How to Use Time Tracking to Improve Your Time Management

written by Dan Silvestre
Time Management

time tracking

The exercise I recommend the most to new clients is time tracking. Simply put, tracking what they are doing every hour of their day, for at least 2 weeks.

Time tracking allows you to see how you’re spending your time now and how it compares to how you would like to be spending it.

When starting to work with a new client, I ask two simple questions:

  • How do you want to be spending your time?
  • How do you think you’re spending your time right now?

Almost every client is certain they are spending their time on the right things. So their answer to both questions is almost identical.

But after two weeks, they are confronted with reality. And they can see immediately the difference between how they are and how they want to spend their time.

Together, we look at the data and find ways to optimize how they are spending their time.

For example:

We look for activities that consume a lot of time but provide little payoff.

Athlete tracks their diet, exercise, and sleep. This allows them to maximize their health and become better competitors.

Knowledge workers can track their time, attention, and focus. This allows you to maximize the quantity and quality of your work while lowering stress.

Time tracking allows you to learn about yourself so you can improve yourself.

Here’s how to start tracking your time.

How to Start Tracking Your Time

time tracking template

I like my tools to be simple.

So to track my time I use a spreadsheet (grab it below). If you prefer, you can use an app to do it automatically (more on this later).

The tool is not important. What’s important is that you do it. And that’s easier said than done.

Here’s how to start tracking your time:

  1. At the end of every hour, write down what you worked on in the spreadsheet
  2. Add details if you want — project, people, type of work. Think “labels”: deep work, admin, personal, social, big project
  3. You can also add colors for different kinds of work if you want. For example: you can see above that I use orange for coaching calls

Then, at the end of the week, write a summary of how you spent your time:

  • How much time did you spend on important work?
  • And how much time did you waste on unimportant tasks or activities?

Time Tracking Software

If you want to use software, I recommend Rescue Time or Toggl.

RescueTime automatically keeps track of every program you use and the websites you visit. It runs in the background.

At the end of the day, you can see the amount of time you spent being productive and how much time you wasted.

Toggl works the same way. It then presents the data in a clean and accessible interface.

How Does Time Tracking Help?

There are a few more benefits of time tracking.

We are notoriously bad at predicting how much time we need for tasks — known as the planning fallacy.

Time tracking allows you to calibrate your expectations for how long tasks really take.

For example:

I’m an optimist. This means I always think tasks will take less time than they actually do. And then I get frustrated when they take twice the time.

By tracking my time, I’m able to get closer to the real number. Going forward, I can schedule my time with more accuracy.

And because of this improved prediction, I kill the “I can do everything” impulse.

Because now I know my tasks will take longer, I can prioritize better. I know I won’t have time for everything, so I schedule only my crucial tasks.

How My Clients Improved Their Time Management

Here are a few changes and optimizations 3 of my clients made based on their time-tracking data:

A CFO and COO client was sure she was spending her time 50/50 between the two roles.

After two weeks, we discovered it was actually 90% on finance and 10% on operations. So we adjusted her schedule until it was 60/40 — what she wanted.

A manager at a large corporation with a team of 20+ people told me he wasn’t distracted that much during the day.

Turns out his “not much” assumption was 3 hours of distraction every day. Together we made a plan to tackle the biggest distractions and get him back on track.

An entrepreneur running 3 companies was overwhelmed with her work and “drowning on email”. She was working 80+ hour weeks.

Data showed that she was more like working 65 hours per week, with email in fact taking a large portion of her time. So we implemented systems to stop her email overload and get to inbox zero every day.

Now it’s your turn.

During your GTD weekly review or your weekly planning, ask yourself:

  • What do I like most about how I’m spending my time?
  • What do I want to do more of with my time?
  • And what do I want to stop doing or get off my plate?

This will help you have a clear sense of where your time goes and how you feel about it. Use it to make choices that get you closer to the life you want.

Advanced Time Tracking: Interstitial Journaling

Interstitial journaling is a productivity technique that combines notes, to-dos, and time tracking. I do it in Roam.

The basic idea of interstitial journaling is to write just a few updates when you take a break or finish a task, and always write the time next to it. This way you’re time tracking at the same time.

Interstitial journaling allows you to feel like everything is under control. You can always go back to check on your progress. Also, it makes your weekly review a breeze.

The Time Tracking Experiment

You don’t want to know how much time we’re wasting. I get it. No one does.

So let’s be real:

Everyone wastes time. I know I do.

The purpose of time tracking is not to figure out how much time you’re wasting. The goal is to figure out the wrong assumptions you have on how you’re spending your time.

So as with anything new, think of time tracking as a productivity experiment:

  • You have a hypothesis — “I’m spending my time well”
  • Gather data to confirm prove or disprove your hypothesis
  • Analyze the data and draw conclusions

Time tracking is checking your assumptions with data and updating your beliefs based on reality.

You’re only doing it for 2 weeks. That’s it.

The results might surprise you.

And it will lead to useful insights that enable you to become more productive.

Tags:: Time Tracking

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