When I first read about time tracking for personal time management, I thought it would be utterly tedious and hardly worthwhile. Chances are, you’ve thought the same thing.

Fortunately for me, even tracking my time half-heartedly resulted in some eye-opening data. Add to that my natural enthusiasm for self-development and executing on intentions, and time tracking has been a very effective tool to help build a life I love.

Would time tracking be effective for you? In my experience and research, that depends on your answers to these four questions.

1. For who’s benefit?

If you’ve tracked billable hours for work, I’d guess the idea of time tracking makes you cringe. Many people in this situation are skeptical of its payoffs.

In this environment, you track time for your employer’s benefit. It signals insufficient confidence in your productivity, accountability, or transparency to enable the business to make decisions without this data. As an employee, that doesn’t feel great.

Tracking your time for your own benefit can be a completely different experience. You do so on your own terms because you have something to gain personally.

For example, my first experience of time tracking (though I didn’t think of it that way at the time) was when my daughter was born. For about 6 months I logged her feeds, naps and night sleeps, desperately searching for routines that would maximise my own sleep. It’s the only time in my life I’ve been so committed to tracking. But then again, getting enough sleep is a pretty strong motivator.

2. To what end?

Time tracking should have a clear objective. For example:

  • Building evidence that certain work hours are feasible
  • Reviewing your time alignment with personal values
  • Assessing your workload for your own resourcing needs
  • Exploring options for more fulfilling leisure time

Start with the end in mind. What are you trying to discover, and how much data is likely to get you there?

Time tracking is great for telling you what you did, when, and for how long. Some people like to add in an extra metric to track alongside their time entries (emotional state, level of focus, or how many words you wrote per time increment). Just keep in mind that complexity is friction in the process, so keep it as simple as possible.

Our devices allow us to track our activity continuously and indefinitely. But setting reasonable bounds on your time tracking is important. Research shows that quantifying an activity can take the joy out of it, reducing intrinsic motivation. Continuous time tracking can therefore be counterproductive.

Personally, I only track my time for 7 days at a time; it’s long enough to see the full balance of the week, but short enough to make it achievable. I know the data’s valuable, but even I would abandon a time diary without a specific motivating goal.

3. Reality or ambition?

Unfortunately, measuring true behaviour change is not straightforward.

You can’t validate a change without measuring where you started and progressed to. At the same time, the very act of consciously measuring a behaviour can reinforce the outcome you’re after. For example, research shows we’re likely to exaggerate how much we exercise when asked, even for anonymous studies. Understanding regular behaviours would require collecting data without an individual knowing, or over so long a period that their true behaviours shine through. Not practical solutions.

Here’s where we circle back to points 1 and 2. If you are the beneficiary, and you define what your goal is, then there’s no one else to fool. You can choose to track a week of trying to act as typically as possible. As there is always variation between ‘typical’ weeks, this will probably capture an accurate-enough picture to improve your time awareness and act as a baseline for whatever you do next.

Or, you may choose to measure your ambition. Applying maximum willpower and diligence, you could test the feasibility of achieving your intentions during your 7-day time diary. If you succeed, then see the data as it is: proof you can do it for 7 days, but not proof that it’s sustainable in the long term. If long term behaviour change is your goal, then that’s a great starting point, but you’ll need to explore strategies to account for the range of realistic circumstances.

4. Willing to act?

Increasing your time awareness supports productivity because it assumes that insights lead to better choices. It’s up to you to ensure that assumption holds. Having established your goal, and collected your time data, the effort doesn’t stop there. The next step is to consider any discrepancies between your goals and reality, and decide what action to take.

Ultimately, it is your willingness to take action that will determine how effective time tracking can be in helping you achieve your time goals. But then, if you don’t track your time in the first place, how will you know for sure?


Jenna Polson

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Looking for support to define your ‘time well spent’, and make changes that last? Chat with Jenna about developing a time strategy, targeted to your time data, goals and lifestyle.