How to Track Your Time

If you want to make the most of your time and be more productive, you have to start by analyzing how you spend your time currently. You can’t improve if you don’t know where you’re starting. Managing time is a balancing act. We all have a finite number of minutes in every hour, day, and week. If you want to spend your time differently, you have to know what you can realistically give up and how much time it really adds up to.

One of the most common ways people track how they spend their time is to estimate it at the end of the day or week. Unfortunately, human beings are really bad at estimating how they spend their time. When people estimate how much time they’ve spent doing various things after the fact, they typically overestimate time worked by 5 to 10 percent (Robinson et al. 2011) and underestimate leisure time. They also fairly often somehow have more than 168 hours, which is all the time there is in a week!

1. Create a Time Diary

Time diaries are different. In a time diary, one accounts for blocks of time throughout the day, such as 30-minute intervals, rather than estimating how their time was time spent at the end of a day or week. People are more accurate in their estimates with time diaries than time estimate surveys.

So create a time diary that has 30-minute or one-hour blocks (author and time-management expert Laura Vanderkam has templates), and a few times a day, note what you were doing in them. Use a spreadsheet or a notebook if you prefer paper. A spreadsheet will be more efficient, though, because you can copy and paste entries that repeat, and because you can always code or categorize blocks of times if you want to run further analysis on them.

I don’t actually think it’s necessary to log every single 30-minute block, however. Or at least, you don’t have to do it from memory. The process of logging your time manually is tedious and, well, time consuming. There are better, easier ways to track a lot your time that actually result in much more detailed information. So add step 2…

2. Install Time-Tracking Software

Using time-tracking software is a much more passive way to get very accurate information about how you spend your time, or at least how you spend your time while your computer is on. So install some time-tracking software. Then you won’t need to note in your time diary any of the hours you spend using computers. If you’re a knowledge worker, that will mean you can eliminate time-tracking for somewhere around eight hours of your day.

I’m a fan of RescueTime, which I’ve mentioned on this blog before, because it’s very general and flexible, and it isn’t specifically designed for billing and invoicing. Also, it’s free version is very good. Many other time-tracking software apps, such as Toggl and Paydirt, are meant for tracking billable hours and invoicing.

RescueTime works like this: You install the app on your computers. It passively tracks the applications you use and websites you visit. It also tracks idle time (with the paid version only), that is, moments when you leave your computer on but are not typing or mousing for several minutes. Usually, idle time indicates you took a break, were in a meeting, or had a phone call. When RescueTime spots idle time, it asks you to classify what you were doing, and it records that information for reports about how you spend your time that it will generate later.

RescueTime free 2016 weekly report
A weekly report of time spent on a computer by RescueTime (free version).

When you first start using RescueTime, you tell the application what apps and websites are productive, unproductive, or neutral. You also classify sites and apps, for example calling Evernote a “business” application that’s associated with productivity, but labeling YouTube as an unproductive website that’s “entertainment.” These classifications are important because what’s productive for me may not be productive for you. For instance, reading tech news and reviews is productive for me because it’s directly related to my work. Email is productive for some and highly unproductive for others.

Time-tracking software can’t account for all of your time all day long, just time spent while your computer was running. Some time-tracking apps do also make mobile apps (RescueTime has an Android app), but they still can’t quite capture the full picture of how you spend your time.

3. Rely on Data from Other Passively Trackers

In addition to writing about productivity and technology, I also write about fitness trackers. Fitness trackers are another kind of tool that passively track how we spend our time… sort of. On their own, fitness trackers don’t tell us where we were or what we were doing, but often we can use the data they collect to trigger our memory.

For example, let’s say I forget to record in my time diary what I was doing Saturday between 1p.m. and 4p.m. I might look at my fitness tracking apps (I use both Garmin Connect and Misfit regularly) to see that I was mostly idle from 1:00 to 2:00, then I tracked a swim between roughly 2 and 2:30. I was mostly idle after that until 3:00. Then there’s a small spike of activity between 3:00 and 4:00. The hour-by-hour graphs from a fitness tracker might help me remember that first I drove to the pool, then I swam, then I read a book by the pool, then I drove to the mall, and finally I walked around the mall for half an hour.

Most fitness trackers these days also double as sleep trackers, so you can record how much time you spend in bed much more accurately than just estimating it. Unsurprisingly, people are very bad at estimating how much time they sleep, too (Lauderdale et al., 2008).

4. Use Your Data!

An ongoing problem with data is that people collect it and don’t use it.

After tracking your time for a few weeks, look over the results. Are you spending more time on something that you don’t really feel is necessary, such as watching videos or playing video games? Before you decide to trade off the bulk of that time with something more productive, consider the purpose of that time that’s not as well spent as you’d like. Some people need mindless activities in their day to help them recover from work. When I’m watching television, it’s usually because I’ve exhausted my mental resources for the day and I need to do something enjoyable. I could trade that TV time for a long walk or a bicycle ride, but I could not use that time for writing or reading research. Writing and reading research require me to be firing on all cylinders.

What I could do instead is look at my RescueTime reports and identify times early in the day (when I’m at my most productive) that I’m not using effectively. If I notice that I get sucked into social media before noon, that’s the activity and time I should swap for writing and reading research. I can play around on social media later when my brain is fried. Social media doesn’t require me to be firing on all cylinders.

Tracking your time and using the knowledge you get from it to improve your personal productivity is, as I said before, a balancing act. It’s all about figuring out not only how you spend your time but when you should and shouldn’t do certain kinds of tasks. The more you know about your habits and routines—the need for TV when you burn out, for example, or the fact that you’re at your highest productivity in the morning—the more you can manipulate them to get more of what you want out of life.

References

Lauderdale, D. S., Knutson, K. L., Yan, L. L., Liu, K., & Rathouz, P. J. (2008). Sleep duration: how well do self-reports reflect objective measures? The CARDIA Sleep Study. Epidemiology, 19(6): 838–845. doi: 10.1097/EDE.0b013e318187a7b0

Robinson, J. P., Martin, S., Glorieux, I., & Minnen, J. (2011). The overestimated workweek revisited. Monthly Labor Review, June 2011. Retrieved May 20, 2016 from http://www.bls.gov/opub/mlr/2011/06/art3full.pdf

Image by Mister G.C., CC.

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