Put yourself on the clock.

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:

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.  

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.

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.

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.

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. 

P.S. You get what you measure, and a great little book about time management.

5 lessons from tracking your time


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  1. Ana says:

    I tracked my time a few times in the past couple of years (and I’m downloading the Toggl app right now! I’ve been meaning to check it out). I agree completely that it cut down on time-wasting—I didn’t want to “pollute” my work time with 30 seconds on facebook or 2 minutes on a blog, so I stayed off except for scheduled breaks. Looking at what I spent on each project or task throughout the week also let me see what non-priorities I was spending too much time on (so try to make more efficient or delegate) and even more important, what priorities I was neglecting (so that I could make sure to schedule time in for those).

  2. Jacki says:

    The photography bundle popped up from two different sources on my Pinterest page this morning, so when I saw the picture of it on your blog, I thought it was there just as a cookie-promoted ad. Thanks for talking about the bundle- I’m taking this third mention of it as a sign that I should buy this for my daughter!

  3. Cassie says:

    I have just started using a planner. I don’t seem time tracking in my near future, but I am definitely getting more done with a little morning planning time. Actually writing down my to do list instead of thinking it seems to be more productive.

  4. Hannah says:

    Getting real work done always takes less time than I think it will, but more concentration. I need to work not on finding more hours but better hours in which to get important stuff done…

    • Kristina M. says:

      100% THIS!! I don’t need more time, I need more focus. I have to repeat it to myself over and over. Maybe it’ll become my new mantra 🙂

  5. My time tracking is very, very low key and low tech. Many of my author friends keep word-count records to determine progress, but because I mainly write verse novels and picture books, my word counts are dismally low (and rather depressing). I’ve gotten into the habit of writing down the hours I write instead. Watching the hours add up, week after week, is a reminder that I don’t have to have an entire book figured out all at once. I just have to show up for the work.

    This isn’t a perfect tool. When I’m on deadline I’m much more likely to keep writing time just that (and there’s Mac Freedom to help me when I need it!)

    I’ve been meaning to tell you how sorry I am about your dog. I hope your family is doing well.

  6. Danae says:

    There is so much value in seeing the actual time and resources needed to complete a task. I feel like it makes it less daunting and easier to schedule. Every so often (when I feel things getting a little unbalanced), I do the 168 exercise and map out the actual time I spend on everything in a week, including sleep. It helps me see where my activity doesn’t match my priorities.

  7. Cindy says:

    I did several time studies during my working years, but have recently retired and the days disappear so quickly I’m challenged to understand what happens to the time. When I read this, I thought it would be a good idea to track my time so I got my phone to get the Toggl app and spent an hour on Facebook! I guess I need the app more than I thought!

  8. Anne McD says:

    It’s amazing, isn’t it? It all comes down to budgets. When we pay attention to how we spend our money, time, calories, we become more mindful of how we are spending them. I guess Socrates was on to something 😉

    • Kelty says:

      True dat, yo.

      And yet, it’s such a simple solution that my brain does not want to believe it will really make that much of a difference. I’m working on that. And recent successes on the money and food fronts makes me a whole lot more interested in time-tracking then I used to be.

  9. This is a subject you know is dear to my heart 🙂 I have been continuously tracking my time for 2 months now, and it’s been fun to see long term trends and patterns. The good news is that I’m sleeping more as the baby gets older. Still not getting as much time with the older kids as I like because the baby consumes a high proportion of the overall kid time. It also turns out that I have a better social life than I think I do!

    • Anne says:

      Yes I do! I still point people all the time to What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast as a quick-hit, bang-for-the-buck plunge into time management and time tracking. 🙂

  10. Katherine says:

    I have tracked my time once and it was so valuable. I learned how little time one of my least favorite tasks actually took, and I saw how much time I actually spend with my kids (at least on that week). Both pieces of knowledge were incredibly freeing. The hated task really took next-to-no time (so I stopped dreading it so much) and I felt really happy with the amount of time I spent with my kids (so I shut down that voice that told me I should feel guilty for not playing with them enough).

    • Anne says:

      It’s funny you should say that: the first time I tracked my time I had similar findings. I was shocked at the amount of time I was spending—like, real quality time—with my kids. The actual number was much higher than I expected it to be.

  11. Kelty says:

    I’ve loved the idea of time-tracking in theory but have historically avoided it for various reasons. I’ve recently considered it again as I often have impulse-control issues when it comes to staying on task. My brain lights up with “Oh I should do xyz” and then I’m off and completely pulled out of what I’d set out to do. This leads to just a fragmented feeling at the end of my day. I’ve wondered if tracking would help, if only because shifting from one activity to another so quickly would require noting it and my lazy self might just stay on task to avoid that. Ha! As another commenter said, thanks for the nudge!

    • Kelty says:

      I do have a question – how granular to you get about it? Like for instance, you’re working and you have to go to the bathroom or refill your coffee/water or you need to check emails, etc.?

      • Anne says:

        I don’t get super-granular (because I’ve found that if I aim for super-detailed, I just won’t do it), but it’s easy enough to hit “stop” and “start” for bathroom and coffee breaks.

  12. I use Toggl for tracking my time in client projects where I’m paid by the hour, but it’s hard for me to get the motivation to use it otherwise. I know there’s value in it though—once I actually quit a freelancing job because time-tracking helped me realize that I was spending far too much time on a low-paying client!

    I’d love if you’d write a post someday about how you tweak your schedule based on your time-tracking. You mentioned switching up your laundry schedule and fine-tuning your family’s routine. It would be really helpful for me to see that in action since I rarely know how to make positive changes based on my tracked data.

  13. Anne says:

    What great insights for you, Anne. I downloaded Toggl but haven’t used it yet. (Is this a really popular photog bundle? Curious to hear about it.)

  14. Bekki says:

    We have a very laid back “mornings are for mom” policy during the summer. I can assign chores, schoolwork or projects until noon – ish with the understanding that afternoons are free time or an outing. Knowing that mornings are “mine” gets me up and running during the cooler part of the day.

  15. Lindsay says:

    I am in desperate need of a time tracking experiment. My discipline with time management needs some tweaking. I’m going to give Toggl a try. Thanks for the tip!

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