Here’s What Tracking My Whole Day Taught Me About Time Management
And how you can apply those lessons
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For the longest time, I’ve thought of myself as being super organised. I use a multitude of organisational tools as both a freelance writer and a PhD student. To top it off, people were telling me how organised I was compared to them!
But it felt like a total lie. Picture this:
You’re waking up in the morning and check your emails but then find yourself on Twitter or Facebook. One thing leads to another, and almost an hour has passed. You shake your head for losing track of time, again, and make a plan to keep the rest of the day on track.
You check your schedule and make a to-do list, and you might also check on the progress of last weeks to-do’s you didn’t quite get around to. Before you know it, it’s lunchtime — half the day has gone to ‘planning’.
You get a little frantic and try to check off as many of your to-do’s as you can in your afternoon session (that often spills into the evening) and promise that tomorrow will be different.
That situation was totally me, all the time, and I have a sneaking suspicion I’m not the only one who has these kinds of time management problems.
All of this frustration at what I call ‘organisation procrastination’ came to a head when I almost gave in to feeling like a complete failure. But a little while ago I came across a tweet by one of my favourite freelance writers Marijana Kay:
Tweet from Marijana Kay
And it got me thinking, of all the organisation stuff I do, not one of them includes an effective time tracking tool to help me determine how I’m actually spending my time. I might think, or feel, that I’m doing a whole bunch of productive stuff, but is that what it looks like in reality?
So right then and there, I decided to run a little personal experiment:
I was going to use the Toggl Track app to track every waking minute of my life for a week.
“Why the heck would you do that?” I hear you ask. Well, simply put, I had a strong feeling that I was giving myself too much slack. I wasn’t working hard enough to reach my goals. I felt like I was lazy. I thought that by doing this experiment, it would serve as a wake-up call, but also provide the practical purpose of finding out at what times do I seem to slump or procrastinate the most.
The Time Tracker Results After a Whole Week
I found the task itself quite difficult at first — I almost always forgot to actually log the times on my phone in the mornings until I went to walk the dog. But I did always take mental notes of the time I got up, went to the bathroom, got dressed and walked the dog. After that, I was pretty consistent in the logging.
The Toggl Track app itself does a pretty good job at reporting your time logged in both a calendar format and a timeline, but the main reporting area looks like this:
Now, in hindsight, this experiment would have been a whole lot easier if I had started on a Monday instead of a damn Tuesday. Ah well, “C’est la vie” as they say, I was a little too hasty.
As a result, to get the full weeks worth of data (since I have to include the following Monday), I downloaded the two sets of data as CSV files and aggregated them together in Excel like so:
My report on Toggl is a lot more detailed since I included the actual tasks I was working on, but for this post, I decided to group similar tasks.
For example; toilet, morning routine and shower became “Bathroom”, and “Life Stuff” counts things like getting dressed, getting ready to leave my house and other miscellaneous stuff that didn’t fit nicely into the other categories.
Also, a disclaimer here, one of the things I struggled with was logging multiple tasks at once. For example, while I was on transport, I was typically either listening to my audiobook about Japanese culture or scrolling through social media. Similarly, I would also be on and off social media while spending time with my family. The times I’ve logged social media is when I was doing absolutely nothing else.
So in the interest of fairness, I’ll say that I’ve also calculated my total screen time on my phone over the week as a whopping 34 hours and 37 minutes (thanks to Digital Wellbeing). Which, sadly, is mostly made up of YouTube and Facebook.
As you can imagine, what I saw in these combined results were pretty eye-opening.
Here’s What I Already Knew
Having your phone in your bedroom is killing your mornings
Every morning, almost without fail, I’d wake up at 7:30, snooze for 10 minutes and then immediately grab my phone to disable my secondary alarm but then keep my phone in my hands. Then it begins. Check emails. Check Facebook. Check Twitter. Check Messenger. Check Instagram. And almost always, this cycle lasts at least half an hour to an hour.
Though it sure seems I’m not alone in this, Tristan Harris, former Google Design Ethicist, said in his article about the “hijacking of your mind” that:
When we wake up in the morning and turn our phone over to see a list of notifications — it frames the experience of “waking up in the morning” around a menu of “all the things I’ve missed since yesterday.”
The worst part is, it always makes me feel more tired. I need to practice what I preach in my article about Digital Minimalism again.
Evening/bedtime activities also suck
I’m such a sucker for giving into the YouTube algorithm. I don’t know about you, but once I get started, it isn’t easy to stop. More often than not, my excuse is “I just want to do something that’s not cognitively demanding”. I want to turn my brain to mush.
But obviously, that’s not a very helpful or healthy habit to have. While most studies in this area look at the negative effects of screen time in children/adolescents, it’s not too much of a stretch to say the same morning grogginess, lack of quality sleep and wellbeing also occurs in adults.
Here’s What Surprised Me
I spend a lot of time with my family
Of course, I can put that down to there being a global pandemic causing me to stay home far more often than before. But what’s more interesting in this case is how easy a few minutes of a chat can turn into an hour or so after lunch. This also probably explains why I spend so much time ‘eating’ too.
What this tells me is that I’m not very good at keeping my work time sacred at home.
I thought I managed my time well
I was wrong. No matter how well I organise and schedule my time on paper (or in my case, Google Calendar), sometimes reality just doesn’t reflect that. If we look at the calendar view of my time tracking log, then you’ll see just how sporadic my activities are:
The research highlighted in the APA shows that multitasking or repeated/rapid task switching can cost as much as 40% of someone’s productive time, adding that:
“Multitasking may seem efficient on the surface but may actually take more time in the end and involve more error.”
Which goes to show why I always feel like I’ve done a lot of work, but at the end of my whole week, I only completed a total of 26 hours and 41 minutes of actual work between my PhD, clients, and editorial duties.
What Has This Experiment Taught Me?
This experiment has really opened my eyes to not only how much I have previously deluded myself into thinking I was well organised, but also how much I’ve fallen off my digital minimalism pledges.
But it’s not all doom and gloom!
As you noticed, I already knew I had a few problems with time management going into this experiment, and completing it has told me where I could best make changes. Here are some of the things I learned, and what you might want to keep in mind too:
Keep your phone in another room overnight
This helps you to avoid the temptation of looking at it in the mornings and evenings. This should help reduce the grogginess and improve overall sleep quality.
For the days after my initial experiment, following the above advice has indeed helped me feel a little more alive in the mornings. But it’s also had the added benefit of slowing down my racing thoughts, which often contributed to my ‘snoozing’ time.
Conduct a regular audit of the apps
Auditing apps and deleting the time suckers can help minimise its usage and focus on the task at hand.
When I realised just how much time I spend on my phone, I went nuclear. I decided to delete all but one social media apps (Snapchat, which I barely use but my friend uses it to message me now and then). I even deleted, gulp, YouTube.
This has resulted in a slightly more respectable 131 minute daily (mean) average screen time since the end of the experiment. And I feel a lot better for it.
Set up boundaries with family
The working schedule should be considered sacred. By setting up work boundaries, you don’t get distracted and end up losing hours of work time.
Yesterday (at the time of writing this sentence) I spent a whole 6 hours working a solid block on my business website with zero family distractions because I told them what my expectations were for the day. Admittedly, I probably should’ve taken a break or two in there somewhere, but it felt awesome to be in a proper workflow.
Make use of tech features to help you stay focused
This piece of advice I haven’t fully implemented yet. I do use tools like Do Not Disturb mode on my phone while I’m on task. But you (and I) can also use it on desktop and/or an extension like StayFocusd to limit access to distracting websites.
Though since we shouldn’t really be taking on too many habits at once, I’ve elected to keep this one on the burner while I habitually monitor my phone use and set up schedule boundaries.
Want to Time Track Yourself?
So you’ve got this far, and maybe you identified with my feelings at the start of this journey. If you did, you might want to consider replicating my experiment for yourself and see where your time goes in reality and then decide what’s best for you to implement afterwards.
If that’s the case, I’ll let you in on a few tips to help you get through your version a little more smoothly than mine. As a side note, there’s a multitude of time tracking apps out there, but I think Toggl’s reporting feature (with the ability to download the data as a CSV. file for free) works like a charm.
If you decide to go ahead with Toggl, here’s a little tutorial and a few software-specific tips.
Here’s How to Log Your Time on Toggl
So after signing up, you need to create a project where you will assign your logged time into a category, you can do that by going to the ‘Projects’ section under the ‘Manage’ sidebar, then clicking the ‘+ New Project’ like so:
After that, you’ll be presented with a little pop-up box asking you to fill in your project details, like so:
Of course, here you fill in project name as the category of activity, such as shopping, cooking, reading, working etc.
As an extra, since Toggl was primarily made for businesses and freelancers in mind, there’s a helpful extra box that asks you. While I do work with clients in my business, if you don’t, you can just leave this area blank.
I also left my projects as private, but this feature is helpful if you want clients to see what tasks you’ve been working on in their project (though this is a feature of their paid tiers).
Logging your time
Once you’ve set up your projects, all there is left to do is log your time! This is where the magic happens.
In the entry bar at the top (of either the web app, chrome extension, or desktop app) you can add the activity you’re currently doing (or about to do). Then you can select the category (project) it falls under, then you click the start icon, and you’re tracking time!
As a note, Toggl also has a tagging feature where you can tag activities, but I haven’t really found a reason to use them when you have tasks, projects, and clients. I suppose you could use associated people as tags (if you’re tracking time with friends, for example). So I just let that one sit there.
At the end of the week, you’ll have a filled out a report on how you spend your time!
Tips For Using Toggl
#1 Start your experiment on a Monday
Purely for the fact that it was a bit of a pain to run the experiment from midweek and to have to combine data from separate reports. This tip might also apply to other time-tracking apps too.
#2 Think about your daily activities and create groups (projects) before you start
As you can see from my screenshot below, I was creating project groups on the fly as they were happening — this actually cost me a fair bit of time.
If you can reasonably group certain activities into one category and then label your tasks as opposed to creating tasks meant as categories (which you can see in my first entry below), you’ll save time. You can see what I mean by having tasks nested under category (project) labels here:
#3 Download the Toggl desktop app
The desktop app isn’t as fully functional as their web app or chrome extension (it doesn’t show your reports), but it does send useful notifications to remind you to track time if you’re not currently doing so while on your desktop. I mentioned earlier that sometimes I just forgot to click ‘track’, but the notifications are helping me out now, post-experiment.
#4 Don’t beat yourself up if you forget to log, you can edit!
One of the most useful features of the Toggl app is the ability to edit time entries. I mostly used this when I forgot to start tracking and was able to backdate the start time, ditto if I forgot to end the task too.
If you forget to log an activity altogether, you can also add them just by clicking on the calendar view in the main timer section. I didn’t need this, but it could be helpful for you if you end up struggling to remember the whole start/stop situation.
If you were anything like me at the beginning of the experiment, suffering from ‘organisation procrastination’, I recommend that you conduct a time-tracking experiment of your own.
It doesn’t have to last a week, it could just be one day or even longer than a week, but the point is that you really analyse your use of time afterwards. Think about how you spend it and what you could do to ensure your time is going towards activities that are important to you (not just planning them).
It may be that my earlier advice to keep your phone out of your room, audit your apps, set boundaries, and make use of restrictive tech can also apply to you. Of course, you could also use my experience and take the advice up without tracking your own time, but my specific situation is likely quite different from yours.
Give it a try and see what comes up, the results may surprise you too.
Alexander Boswell is a Business Ph.D candidate specialising in Consumer Behaviour and uses this knowledge as a freelance writer in the Content Marketing and B2B SaaS space. Find him on Twitter @alexbboswell or his website alexanderbboswell.com