I’m employed full-time at Paperless Post
, where I work across teams on a wide variety of projects. I spend evenings and weekends running Girl Develop It
, organizing Developers for Good
, and advising Hirelite
. I also exercise and watch teen dance movies of low artistic caliber regularly and eat dessert every day.
Simply put, I work a lot and I get a lot done. Despite that productivity, I recently found myself unable to keep up with even important emails, and on edge about relationships that might not use my time effectively. I’m familiar with techniques like Getting Things Done
, but I hesitate to adopt any entirely new method without fully understanding what could be improved about my own.
So, in an effort to understand my time’s ROI, I turned to data. I tried several time-tracking tools for a couple of hours each on a Sunday while I did remote volunteer work. The free tool that was easiest to use and gave me the most freedom in analyzing my information was Toggl
. Thanks to web, desktop, and mobile apps, I was able to bring time tracking into all aspects of my life.
I have a workspace for each significant obligation in my life - e.g. Paperless Post, Girl Develop It, Developers for Good & Volunteering, Personal. I use Projects to track the type of work I’m doing - e.g. Analytics, DBA, Product, Finance, Admin, Relaxation. I track significant emails or questions I answer, what I’m debugging, coding, or fixing, how long my meetings, calls, and Ohours
take, and just about everything else. When I change windows on my desktop and may be off-task, the Auto-pilot Toggl app sweetly asks “WTF are you doing?”
… “Click to change project”, making it easy to stay honest.
From this meticulous data collection, I’ve learned a few things about productivity:
You can’t manage what you don’t measure.
I recently had the feeling that I was doing way too much X and not enough Y, and I was not amused. Every time an X task came up, I developed a wrinkle. After one week of time tracking, I saw I really was doing a ton of X. I felt validated. I was less emotional about the problem, and in the next week, I also gave myself freedom to delay or delegate many X tasks in pursuit of Y tasks. I’m working with my team to better manage X tasks and in the meantime, I’m more efficient and feel in control of them. I have irrefutable evidence about just how demanding X work is. As we try different solutions, we’ll also know exactly how much they help.
Good data (tracking time as you go) is extremely important.
Your planning estimates and guesses afterward will always be wrong, and good data is fundamental to any data-driven decision making. If you think you’re good at these estimates, test yourself. Then email me how hilariously wrong you were, and we’ll chuckle.
Tracking time increases focus and limits context switching.
Tracking your time makes you more aware of what you’re specifically trying to accomplish, so you’re less likely to abandon one task for another. Maybe you only actually get to work 25 hours out of the 40 hours you’re at a work. If you need to track what you’re doing, you’ll feel compelled to make use of dead time you might have spent doing the worst kind of context switching - pretending to multitask.
Time is your biggest asset. Knowing where it goes benefits you more than anyone else.
I think a strong component of this experiment’s success has been that I’m doing it for myself. I have the freedom to show others the summary or the breakdown of my time if I’d like, but this isn’t a report that goes directly to my boss or determines my paycheck. I have the freedom to be completely honest. My priority is clean, accurate data and a true reflection of how I spend time, not convincing some other person that I’m working a lot.
Overall, I’ve found time tracking incredibly helpful for my focus and in helping me determine which time investments are worthwhile. I’ve also noticed trends in behavior that I’ve discussed with coworkers so we can work together to boost productivity.
What methods do you use to get things done? How do gauge your own effectiveness? Do your methods work for both short and long-term improvement?
One of the reasons I chose Toggl was for their completely free basic features plan. Most other services were unpleasant to use, less functional, or only offered a 30-day free trial, which I knew from experience might not be enough time. Call me old-fashioned, but I just can’t commit to something in every aspect of my life when it’s guaranteed to dump me in a month.