Advice for people trying to lose weight is often to track everything that they eat and enter it into a diary. When people do this they are often surprised how many extra calories they eat – that mid-morning latte, that extra chocolate or glass of wine. It all adds up and can be the reason weight loss attempts are failing. One of my top productivity tips is similar, but involves tracking time rather than treats! In this article I’ll share why time tracking is so powerful and what you might do with the time you discover in the process.
Why Track Time?
For those of you who charge time at an hourly rate, it is likely that you have some time tracking measures in place so you can bill your clients accurately. However few people track all of their time during the working day with any precision.
Once you do track all of your time, interesting insights start to emerge. You can see where you truly waste time – for example if every time you go to Facebook you lose 15 minutes, you only need to do that 4 times in a day and you’ve essentially lost an hour of work time (or perhaps an hour of time to do something else much better than work or checking Facebook)!
You can also see where you spend time on things that you could be outsourcing. If you spend several hours every week just logging expenses into an accounting package, perhaps it is time to consider hiring a bookkeeper or sending them out to an invoicing service. Just like our dieter eating extra calories he didn’t remember, we can easily lose a lot of time in our day on things we barely remember doing.
Tools for Tracking
There is a huge amount of time tracking software available. You can use your clock and a piece of paper or a spreadsheet if you like, or find some custom software. There are software as a service applications such as Freckle, which is more geared for teams but does have a solo plan. There are any number of desktop tools and phone-based tools such as timeEdition. If you spend a lot of time each day away from your desk, a phone-based tool may be more useful to you as you can log time wherever you are.
Don’t spend too long selecting a tool – that can become a time sink in itself. You can always switch to something else if you find time tracking so useful you want to make it a habit and need some extra features.
Track for Two Weeks
Just using tracking software will magically make you more productive for at least a day or so – that’s why I recommend tracking your time for at least two weeks. Just the act of switching your timer to “Facebook” or even “browsing the web” will be a reminder of what you are supposed to be doing right now. After a while however, as long as you are honest with yourself, you’ll find that you start to use time in a more natural way and log a reasonable estimation of what you are doing.
If you do find it very hard to log exactly what you are doing on your computer then there are services such as RescueTime that will log your browsing activities for you. These can be less useful for web professionals. You may well need to spend time on social media on behalf of your clients, or on your own social media marketing, in addition to time spent finding out what Julie, your classmate from 20 years ago, is doing!
Finding the Patterns
It can be quite a shock the first time that you do this. You can discover that while you thought you were working for 8 hours a day, the amount of time you actually spend on key tasks is much less than that. It’s now time to find the patterns and work out how to get some of this time back.
Triggers for Time-Wasting
What tends to happen just before you spend half an hour reading things on Facebook? For me, it is switching into any part of a project that requires looking something up. I head out to the web to do my research and “while I am there” think I’ll just have a quick look at Facebook to see if anyone has posted anything interesting. That quick look invariably loses me 15 or 20 minutes. Sometimes, simply becoming aware of the fact that you do this is enough to remind you not to do it. If you end up doing this automatically then some suggestions to get out of the habit are:
- Stop using your computer for social media and only access them on your phone or tablet during breaks.
- Install blocking software in your browser, such as Focus 45.
- Use a different browser for work-related browsing.
Work That Could be Given to Someone Else
If you realize you spend a huge amount of time doing productive work, but on things that don’t really drive your business forward or are not really your job, this might be a good time to find someone else to take these on. Recruiting a bookkeeper or just someone to deal with small admin tasks could free up a huge amount of time.
If you work from home, remember that it might not just be work-related tasks you outsource. If you find yourself cleaning up the house rather than getting on with client work, perhaps a once-a-week visit from a cleaning service could make a huge difference.
Email, the Telephone and Other Messaging
Perhaps you will discover that every time a client phones it takes a long time for you to get back into the work you were doing. Being disturbed from flow is a very common reason people start to drift into aimless web browsing. If this is something that happens to you, you could consider getting a call handling service such as MoneyPenny. They can take messages, route truly important things to you, and leave you free to return calls at a good time rather than disturbing your work.
If constantly checking email is something that you do, schedule times at which you check mail and close your mail client outside of these times. The same is true for all of the other messaging services we might use – Slack, IM and Skype can all cause constant interruptions from flow.
Reclaim Your Time
Most of us feel there just aren’t enough hours in the day, but by tracking your time you really can uncover hours you didn’t realise you had. What you do with those hours is up to you!
Hopefully you can now schedule more accurately as you’ll have a better idea of how long your tasks will actually take. If you were constantly running out of time before this process then perhaps the end result will be you set yourself the same schedule but actually get to the end of the day with your tasks completed.
If you were on track with your work then you’ve just found yourself some free time. What will you do with it? Here are some suggestions for freelancers who can control the hours they sit at a desk.
Could you work a half day on Fridays, or shorter days all week? There is research that shows people are more productive when they work a four-day week or six-hour days. Shortening your working week or days might actually be another productivity boost!
Create a Side Project
You could use that time to start work on a side project, a product that you could sell or that book you’ve always thought about writing. The extra time could then be put towards something that would generate extra income in the future, as well as being a fun and interesting task.
Take Up a Hobby
I use my spare time for fitness, a spare hour a day could mean time for a run, swim or a class at your local gym. Lots of gyms do 45 minute lunchtime classes and can be a good way to break up your day and find more energy.
Avoid the Temptation to Slip Back to Old Habits
You don’t need to obsessively track your time every hour or every day. What you learn by two weeks of time tracking will stay with you as a reminder of just how much time we can waste. However you will probably find that after a little while you fall back into old habits – or discover new ones! I like to do this time tracking experiment every few months, it reminds me of the most valuable and irreplaceable thing that I have – my time.
Rachel Andrew is a front and back-end web developer, author and speaker. Her books include the bestselling CSS Anthology for Sitepoint and she is a regular contributor to a number of publications both on and offline. Rachel founded her web development company edgeofmyseat.com in 2001, the company initially offered web development consultancy and now concentrates on developing and supporting the CMS Perch. She writes about business and technology on her own site at rachelandrew.co.uk.
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