Over the past few years, I’ve made several small references to the fact that I’m a pretty active time tracker. I like to keep track of what I do with my time throughout the day, to the best of my ability, and I find a ton of value not just in doing so, but in the accumulated data.
A few readers over the years have touched base with me on the subject, asking for more details, so I thought there might be value in explaining the full system in detail – why I do it, how I do it, and what value I get from the results. There are definitely some real financial and professional benefits, and benefits in other areas of life, too.
What Is Time Tracking?
Time tracking is pretty much exactly what it sounds like. I simply keep track of my time use each day. Any time I do something for more than about five minutes, or if I interrupt an ongoing task for more than about five minutes, I record that.
Let’s say I wake up in the morning and I decide that I first want to take a shower and get dressed for the day. I mark the time, that I’m no longer sleeping, and that I’m now practicing morning hygiene. When I’m done with that and I decide I want to meditate, I mark the time, that I’m no longer doing morning hygiene, and that I’m now meditating. This goes on and on, to the best of my ability, until I’m ready to go to sleep, at which point I mark the time, that I’m no longer doing whatever it was I was doing right before bed, and that I’m now sleeping. I’ll get into the mechanics of this in a bit, but it takes me less than a second to record those transitions, so it’s practically effortless.
In general, I don’t bother recording very short things, less than five or ten minutes or so. I’m more interested in the larger blocks of time I devote to things like sleep, work, hygiene, meals, hobbies, and so on.
I do not aim for perfection. That would be impossible. Instead, I just aim to get as close as I can to recording the actual edges of the significant chunks of time throughout my day. I’m never absolutely perfect at it.
Why Do It?
The first question most people ask when they hear about this is why. Why would a person even want to do this?
This actually is a practice that I started using at my previous job to document my personal time. I was frustrated by my performance reviews and felt that the reviews didn’t actually assess all of the different things I was actually taking care of and responsible for at work, so for the last year or so of my job, I started tracking my time very carefully using an Excel spreadsheet, doing it all manually. I wanted to produce documentation that showed that I spent X hours in an average week – and Y hours over the last year – doing a particular task and so on. So, the entire thing was initially borne out of a frustration with managers not really understanding or appreciating all of the things I was quietly doing and maintaining.
I learned several things as I was doing this.
First of all, the act of time tracking nudges me to make better use of my time. When I made the conscious decision to be as honest as possible with my time tracking, I quickly realized that I didn’t want to track silly uses of my time. If I were to look at my time tracking data at the end of the day or the end of the week or the end of the month and think to myself that some of those entries were absolutely wasteful or silly, that wouldn’t feel good. I don’t want to see entries like that in my data. So, during the day, I consciously choose things to do that will look better in the data.
This is very similar to the phenomenon of writing down every dime you spend. If you do that honestly, there will be bad expenses that you don’t want to write down, and that desire to not have to record that silly expense pushes you away from that expense. You don’t want to write it down, so you don’t do it.
Second, time tracking keeps me on task. I have a rough rule that if I’m stepping away from the task at hand for more than five minutes, I write down that the task has ended and that I’m moving on to something else. This actually does a great job of keeping me on task. I recognize that if I start browsing websites for very long, I’m actually effectively ending the block of time I spent on task and, as noted above, I don’t want to do that, so I find myself nudging away from pure time-wasting activities.
Finally, time tracking data is incredibly useful, especially as I accumulate more and more of it. I’ll get into this below in the “How I Use the Data” section, but suffice it to say that the data has a great deal of value, professionally, personally, and financially. The things I’ve learn from looking at the time tracking data I’ve accumulated have helped me make better career decisions, make better hobby choices, make better personal decisions, and so on.
When I walked away from that job, I found that the unstructured life of self-employment and contracted work made it very easy to start using time in a … let’s say, less than optimal manner. After a while, I began to realize that I needed to figure out better practices for using my time, and that’s when I returned to time tracking, and I’ve more or less been using it constantly over the last several years. I found that the benefits it brought to my professional life back then actually exist in almost every aspect of my life now.
How I Track My Time
So, how do I actually pull this off without being overly clunky?
For me, the number one most important principle of time tracking is that it must require absolute minimum effort to actually track time. When I first started doing this, I would manually track time in a spreadsheet document, and that was often cumbersome. I had to develop a set of codes to use to make the entry more efficient, but even that was fairly slow. It is very likely that if I were still recording my time manually on a spreadsheet or with a piece of paper, I wouldn’t still be doing it.
The big change for me was the arrival of online services that handle time tracking for you. They basically handle all of the data tracking and reduce it all down to a single button click, though there is a lot of setup work that needs to be done to make it work that well.
I’ve tried a bunch of services and the one I’ve been using for the past few months is far and away the best one I’ve ever used. I use Timery, which is an app that serves as a very user-friendly front end for the Toggl time tracking service. This might require a bit of explanation.
I have been using Toggl as my time tracking service for years because I like the way they handle all of the data that I’ve recorded. The only problem with Toggl is that their actual data entry tools are a bit cumbersome. I usually use my phone or (occasionally) my tablet to record when tasks start and end, but the tools Toggl provides themselves require several taps to do almost anything, which often takes me out of my train of thought.
Timery‘s entire focus is on making data entry into Toggl as simple as possible, reducing most of the time entry down to a single tap off of the Control Center screen on my phone or tablet. I can literally do it in less than a second, fast enough and thoughtless enough that I don’t have to break whatever I’m concentrating on. This has been a revelation for me.
Basically, I have a section on the Control Center screen on my phone called Timery, and within that is a selection of the most common things I track for time. If I have a timer running, it’s shown at the very top in a bigger button, so I just tap that button if I want to end the timer, then I find the button matching what I’m going to do next and tap that to start a new one. Timery handles all of the start and end times and data recording for me so I don’t have to deal with any of it.
I have a much longer list within the app itself for other things, so if I don’t happen to see the thing I’m doing, I tap the Timery app and just scroll down to that timer.
The nice thing about Timery/Toggl is that for each task, you give it a name, assign it a project, and can give it as many tags as you wish. This is huge in terms of sifting through the data once you’ve recorded a bunch of it.
I personally have a couple dozen different projects that are all named with the following structure “[Life Sphere] – [Specific Element].” Life sphere simply refers to one of the eleven areas of my life that I’m concerned with – physical, mental, spiritual, intellectual, social, marital, parental, family, professional, leisure, and financial. Some of those things break down into a few broad groups that I want to track. For example, I have a “Parental – NAME” project for each of my children to record when I’m spending one on one time with them, as well as a “Parental – All” for when I’m doing things with multiple kids at once. I have a “Professional – TSD” project for when I’m doing things with The Simple Dollar, as well as a few other “Professional – ” projects that relate to other professional things I’m doing.
So, for example, I have a task called “Playing Magic with my oldest child” that’s in the project “Parental – Oldest Child.” (Obviously, I use his name in that task, but I try to respect his privacy as much as possible on the site.) He loves playing Magic: the Gathering, so I tap that timer whenever I sit down to play a game or two with him.
Tags are used to include attributes of tasks in different spheres that might have things in common. This is usually to help handle specific tasks that I think are mostly in one project but have a lot in common with tasks in another project.
For example, I use the tags “#mtg” and “#tabletopgames” for the task described above, and there are tasks under the “Leisure” category that have similar tags, so that I can always have a full picture of how much time I spend playing tabletop games and playing Magic in general, with my son and other people combined.
Another example: I have several tasks that are within one of the “Professional” categories that have the tag “#writing” associated with them, so I can always figure out with a few clicks what time I’m spending writing.
Once one of these timers is created, I don’t have to do anything with them again other than to tap it once to start a timer for that task, then tap it again later to end a timer for that task. The name of the task, the category it’s in, and the tags it has are saved by Timery/Toggl, so I don’t have to ever re-enter them again after the first time. I just tap to start a timer, then tap again to end it.
How I Use the Data
So, I’m accumulating all of this data. How am I using it?
First of all, I really like to see week-over-week and month-over-month changes in my time use. Are those changes matching up with what I expect? With what I want out of life?
In terms of planning out my days, I use a “time block” system where I assign several big chunks of time to various things I want to get done, and each of those is usually associated with a timer. When I start to see changes in the data that I don’t like, I usually use that information to change how I’m blocking out my time going forward from there.
For example, let’s say I notice that my time spent with my daughter has declined in the last few months. I’ll likely give that some thought. How is my relationship with my daughter changing? Maybe I need to be spending more time with her. What kinds of things can we do together, just me and her, that would be meaningful and enjoyable for her?
Second, I use the data to help me figure out which work tasks are really worthwhile and which ones aren’t. Ideally, I want to be in a situation where, when I’m actually applying skills to produce work, I’m extremely efficient and earning a nice dollar-per-hour rate for that effort. What productive tasks are most efficient at producing the highest income per hour? Over the last several months, what ones have gone up, and can I connect that to my effort toward learning and improving skills?
For example, let’s say I notice that my time invested in all tasks tagged with “#writing” has gone down a bit over the last few months, but my actual income for writing has gone up. That improves my hourly rate, but why is that? Is it due to the specific tasks? Did I happen to have a really lucrative writing gig? Or maybe it was because I’ve invested some time into honing my writing skills over the past several months. I actually have clues here, data I can work with to figure out how valuable skill building actually is and what tasks and projects are really worthwhile for me. (I have at least one long term contract that now feels like a “dog” because it takes far more time than it gives me, so I know I won’t renew it or sign a similar one going forward. This is something I might not have realized without time tracking.)
In practical terms, this knowledge has led me to spend a fair amount of time working on skill building and knowledge building in the fall and winter months (when I have more time for such things) and then more time on producing things in the spring (where I want to produce a lot of good material quickly to free up time in the summer months). This cycle has worked out well and has enabled me to do some things in the summer that would have never worked in earlier years. It has also led me to agree to some additional projects and decline some others, because the data gives me a pretty clear sense as to whether I can handle them efficiently or not.
Third, seeing time use that I’m unhappy with is an incredibly powerful motivator to get me to cut out less valuable uses of my time. What I’m generally aiming for in life are uses of my time that seem purposeful now, but also seem purposeful when I look back on the data six months from now. If I see time uses that aren’t purposeful, I want to make changes, and those changes are usually positive for my life.
I’ll use computer games as an example. I think a small amount of computer game use is great for me. It is a powerful tool for short term de-stressing and the types of games I play usually make me think and analyze complex puzzles. I’m actually happy with a small amount of it – say, three hours a week. What I’m not happy with it is a steady uptick in the time I spend on computer games or when my time given to them adds up to a lot more than three hours a week. When I see that, I recognize immediately that I need to cut back and give more time to other things.
The reverse is also true. I generally like to see as much time as possible devoted to physical fitness and meditation, two practices I feel are extremely helpful in my daily life. When I see the time devoted to those things going down, I recognize that I need to consciously give more time to those things.
To put it simply, I have in my head an idea of what an “ideal week” and an “ideal month” look like. (An “ideal day” is kind of impossible because days vary too much.) There’s a certain portion of hours devoted to each area of my life, with some areas receiving more focus depending on the time of year. When I start to deviate a lot from that picture, I usually feel it in my life in a negative subconscious way, but I often don’t pick up on it consciously aside from a vague sense that something is off in terms of how I’m living my life. Time tracking almost always points me to what that problem is.
Finding Time for Time Tracking
Honestly, it doesn’t take much time at all to do this, once you’ve got a bunch of timers for the things in your life you want to track set up.
When I’m going through my day and tracking time, I can stop a timer and start a new one with a flick and two taps of my finger; it’s so fast that it barely registers as a conscious thing. It’s kind of a habit that you build up over time, so that it almost becomes unconscious to do it. (Yes, for some less common tasks, it takes an extra tap or two, but that’s like a five second thing.)
As I’ve mentioned many times, I take an hour or two each week (usually early on Sunday mornings, before anyone else is up) to do a “weekly review” of my life, looking at what I accomplished this week and figuring out what I’m going to do next week and going forward beyond that. I use the time tracking data as part of this review; I spend some time looking at my data for the past week and digging into anything that stands out at me. Sometimes, I’ll have a particular question in mind (like “how effective is time spent on focused research in terms of how efficient my actual writing time is?”) and I’ll dig through the data until I get a good answer. Usually, those conclusions help me figure out how to use my time better going forward and informs my planning for the coming week.
When I initially set up the system, it took about an hour to set up my initial handful of timers, and for the first month or two, I was adding timers fairly regularly (took about a minute each, most of which was thinking about exactly what I wanted to track). After that, I’ve occasionally added a new timer, but not often.
So, time tracking takes up very, very little of my time. It’s super convenient and not cumbersome in any way. Although previous iterations of my system were a bit cumbersome, that’s been eliminated thanks to technology improvements.
Time tracking is something that has had surprising positive value in my life. It’s helped me figure out lots of different life problems and helped me figure out what’s going on during times when I’ve felt things were out of whack in my life. It’s helped me figure out how to become much more efficient with my professional work and understand how time spent building skills actually ends up helping my overall professional life tremendously. It’s helped me identify areas of my life that need work, and other areas of my life to which I’m devoting too much of my time.
The system takes a bit of time to set up – an hour or two, most likely – and it definitely requires you to build a habit of tracking time as a natural response to changing what you’re doing, but once you get there, actually tracking the information is slick and natural.
The data, once you start to accumulate a sufficient amount of it, is incredibly useful in terms of figuring out what’s really going on in your life and setting priorities and goals going forward.
I’m really glad that time tracking is a part of my life. For the relatively small amount of time I’ve given to it, it’s resulted in a lot of insights and a lot of positive directions for me. I’m glad I chose to start doing it, and I plan on continuing to do this for a very long time, likely until I hit early retirement and our children have moved out of the home.