Can Tracking Your Time Make You More Productive? I Tried It for a Week
Photo Credit: Robert Patterson
As a freelance writer who also works full-time in marketing — juggling the demands of my day job with deadlines and general life things like, you know, sleeping — I know I don’t maximize my freelancing hours. To challenge myself to use the day more wisely — and therefore earn more, since my time is literally money — I spent a week tracking how I use every hour.
If you’re put off by the tedious nature of this experiment, try one of many free desktop and smartphone platforms. I used Hours, which divides work into projects, clients and tasks using a simple timer. It’s easy to visualize exactly how each minute is spent (hello, color-coding), to edit if you forget to hit start or stop (which, of course, I did), and to pull reports to invoice for work billed hourly. I used this system during business hours.
My backup strategy was a good ol’ notebook and pen. I divided my day into 30-minute increments starting the minute my alarm went off in the morning to the time my head hit the pillow at night. On each line, I wrote every single thing I did in that block of time: make coffee, check email, pitch editors, go to the bathroom, drive to yoga, etc. Some blocks were comprised of a single activity, while others involved five or more.
Though the app was more to-the-minute precise for larger tasks, writing things down gave a better picture of what I was actually doing all day. After the seven days were up, I learned that my productivity wasn’t being sidelined by big distractions, but rather, small ones that added up — and left money on the table. Here are my time-tracking takeaways:
I had to face my habits — good and bad. To do this experiment right, I had to hold myself accountable and record honestly. Time-tracking is a lot like keeping a food journal — I know I ate that handful of peanut M&Ms, but since it wasn’t a full bag, do I have to write it down? The answer is yes. I may not have stopped my timer every time I clicked over from my Google Doc to my Twitter feed, but I felt obligated to write down “scrolled through social media” next to “wrote 500 words on identity theft.” This made me think twice about giving into distraction when frustrated, tired or bored.
I’m a multitasker. Many of my 30-minute blocks included six to eight separate tasks. While I don’t think I’m doing my productivity any favors by doing so many things at once, this kind of flexibility allows my brain to run in creative ways. After realizing this, I decided to set up 30- to 60-minute “sprints” to accomplish small tasks in short time periods. Added up over time, I can account for how long it actually takes me to research and write a given assignment. Then I can more accurately calculate how much I’m making per hour and negotiate compensation or take on work accordingly.
Time-tracking made me more mindful. I knew when I was wasting time, but that didn’t stop me from wasting it anyway. After seeing this pattern, I began making more conscious choices to take a break from work and focus on a distraction for a set period of time. I can go for a walk or check social media for 15 minutes without guilt, and then get back to my billable tasks refreshed.
Even my free time can be better spent. Growing up, my mom liked to demand that my sisters and I “be productive” during our weekends and school breaks. We wanted to lay on the couch and watch TV — she wanted us to learn to sew or practice our instruments. Time-tracking pointed out how often my free time is wasted on activities I don’t care about, like jumping back and forth between social media. Unproductivity has its time and place, but if I want to finish the books on my shelf, learn to make cheese and brush up on my language skills, I should probably put my phone away and place my focus elsewhere. I’ve made a pact with myself to schedule limited amounts of unfocused, do-nothing free time during very specific hours of my day alongside goal-oriented activities. Moms are often right.
I’ll still time-track, but not every day. This process takes serious effort, and I generally know where my wasted hours — and my time well-spent — land. But all these seconds and minutes add up, so I’ve planned quarterly and monthly check-ins to bring my awareness back to my habits. When my workload goes haywire in the up or down direction, I’ll do a 3-day notebook-and-pen tracking. That way, I can take better advantage of my free hours and hold myself accountable to break those goal-busting distracting habits.