getting lost amongst the 50-or-so tabs you have open? What if your job doesn’t involve having a web browser running constantly?
This is where Mozilla Prism steps in. Prism is a system which creates a special instance of the Mozilla browser (you know, the browser that Firefox is based on) which runs only one website. I now have a ‘Slimtimer’ application on my Windows start menu and when I click it, Slimtimer opens straight up. No typing in URLs or clicking bookmarks. If I close Firefox down, Slimtimer stays running. In fact, I copied the Slimtimer shortcut to my Windows ‘Startup’ folder, so now Slimtimer starts running when my PC starts up, even if I never go near a browser. This gives Slimtimer a lot of the appearance of being a full application, and makes it a lot easier to keep track of. There’s a permanent Slimtimer icon in my system tray and clicking this brings Slimtimer up immediately.
Prism can be used for a whole range of other sites too and is particularly suited to those productivity sites which you need constant rapid access to – mail, calendar and task management sites. In fact, any site that you have open constantly could probably benefit from living inside its own dedicated ‘application’.
To Prism-ize a site, install the Firefox Prism extension, then browse to the site in question and simply click ‘Convert Website to Application’ from the ‘Tools’ menu. There are a few options to configure, but the defaults probably won’t need changing – just choose where you want your shortcuts created. And to have an application start up with Windows, just copy a shortcut to the ‘Startup’ folder in the Start Menu’s Programs folder.