Tracking how you spend your time helps you keep on course to your goals.
Imagine hearing a man say his family is his highest priority. You nod in support of a laudable goal. Then you learn he spends his free time on the golf course — without his family. Now what do you think? We know to judge a man by what he does instead of what he says. You might say our erstwhile family man is out of touch with his priorities.
What about you? Do you live in accord with your priorities? Do you need help to discover your priorities? Monitoring how you use your time lets you know if you are on track to your goals. It can also help you discover what is important in your life.
Benefits to tracking your time
Tracking your time allows you to see how you spend your days. You are not tracking what you hope to do, or intend to do. You are discovering the ground truth of how you spend your life. The results may surprise you. I know they did when I first tracked my time. I worried, for example, about ignoring my wife while spending too much time on my hobbies. I was surprised, after tracking my time, to see I spent over half my free time with my wife. My concern transformed from concern over a lack of time to a concern about the quality of the time we spent together.
This example illustrates one of the great benefits to time tracking. Once you know how you spend your time you can make course corrections. If your actions don’t align with your priorities, you can change. Recall what Jim Rohn said, “Either you run your day or your day runs you.” Knowing how you spend your time is the first step to running your day, and your life.
What if you are unsure of your priorities? Time tracking can help you uncover your true concerns, regardless of what you think your goals should be. I wrote elsewhere about what I called 2 a.m. priorities. Whatever is on your mind in the middle of the night is a de facto priority. The same argument applies to how you spend your time. Where you spend your time is a de facto priority. Don’t like the priority you uncover? Change it. You are not a tree. (Jim Rohn again.)
Tracking your time can add a productivity boost to your day by “gamifying” your tasks. Tracking provides a metric you can work to and get credit for. You can, for example, specify a time goal such as writing at least an hour a day. Or you can specify a relative goal, such as having writing being one of the top three activities (based on time spent) for the week. If I see that I’m running in fourth place, I can up my effort to boost my writing into the top three activities, maybe even make a run for the gold!
Above all, tracking your time makes you more mindful of how you are living your life. We often live our lives on autopilot, trusting to daily routines to get us… somewhere, if not to our desired goals. Tracking forces you to disengage from autopilot and see the daily time use decisions you make daily. It’s a key to living a life of deliberate intent.
Pitfalls to tracking your time
There are a few potential pitfalls when tracking your time. Don’t, for example, make the mistake of confusing activity with results. A goal to work ten hours on a project is good. Committing to finish a project on time is better. Monitoring your time ensures you have set aside enough time for the effort, but the result is the goal not the hours.
If you set goals for the relative ranking of tasks, e.g. spending most of your time writing, be careful you don’t short change competing projects. Your goal is to increase your effort on one goal. It’s okay to read less at bedtime and use that time to journal instead. It’s not okay to turn out the light early without reading or writing.
Tracking works best for single tasks. If you are multitasking, you will have to decide which activity is the important one. But don’t cheat yourself. For example, if you are working on a pencil sketch with the television on, then it is okay to log your time as sketching. If, however, you are watching television while merely holding a sketch pad in your lap, you can’t hide your true intent.
You want to be alert to any attempt to “game the system.” All self-discipline techniques require a degree of integrity and time tracking is no different.
How I do it
There are a number of tools available to help you track your time usage. I use the Toggl [https://www.toggl.com/] app on my phone as my primary method of tracking my time. I have the phone with me most of the time and can easily switch between tasks. I review my progress with the iPad Toggl app and online through their website. I track my time only on my phone, since switching between apps (starting on the phone and finishing on the iPad, for example) can cause sync problems. Toggl is very flexible and allows you to specify or modify start or stop times, or you can add in a time amount. Toggl tracks multiple projects and provides logs for download as CSV files from the website.
Don’t want to bother with high tech solutions? Pencil and paper works just fine. The key is to pick the method that works best for you.
Be sure to keep things in perspective. Tracking every minute of your life can be a burden. At worst, it can devolve into a disturbing, obsessive behavior. I don’t bother tracking events less than five minutes or so. Nor do I track all my free time. Naps and staring out the window don’t merit tracking unless they dominate my time. I focus on the major activities of my life as well as potentially bad habits such as watching TV. Remember that your are tracking your time to improve your life, not add unnecessary effort. Call to action
Living your dream life starts by knowing what you want. Then you see if you are on course. How you spend your days is the ground truth of your life. Whether you spot check from time to time, or track every moment of your time, knowing how you spend your time is essential to reaching your life goals. Try an experiment. For a week, note how you spend your time. Don’t be obsessive about it. Just note the general direction of your life. Then, at the end of the week, ask how you feel about your life that week. If you are not on track, you are ready for a course correction leading straight toward your goals.