My First Attempt at Time-Tracking

It has been a tough couple of months.  As I tend to do sometimes, I pushed my body and mind a bit further than I could effectively manage, and when coupled with some unexpected challenges, caused me to have another burnout - mentally and physically.  I am quite used to these from the last few years so I knew that I needed to take a day or two off and recharge my batteries.  However, after I had rested sufficiently I was really battling to get out of the slump and back into the game!  My motivation was low and my usual drive was lacking.  This was the worst possible time for a slump, just before examinations were to start, so I needed to do something to get out of it.  I turned to time-tracking as the catalyst.

I came across time-tracking through one of my favorite bloggers Sebastian Marshall and thought it was an interesting concept.  The basic idea is that you track exactly what activities you do each day and for how long, in order to analyse exactly how you use your time.  It is often very eye-opening, when done properly, and I was hoping it could kick me into gear.

I wanted to know the truth, and not merely what I thought I was spending time on.

Ray Dalio expressed this quite well in his book 'Principles'.

"People who confuse what they wish were true with what is really true create distorted pictures of reality that make it impossible for them to make the best choices."

It's very easy to think you are working hard until you actually see the objective facts and realize that your procrastination is actually rendering your days entirely unproductive.  That was the tough lesson I was going to learn.

I committed to tracking my time for 2 weeks and then seeing how I had done after that period.  I kept a memo open on my phone and throughout the day I would just jot down exactly what I did and for how long.  For example: How long did I study for?  How long did I read for?  How long was I on social networks?  How long did I sleep for?

This may seem like a lot of admin at first glance, but the amount that I'm on my cellphone rendered this complaint irrelevant.  (Another procrastination tool that I need to work on!)  At the end of each day I would transfer this from my cellphone memo to a spreadsheet on my computer so that I could compare day on day.  This continued for the the first week.

(On a side note, if you are going to try this yourself, an important thing to keep in mind, practically speaking, is that there is no need to be pedantic.  You don't need to track to the minute and in most cases, estimation works just fine.  The more difficult you make it for yourself to record the times, the less likely you are to stick with it.  So keep it as simple as possible, especially when you are starting. )

During the week, I was pleasantly surprised to see that tracking my time was slowly beginning to pull me out of my slump because of the hard data that was staring me in the face.  I couldn't convince myself that I had worked hard that day when the facts were right there for me to see.  I couldn't bend the truth and therefore had to push myself to work harder.  This self-inflicted guilt caused some form of a snowball effect and my old work ethic began to return.  It wasn't instantaneous of course, I still had 2 wasted days chalked down, but at least I felt I was on the road to recovery and was feeling a lot better about myself.

In my weekly review on the Sunday I reflected on the data I had collected.  It really was eye-opening.  If you had asked me before the experiment:

'How many productive hours do you think you get through in a day?'

I probably would have guessed around 7 or 8.  What I found was that I was very far off that.  I was procrastinating so much that I was only getting 4 or 5 decent hours of work in.  It was a definite turning point - something had to change.  It was just the kick I needed.

In addition, I also realized that this analysis could be useful for some other reasons:

  • I could see where I was most productive - in the morning or in the evening?  An early riser or a night-owl?
  • How were my sleep patterns affecting the quality of my work the next day?
  • How were the various activities affecting my mood and energy levels?
  • Perhaps I could track other things such as spending, completion of tasks, etc.

The power of time-tracking could really be expanded to give me some objective data on my lifestyle as well as my productivity levels.  So for the second week I resolved to tracking a few new metrics in order to help with this.  Again I used Sebastian's scorecard for inspiration:

  • How much energy do I have when I wake up in the morning?  (To be compared with sleeping patterns)
  • High points during the week.
  • Low points during the week.
  • What I am reading and short insights on the various topics.
  • How much money was I spending?  And on what?
  • How well I executed the plans I made at the beginning of the week.

Now that I had the soft observations to go along with the hard facts, I could make some very interesting comparisons and will use these to improve myself going forward.  To give you examples, some of the observations I made were as follows:

  • My optimal sleeping time should be between 8 and 9 hours per night.  If I got less than 8 hours, it significantly reduced the quality of work I achieved the following day.
  • I work best on the two extremes, early in the morning and late at night.  My least productive period is the middle of the day (around lunchtime)
  • I felt much happier and refreshed on days that I exercised.  (Obvious, but nice to see the data confirm it!)
  • I spend way too much time checking news-feeds - I need to reduce my cellphone usage, or at least batch it.

In the bigger picture this was an incredibly worthwhile undertaking.  The two weeks have shown me the reality of what I am actually achieving at the moment - which was a rude awakening - but now it gives me the boost I need to improve on it.  I'm not if I see this as a long term solution, especially when things get really busy.  But I definitely see it as a valuable tool to get out of a slump when necessary.

I know this post may feel a bit self-indulgent but I wanted to show you exactly how I did it, and perhaps if you are feeling that inspiration is lacking and you aren't getting as much out of your time as you want, I encourage you to try it out - just for two weeks.  I assure you, if nothing else, that it will open your eyes to the reality.  After all that is all we want to find out.  If you do try it out, please let me know - I would love to come on the journey with you and help where I can.

(I thought long and hard about sharing my actual time-tracking spreadsheet here on the blog, but decided against it.  However, if you do want to see it as an example or just chat about how to actually do it - I would be more than willing to help.  Drop me a mail.)