I listen to a lot of productivity podcasts, and one of the things that often comes up is time tracking. The idea is that people use apps and services that allow them to track how much time they spend on different tasks throughout the day. A lot of the people I’ve heard advocating for it swear that it makes them more productive.
The weird thing is that time tracking is usually something that an employer does to keep an eye on how its employees spend their time. In that sense, it feels a lot like micromanaging, which is why it was honestly confusing that anyone would want to impose that on themselves.
Of course, I consider many of these same people to be very smart, so it seemed like something worth trying before I pass judgment. So, I did.
For three months, I tracked everything I did. I set up an account using a service called Toggl, and installed an app called Timery on my iPhone. Timery, by the way, is a great little app from an independent developer that–if I was inclined to track my time all the time–would be a great choice. My problem isn’t with the app, it’s with the entire idea of tracking time.
There are two exceptions, by the way. The first is if you actually have to track time spent on different projects for clients. If you’re a lawyer, for example. Or, if you’re a creative agency that bills for your time. In this case, you’re not doing it for the sake of evaluating your time to be more productive, you’re doing it to get paid. As a general rule, you should always do things necessary to get paid.
The other exception is if you find you just can’t seem to get organized or accomplish everything you need to do in your ordinary course of work. If that’s the case, it’s probably worth keeping track of your time for a week so you can see how you’re actually spending it. That will give you a baseline metric for you to figure out where you need to make changes.
If you don’t fit into either of those groups, time tracking introduces far too much digital overhead compared to what you get out of it. For me, it simply doesn’t provide enough benefit to offset the additional administrative work it adds to my life.
Really, that comes down to three problems:
Problem 1: What level of detail do you want to track?
One of the first problems I faced was deciding what level of detail I wanted to track. Should I track based on broad categories like “writing,” “research,” “catching up on email?” Or, do I need to be more specific about what I’m writing, or researching, or whatever? Also, what happens if I’m emailing a source about a story I’m researching?
Figuring out which level of detail I’m supposed to track was the most frustrating thing, especially since it’s almost impossible to go back and break things out into more detail later. At the same time, it’s just as difficult to try and anticipate all of the possible ways you might want to keep track of what you do.
Problem 2: It’s only valuable if you actually do it for everything.
If you’re going to get anything useful out of the data you generate from tracking your time, you have to track everything. That includes the time when you’re not really doing much of anything at all. Otherwise, the data you get doesn’t give you a real picture of how you spend your time.
Again, this goes back to the level of detail you decide to track. The thing is, there’s very little chance that you’ll remember to do it for everything, making the entire thing a pretty frustrating exercise in trying to remember one more thing you have to do every time you do anything.
Problem 3: No one wants to be micromanaged, even if it’s by themselves.
That might be the biggest problem of all–that it’s just not sustainable for anyone who doesn’t absolutely have to track their time. For everyone else, it just starts to feel like micromanaging your day. I don’t know about you, but I have enough things to do without giving myself a hard time about whether I remembered to keep a journal of all those things.
That, really, was the problem. It takes weeks to really develop a habit of time tracking. Even after three months, I still found myself having to go back and estimate how much time I had spent on something since I forgot to start a timer.
I think the argument is that there’s some existential value to being able to look at a report of what you actually did at the end of a week. To some extent that’s true, but I think there’s a better way.
There’s a better system.
Instead, I use a pretty simple system. I keep a list of things I need to accomplish. Then, I give them deadlines.
This is different than time tracking, which feels reactive. That’s just not how I want to work or live. This system feels intentional. Instead of waiting for a report to see how I spent my time, I just decide how I want to spend my time, and then put it on the calendar.
Essentially, instead of saying “I wonder how much time I spent on all of these different tasks,” I say “I have this much time to spend on this. Then I have to be done and move on to the next thing.”
I’ve long been a big “write a list on a piece of paper” type of person. And, I still do. I keep a list of big-picture tasks, and add to it all of the things that come up in the day. Then, I add them to my calendar using a type of block scheduling. I actually love the app Things for this since I can easily keep things organized by project, and set deadlines that remind me when it’s time to work on things.
For random small tasks, there’s a block of time on the schedule for all of those. Even better, if I’m thinking of adding something to my list that will take me less than two minutes, I just do it. Honestly, it’s amazing how much you can get done when you give yourself a deadline.