8 min read

Why I do Time Tracking

The Idea

A couple of months ago, I was going through a “productivity drought.” I used to repeatedly bounce between tasks. I couldn’t concentrate enough. Work was suffering.

I thought to myself “Just how bad is the situation? Can I quantify it?” Then I started using a very old and boring concept: the stop watch.

Only that I used an iPhone application called TimeJot which is specifically a time journalling application meant for this purpose.

The idea was pretty simple:

  1. Have 5-7 different categories of projects and actions that I normally engage in. Everything else is not considered productive time.
  2. “Projects and actions” are defined as anything that needs to be done, whether at office or home.
  3. Every time I start on one of these activities, start the timer.
  4. Every time I get distracted or switch to something that is not part of the task at hand, I stop the timer.
  5. The most important thing is to keep the timer sacred. It is okay to be not productive, but it is not okay to lie to yourself. If the timer is on, you are working with full focus on the task at hand. If the timer is off, you’re on a break, do whatever you want.

The Results

I have been following these 4 simple steps and I have learned a lot about myself and it has had a profound effect on my productivity:

  1. Realization of how many context switches I do per day! Because I have to stop the timer every time I get distracted, it became really clear on how many times I started switching browser windows! Now, I have (almost) stopped reading tech news websites during work hours and certainly stopped twittering.
  2. I started analyzing and experimenting on how to increase the number of productive hours. One of the best things that worked for me was the switch off WiFi during the first two hours of work everyday. Once I disconnect myself from the global consciousness, I tend to focus on the task at hand. Once in the flow, it is not easy to lose that focus. So switching on WiFi access (which is of course required for regular work) later is okay.
  3. Now that I had the data, I realized how much I’m glued to the computer. So I started restricting myself on weekends to spend less time in front of the computer and more time doing other activities. This resulted in two things: (1) Spending lesser number of hours at the computer but more focused hours and (2) Finally getting around to the big pile of books that are waiting to be read.
  4. Realizing that I’m not investing time in learning new things at all.
  5. Realizing that I waste too much time pondering and not enough time doing. But again, what is needed is moderation not elimination. It is these ponderings that round up my thinking and learning, after all.
  6. Realizing that I am more productive if I wake up early but I just love being a night-owl. A hard problem to solve.
  7. Learning that I work best when there are big chunks of work as opposed to many small things.
  8. Learning that when I focus, I really really focus. But getting to that point is difficult. An important aspect to know about oneself, because once I started accepting that there is a warmup period of several days before I really become productive with a new task, I was fighting myself a little lesser and going with the flow.
  9. I count exercise time also as productive time, so on the days that I cycle to work, I get a bonus one hour of productivity that day and I feel good! And this has the side-effect of encouraging me to go for running and cycling which has drastically gone down these days.
  10. The data provided a stark picture on how much time I spend on non-important things and I started ruthlessly cutting down on all the distractions. And I could prove to myself that I was successful in this initiative only from the data.

That’s a lot of things that can be learned about yourself with a simple stop watch :-)

It’s Not That Crazy

If you think it is crazy to be doing this, then did you know that Matt Mullenweg, the founder of WordPress does time tracking as well?:

> “One of my favorite programs that we didn’t make is Rescue Time. It runs in the corner of my computer and tracks how much time I spend on different things. I realized that even though I was doing e-mail only a couple of minutes at a time, it was adding up to a couple of hours a day. So I’m trying to reduce that. I have a WordPress plug-in that filters all my messages based on the sender’s e-mail address — so high-priority e-mails go into one folder and the rest go into others. Tim Ferriss, who wrote The 4-Hour Work Week, advocates checking e-mail twice a week, but that is too severe for me. Instead, I’m trying to implement Leo Babauta’s approach from The Power of Less. He suggests small steps, like checking e-mail five times a day instead of 10. It’s like dieting: People who binge diet gain it all back. That happens to me with e-mail.”

On the other extreme is Jim Collins, a business-books author:

Mr. Collins keeps this short list:
Creative 53%
Teaching 28%
Other 19%
That, he explains, is a running tally of how he’s spending his time, and whether he’s sticking to a big goal he set for himself years ago: to spend 50 percent of his workdays on creative pursuits like research and writing books, 30 percent on teaching-related activities, and 20 percent on all the other things he has to do.
These aren’t ballpark guesstimates. Mr. Collins, who is 51, keeps a stopwatch with three separate timers in his pocket at all times, stopping and starting them as he switches activities. Then he regularly logs the times into a spreadsheet.
He has a good jump, too, on another overarching goal he’s set for himself: to produce a lasting and distinctive body of work.
Within the sprawling and overpopulated world of self-styled gurus dispensing advice on management and leadership, Mr. Collins is in rare company. His last two books — “Built to Last” and “Good to Great” — were breakout hits, selling about seven million copies combined.
PART of the Jim Collins method borrows from other hypersuccessful people. He approaches every aspect of his life with purpose and intensity.
Oh, he sleeps with vigor, too. He figures that he needs to get 70 to 75 hours of sleep every 10 days, and once went to a sleep lab to learn more about his own patterns. Now — surprise, surprise — he logs his time spent on a pillow, naps included, and monitors a rolling average.
“If I start falling below that,” he says, pointing to the short list on his whiteboard, “I can still teach and do ‘other,’ but I can’t create.”

The whole article is worth reading. The premise of all this is that you only know what you measure.


If you’re convinced that time tracking is something you can try out (why not do a 30-day trial?), then here are some tools that I’ve come across:

I prefer to use the TimeJot app on my iPhone because my time tracking tool is independent of whether the task is at the computer or not. I have tried only a few of the above tools listed, so I can’t vouch for how good they are.

What Next?

I’m still debating with myself on whether time tracking is something that I should do in the long term, or should I do just enough to understand my productive patterns and then throw away the time-tracking tool. Then again, that depends on how much self-discipline I build up. Let’s see how it goes.

Nike Plus

I will end my thoughts with an excerpt from an interesting article from Wired on the Nike Plus, a gadget that runners can use to track their running statistics:

… But then something weird happened. The lighting was cut back to normal … and productivity still went up. In fact, just about every change the company made had only one effect: increased worker productivity. After months of tinkering, the work conditions were returned to the original state, and workers built more relays than they did in the exact same circumstances at the start of the experiment.
What was happening? Why was it that no matter what the Hawthorne plant managers did, the workers just performed better? Researchers puzzled over the results, and some still doubt the details of the experiment’s protocols. But the study gave rise to what’s known in sociology as the Hawthorne effect.
The gist of the idea is that people change their behavior—often for the better—when they are being observed (which is why it’s sometimes called the observer effect). Those workers at Western Electric didn’t build more relays because there was more or less light or because they had more or fewer breaks. The Hawthorne effect posits that they built more relays simply because they knew someone was keeping track of how many relays they built.
When you lace up your running shoes outfitted with the Nike+ sensor and fire up your iPod, you’re both the researcher and the subject—a self-contained experimental system. And what you’re likely to find is that the Hawthorne effect kicks in. You’re actively observing yourself, and just that fact not only provides information you can act on but also may modify your behavior. That’s the power of Living by Numbers.
Keeping track of our lives is nothing new. Athletes have kept training logs to quantify and analyze their workouts. Counting calories has long been a popular and effective way to lose weight.
In the past, that required two steps. First, there was the recording of the information, then the actual effort to modify behavior. In study after study, this extra work turned out to be a huge burden. Compliance fell, and the outcome suffered: People would stop monitoring their caloric intake, fail to change it, and fail to lose weight. Make the data-gathering easy and you remove one of the barriers to meaningful improvement in our lives.
With Nike+ and other tools, that first step has become almost effortless. Dieters don’t have to calculate the caloric content of meals manually; they can just log in to FitDay.com to enter the information in an online food diary. Keeping a training log doesn’t mean busting out a pen and paper at the end of a run. It’s as simple as listening to music on an iPod while exercising.
But the power of self-tracking is even more profound. It’s not just that collecting this data can help us change our behavior all on its own. Using the immensely powerful tools now becoming available, we can set up positive feedback loops: We keep track of something, see how the data matches up with what we’d like to have happen, and then use that knowledge to modify our actions.
The effect of feedback on attempts to change behavior is well established. A 2001 study in the American Journal of Health Behavior showed that personalized feedback increased the effectiveness of everything from smoking-cessation programs to interventions for problem drinkers to exercise programs. Feedback is important and powerful; it works.
That feedback can be internal, too, because when we start to do things to make ourselves more healthy, our bodies react. When obese people lose as little as 7 percent of their body weight, the levels of adiponectin in their blood goes up—reducing their risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Or consider the five-run threshold that Nike has seen in the data. It might be that runners not only like the information they get; they might be getting positive feedback from their body after five runs as well.
Think of it this way: It used to be that to lose weight, you’d keep a diary of everything you ate. Stepping on a scale is easy enough and gives one data point—about the system’s output, not its inputs. But develop a system that allows you to track not only your weight but also what you eat, how you exercise, even how you’re feeling, and suddenly you can start to pull things together. You can see how all those variables interact and then put that information to use.
We tend to think of our physical selves as a system that’s simply too complex to comprehend. But what we’ve learned from companies like Google is that if you can collect enough data, there’s no need for a grand theory to explain a phenomenon. You can observe it all through the numbers. Everything is data. You are your data, and once you understand that data, you can act on it.