I’ve done time diaries in the past, where I’ve spent a whole week tracking exactly how I’m spending every minute, but it’s been a while. (I love the data I get from tracking, but the actual tracking is kind of a pain.)
But this spring I did a mini-diary and tracked only the hours I spent working. Will and I knew our family rhythms needed fine-tuning, and before we made big decisions about kids’ activities, babysitters’ hours, and family schedules, I wanted to know exactly how many hours I was working, both at home and away from home.
I used Toggl (one of my favorite apps) to track my time. (Free, easy, highly recommended.) I planned to track my time for one week, but I ended up doing it for longer, because the information was eye-opening and so easy to get.
After two weeks, I had a good idea of what I’ve come to think of as my “baseline”—the minimum number of hours I need to put in each week. At this number, I don’t get ahead, and I can’t advance any big projects. But neither do I fall behind. (This number was lower than I expected.)
After four weeks, I had a good idea of how many hours “stretch” projects consumed. I discovered how many hours felt like a solid, productive work week, and at what point I tipped into too-many-hours territory.
All that information was extremely useful, but the actual act of tracking my time had unexpected benefits:
1. LESS “WASTED” TIME
I thought time-tracking was purely diagnostic, but it subtly changed the way I worked. This is classic Hawthorne effect: I changed my activity because I knew I was being observed, even if only by my app. Because I wanted my data to be accurate, I never let myself click over to twitter or facebook when I’d told Toggl I was doing something more productive.
2. MORE TIME WELL-SPENT
While time tracking, I constantly asked myself: Is this the most important thing I could be doing right now?
An example: social media is part of my work, which makes it dangerous: at what point does “work” slide into “time-wasting”? When I track my time, I’m careful to keep those social media hours low, because I know it will crush my soul to see them represented as a significant percentage of my work week on my weekly report.
3. BETTER DATA
Tracking my time forced me to count those hours that I didn’t really think of as “work,” like last week’s hour on the phone with the accountant. Before I started tracking my time, I wouldn’t have thought about that phone call as work (even though it was business-related) but still would have wondered why I didn’t get as much done that morning (and why my introverted, phone-averse self felt so tired). Tracking my time helps me clearly see how I’m spending my days.
4. BETTER DECISIONS
I can’t know how well I’m using my time—or how much I’m squandering it—until I can see how I’m spending it. Tracking my time helped me see which activities were giving me the most bang for the buck, time-wise, and which ones just weren’t worth it. Based on my time logs I dropped or outsourced several activities that weren’t worth the disproportionally high number of hours they were taking.
5. BETTER PLANNING
This was the whole point of my time log, but it’s worth repeating. Tracking my hours helped us shape up our family schedule, but it’s also helped me better evaluate and plan for my working hours. I know how long things should take, so I can immediately recognize if something is off, and know I need to figure out why.
I’ve had great experiences tracking my time in the past—in all areas of my life, not just work. (The first time I kept a diary I overhauled our household’s laundry routine because I hated learning how much time I was spending on it.) I recommend everyone give it a try at least once; right now I’m trying to psych myself up to track a whole 168 hours. It’s not hard, but it does feel like a commitment.
I’d love to hear all about your experiences with time tracking in comments.