The Screen Time feature first appeared in iOS 12 to help you track your app usage on iPhone and iPad. It now runs on macOS Catalina with one big downside: it only shows you how long apps have been open, not how long you’ve been using them.
Luckily, there are Screen Time alternatives that are much better at keeping track of screen time than Apple’s built-in tool.
Problem with Screen Time app in Catalina
On iOS, you can’t have more than two active «focused» apps on the screen at the same time, but that’s not the case on the Mac.
Most people leave apps open in the background on their Mac without even noticing it. Have you ever closed your browser? Are you listening to music right now through Spotify or the Catalina replacement in iTunes? Are the apps you use for email, notes, or calendar currently open? What apps are open in the menu bar at the top of the screen?
Screen Time tracks open apps, not those currently in use. As a result, it doesn’t provide meaningful data about where your time went. You can’t see how much time you’ve spent typing a report, reading, replying to emails, or browsing Facebook.
Ultimately, this makes Screen Time pretty useless on a Mac if you want to use it for productivity. One workaround is to close apps as soon as you’re done with them, but that’s not how the vast majority of people use their computer. If you want to determine which apps are wasting your time, you’ll have to find an alternative.
Screen Time has parental controls
With Screen Time, Apple has also consolidated existing parent controls into a single interface. The options previously available in System Preferences > Parental Controls can now be found in the Control Panel instead of System Preferences > Screen Time.
This includes the ability to restrict content based on age ratings, block adult sites, and play multiplayer games through Game Center. You can also define an «Idle Time» in which applications must be whitelisted in order to be usable. So far, so good.
You can also set limits on how long you can use the app in the App Limits section of your Screen Time settings. In theory, this sounds great. Click the plus sign (+) to add the app or category you want to restrict, and then set the time interval that the app or category can be used every 24 hours. Limits reset at midnight.
Unfortunately, app restrictions are subject to the same arbitrary monitoring as any other app. For example, if you set a time limit of two hours per day for Safari, the timer will run as long as the app is open, even if no one is using it. If you have children, they will probably be the first to notice how shortsighted and «unfair» this is.
Setting limits for kids is all part of a healthy relationship with modern technology. Unfortunately, Apple’s tools for this are incomplete.
Parents can still use downtime to limit apps between set hours, as well as content filtering to prevent their kids from accessing mature content.
Notifications and pickups aren’t too helpful
Screen Time also keeps track of how many notifications you get, as well as pickups (how many times you wake up your Mac or restart it).
It’s much easier to silence notifications on your Mac than it is on iOS. On a Mac, media players like Music and Spotify give a new notification every time a track changes. If you’re low on disk space or waiting for a macOS update, you’ll be dismissing notifications all day long. This feature isn’t necessarily broken in the same way that app tracking is, but it’s also not very useful.
Pickup trucks manage to be even less useful. On an iPhone or iPad, Pickups keeps track of how many times you unlocked your device and which app was responsible for it. This can be useful if you want to limit the number of notifications or certain apps during business hours to improve productivity. You can check the pickups to see which apps distract you the most.
On a Mac, it doesn’t make much sense. Notifications don’t wake up the screen and don’t require as much attention as they do on iOS. When I leave «Music» on and wake up from my Mac, Screen Time logs pickup music as the reason I woke up my Mac. Actually, I just wanted to wake up the computer so I could get back to work.
Best macOS Screen Time Alternatives
Apps that track your computer usage are nothing new. Some people use them to improve and track their performance. Some freelancers who charge hourly rates use them to generate reports. Others simply use them to remind themselves that they actually did something during the day.
Timing is one of the most advanced applications of this type. It is available in three levels: Performance ($39), Professional ($69), or Expert ($99). In its main settings, Timing automatically keeps track of how much time you spend in each application and includes information such as the window title and path.
All data is collected and displayed on the browsing screen. Here you can see which apps you have used. You can also organize the use of a project or task. You’ll see the websites you’ve visited, relevant keywords (such as project name) and the folders you’ve visited most often.
The Timing app is best for people who love to practice their productivity. An application can generate a performance score, but how well this feature works depends on how you organize the data. You can export your data in raw.CSV format. When you upgrade, you can export to XLS and PDF formats and create invoices.
If you choose the Professional version of Timing, you can add data points for the manual tasks you do outside of your Mac so you can keep track of every aspect of your day. If you need to fully customize reports, generate invoices, and connect the Zapier API and plugin, go to the Expert level. You can also find an expert version of Timing in SetApp.
The time sink is another alternative and it only costs $5. It’s much easier to use than Timing, but it works the same way. The application automatically and accurately tracks the time you spend in various applications. You can also manually log activities that you perform outside of your Mac.
Time Sink uses pools to help you keep track of related activities. Because it groups similar activities into categories (like Chat), you get a broad overview of where your time is going — even Screen Time doesn’t do that. Time Sink also logs the total time the app is open and the amount of time you are actively using it. You can see all this in the application activity report.
If you need more powerful features like invoice generation or API, then Time Sink is not for you. However, if you just want a cheap app to help you keep track of your daily habits and boost your productivity, Time Sink might be the best $5 you’ll spend this week.
ActivityWatch is a free time tracking app for Mac, Windows and Linux. It automatically logs your activity on your Mac, including which apps you use and which domains you spend the most time on. A small application runs in the background to collect data that you can view in your browser.
Other similar Mac apps that automatically track your app usage include ManicTime , RescueTime and WakaTime .
Use screen time for parental controls
None of the Screen Time alternatives offer anything like the parental controls that Apple has built into its built-in feature. If you want to use parental controls on your Mac, you still need to adjust Screen Time.
However, if you’re primarily looking to track exactly what you’re doing with your time throughout your workday, you have far more accurate options than Screen Time.
How Apple can get this wrong when products like Timing and Time Sink take so long to figure it out is baffling.