There are two kinds of people in this world: Those who enjoy tracking what they do with their time all day, and the rest of us, who would rather watch paint dry. I used to be in the latter group… until I discovered I was doing it all wrong.
Illustration: Sam Woolley
This is a big deal for me, as someone who hates even thinking about time. (Seriously, do not talk to me about time travel movies.) I’d rather dive into a project, work uninterrupted by the outside world, and somehow emerge from that stupor with something done. I know that’s not the reality for many workplaces, though, or even feasible with a flexible work schedule. The danger of this ignore-time approach is working too much and burning out — things I tend to brush up against often.
I’ve tried many time tracking apps before, but even the simplest ones felt like torture to me. Even automatic time tracking tool RescueTime, which can provide a ton of insights into your productivity, didn’t do anything for me, perhaps because it only tracks time on the computer, and I crave a more holistic view — not just of how productive I am while at the keyboard, but how well I’m using my time in general. I thought I just a hopeless cause when it came to time tracking and time management.
That all changed for me about five months ago when I started using a productivity planner called the Passion Planner. I got it primarily to help me write out my goals and break them down into tasks over the year. Surprisingly, it’s helped me start and enjoy time tracking.
How I Track My Time in the Planner
To be fair, any kind of weekly or daily planner would have worked. This one has a large two-page spread for each week, with each day divided by the half-hour. It’s meant for appointments and events and other scheduling, but my days are boringly event-free. (I’d rather have events on a digital calendar anyway.) Instead of using the space to block out time in the future, I decided to start jotting down what I did after every major task. And because I am a nerd, I invested in some pleasantly coloured highlighters and Japanese planner stickers to colour code and fancy up my days.
I try to work in focused (usually 90-minute) blocks of time. After each block, or before I take a break, I write down what I did and highlight it according to my categories (work, home/family, exercise/life maintenance, side work, creative projects and friends/outings). That’s it. While this is neither an original nor clever concept, this method of tracking actually works for me, and has for months, when previous attempts failed miserably.
It works for me because:
- It’s quick and simple. I just keep the planner open on my desk and it takes a second to write down the task. As easy as many time tracking apps are, they require too many steps to add a block of time in the past or future.
- It’s tactile. As silly as it sounds, there’s a small but subtle pleasure reward in using the highlighter or even adding a sticker to the page. (I’m stingy with stickers, though.)
- It’s colourful. Again, it’s the small things. On the days when I’ve forgotten or been too busy to keep up the log, those blank white columns are a sad reprimand. It’s like nothing happened at all those days, even though I know something must have, so I’m motivated to keep tracking.
- It’s actually enjoyable, something I’d never thought I’d say about keeping tabs on every half hour of every day.
How Time Tracking Improves My Daily Life
Most importantly, time tracking has helped me think more clearly about how I spend my time. I can see at a glance where I’m spending too much time in one area and not enough in others and also find patterns in my behaviour.
For example, I had a freelance project that I estimated should have only taken 2.5 hours, but in my weekly review I saw large green squares scattered across that week (reflecting back, I didn’t have the tools from the client I needed to get that project done as quickly as it should have been done). I’ve also been brutally honest with myself recording the days I got little sleep due to sleep procrastination and found that the days following required longer work sessions and more breaks. (You know it’s bad when you’re taking a nap at 8.30 in the morning. Forcing myself to write these things down, though, helps prevent myself from doing it too often.)
The system also keeps me accountable and focused. Knowing that I’ll have to account for each block of time, I’m less likely to pick up my Nintendo 3DS in the middle of the day for a break — especially since my time tracking has told me these breaks are rarely quick. I don’t jump around between different types of tasks as much either (20 minutes here, 10 minutes there), because it’s better to have tasks done in large chunks of time. And when I look at past weeks and don’t see enough blue (family), pink (friends and outings) or purple (creative projects) blocks, I make more of an effort to get those colours in. (Also, as an introvert, when I see too many pink blocks I know I need to balance with more alone time.)
When I first started doing this months ago, the weeks looked mostly covered in orange (work), with some other colours. These days, there’s much more variety in the areas of my life I’m spending my time. Even though time tracking can end up hurting your productivity if you’re tracking time just for the sake of it and not actually getting stuff done, I’ve found this simple method has helped me make better decisions about time — without having to think about it too much.