Tick-tock, tick-tock. Time is one of our most precious resources, yet it often feels like it slips away without us even realizing it. What if there was a way to better see where you spend your time and use it more effectively? That’s where time tracking comes in. In this ultimate guide, we’ll explore the benefits of time tracking, how to get started, and share some personal insights to help you make the most of your time and your life.
I have been tracking my time and my life for over a decade. I use time tracking as my daily habitual act for maintaining focused attention, purusing flow, and getting things done. With the captured data, I am able to see more life with more objectivity, get more value from my time, cultivate greater self-awareness and reflect short- and long-term.
Tracking your time is a hard habit to start and to maintain but the benefits are manifold. In this age of digital distraction, the ability to spend your time well can be a huge enabler. The act of time tracking forces you to notice what you are doing in the moment, avoid distraction, and can be a self-nudge towards focusing on the task at hand. It can help you see objectively where your time is going, reflect if that usage aligns with your self-identify and goals, and plan for the future. We often set ambitious goals without recognizing that acheiving them requires your put in the necessary time and energy to make progress. Time tracking allows you to set realistic objectives that are tied your time input and subsequently see if you are putting in the time.
If you’re struggling with maintaining focus and productivity or not sure where you hours and days are going, time tracking can be a valuable tool to help you regain control of your time. By tracking your time, you’ll be able to see where your time is going and identify areas where you can make changes to be more efficient and effective. This can be particularly helpful if you’re working on multiple projects, are pursuing a creative or entrepreneurial side hustle or have competing demands on your time.
In addition, time tracking can also be a powerful tool for self-reflection and personal growth. By tracking your time over a longer period, you can identify patterns and habits that may be limiting your progress. Seeing your time logs can enable to to address different issues, even goal abandonment when just realize your lack of putting the time in might mean you actually don’t care about the goal pursuit. While I largely limit my time tracking to personal and professional pursuits, time tracking and tracking in general can also help you identify areas where you’re not spending enough time, such as sleep, self-care, exercise, or pursuing your passions, and make adjustments to prioritize these areas in your life.
Overall, time tracking has had a profound effect on my life and pursuit of goals over time. It is a simple but effective practice that can have a significant impact on your productivity, self-understanding and how you orient your life. In this blog post, I’ll share the benefits and why I believe time tracking is such an empowering practice. I’ll go over some tips and tools for getting started with time tracking and share my own results (and charts!) as well as some of the challenges. I’ll conclude with my own journey and where I see time tracking in the future.
If you’re ready to take control of your time and gain greater clarity on how you spend it, let’s explore how to get started with time tracking!
Introduction: Why A Time-Tracked Life is Worth Living
Like it or not, time is all we got in this life.
The reality is that we all (regardless of job title, age or income bracket) get the exact same amount of time each and every day. As much as we wish that we “had more time,” our time is an existential “speed limit” we cannot change. Everyone only gets 24 hours in a day, 168 hour per week. We can’t add time in a day or week. Each day or week starts anew with time that we will inevitably “lose.” As Oliver Burkeman explores in one of my favorite books, Four Thousand Weeks, “Time management is all life is,” and, as I shared in my book notes and review here, we shouldn’t brake time management as purely a question of productivity, since how we spend our time largely defines what our life is and stands for.
What is it? Time tracking is the process of monitoring and recording how you spend your time. It involves keeping track of the activities you engage in throughout the day and the time you allocate to each task. This can be done manually, such as with a pen and paper, or using software tools like time tracking apps that automatically track your activities. Time tracking can help you become more aware of how you spend your time and identify areas where you may be wasting it. It can also help you become more productive and efficient by allowing you to better manage your time and prioritize your tasks.
If time and our energy output during that time is largely what defines a life lived, then ignoring or not noticing what we do during our time carries with profound consequences. By not tracking our time, we risk wasting it on tasks that don’t contribute to our goals or values or allowing distractions to consume our precious hours. We may find ourselves living a life that is not aligned with our values, goals, and aspirations.
In essence, time tracking is not just a tool for productivity and efficiency, but a way to take control of our lives and ensure that we are spending our time in ways that truly matter to us. By embracing time tracking as a practice, we can make intentional choices about how we spend our time and move closer to living a life that is fulfilling and purposeful.
As someone with over ten years of time tracking data, it is easy to think of time tracking in aggregate and view it in big data points and charts. The reality is that time tracking is mostly logged and noted in minutes and hours. Tracking as an orienting act is mostly situated in the here and now. One of the benefits of time tracking I believe is taking a second to think to yourself, what am I working or what should I be working on? Then following this brief question, you note it in your time tracking as an activity and project. In these daily, momentary acts of logging, you can’t really avoid owning what you do tracked time. With time tracking, you notice, note, and then do.
At the same time, I have generated a ton of time-related data. According to my own records and data logs, I have over a decade’s worth of tracked time logs.
So, the obvious questions are: What have I learned? As time tracking “expert” or at least self-tracking adherent, how do I track my time? Why do it? What tools do I use and how do I integrate them? What are my time tracking behaviors? What do I do with the data? Why should I or anyone care?
Before we dig into answering these questions, I need to say something important (and which I’ll repeat and dwell on in a later section): What matters is not time tracking but how you spend you time. Time tracking is a tool, a methodology, and a process. Tracking enables a form of self-awareness, accountability and transparency on where your time goes.
As someone who has fallen for some of the pitfalls of self-tracking like its obsessive behavior, caring more about the data than its impact, and a certain loss of enjoyment, it’s important to set some limits on time tracking. Don’t get obsessed with the “leave no good data behind” or collecting-for-collecting mentality. Because what matters is the daily, weekly and momentary choices, engagement and flow in actively spending your time and energy in ways that you care about and find personal meaning and value.
Put another way, time tracking is about enabling you to see time-related value, choices and activities meaningfully and reflectively.
Beyond the momentary noticing that comes with time tracking, I strongly believe time tracking offers a powerful enabler of self-awareness and provides a more objective or grounded way to reflect on time, goals and life in general. Essentially we can benefit from knowing where time goes, some externalization or visualization on our “time,” and taking time to reflect on our time.
Time is perhaps the most important existential dimension in which our lives and life meaning transpire. Time tracking as an intersection of technology and an behavioral habit might not be for everyone. But the benefits for me and, according to research, to many others is worth considering.
Benefits of Time Tracking
In my own life I have seen a number of benefits associated with time tracking. There is plenty of research that suggests that time tracking can be an effective tool for increasing productivity, improving time management, and achieving goals.
Here are some potential benefits of time tracking:
- Increased productivity: By tracking your time and identifying where you’re spending the most time, you can prioritize your tasks more effectively and increase your overall productivity. Various studies, including those by time tracking software company RescueTime, have found that people who tracked their time spent on work tasks were more productive than those who didn’t track their time.
- Improved goal setting and goal achievement: Time tracking can help you set more specific and realistic goals, and monitor your progress towards achieving them. A study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology  found that people who set specific goals and regularly monitored their progress towards those goals were more likely to achieve them than people who didn’t track their progress.
- Less Distractions: Research  from the University of California, Irvine found that people who were interrupted by email or other digital distractions took an average of 25 minutes to return to their original task. By tracking your time and identifying your biggest sources of distraction, you can minimize interruptions and stay focused on your priorities.
- Better time management: By seeing how you’re spending your time, you can identify areas where you’re wasting time or being inefficient and make adjustments to manage your time more effectively. A study published in the Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology  found that employees who tracked their time and received feedback on their performance were more likely to improve their time management skills and feel more in control of their work.
- Increased self-awareness: Time tracking can help you become more aware of your habits and behaviors, which can lead to increased self-awareness and personal growth. While we often frame time tracking or employee monitoring in terms of efficiency and utility, I believe we are missing out on considering role of greater self-awareness as the actual area we are actually improving. The productivity and efficiency gains are actually the byproduct of greater self-awareness.
- Enhanced creativity: By having a better understanding of your time constraints and priorities, you can free up mental space for creativity and innovative thinking. For me having a time log enables me to see my daily input to professional and money-making as just one of many areas I want to focus on. By recognizing communication as necessary evils to modern work but not actually the real value creators, I can free up time and mental space to be creative and get the most value from these kinds of “deep work” activities. Also by understanding my time and energy as essential to being creative, I can plan my time accordingly. I’m no longer stress if I put enough time into a work demand, since I can see I put in my daily time and can let it go and focus on other goals and creative pursuits.
- Improved decision making: Time tracking can help you make more informed decisions about how to allocate your time and resources. At the end of week, I use my time usage log as part of a reflective practice called a Weekly Review (more on this below). A weekly review is a powerful behavior change technique that helps you align intentions and actions over time. For me it helps me make the right kind of decisions with my time. These kind of time-trade-off questions can have dramatic impact on maximizing my life impact in all areas.
- Increased accountability: By tracking your time and progress towards your goals, you can hold yourself accountable and stay motivated to achieve your objectives. We all like to set goals but often struggle to acheive them. I believe one of the biggest gaps is failing to allocate enough time to your pursuits and periodically stop doing certain things in order to focus your energy and time on what matters then and there. By having time logs, I can objectively see if I’m putting in the time on what I care about each day, week and year. There are a host of excuses for why I don’t always hit my goals but ensuring I’m putting in enough time can make a world of difference. Check out my writings on my production journey as a case study in this.
- Improved Health and better work-life balance: Time tracking can assist in recognizing situations where you might be overextending yourself or unintentionally neglecting important aspects of your life, such as your family, hobbies, health, and other significant areas. We can get burned out and suffer poor health and social relationships. By tracking your time (as well as tracking your sleep and logging your exercise), you can become better oriented in your work-life balance, social life and overall health.
These are just a few of the benefits that might come from time tracking. By being more intentional about how you spend your time, you can reduce stress and increase your sense of control over your life. Various studies have found that people who regularly reflect on their time management practices are more likely to use their time effectively and experience less stress.
While a dive into behaviorial science backing up time tracking is beyond the scope of this piece, it’s worth noting that I believe time tracking helps us overcome several biases and psychological limitations we all experience. To cite four examples:
- Zeigarnik Effect is idea that our brains tend to remember incomplete tasks better than completed ones. By using time tracking, you can remember and feel better about what you finished, and by using task managers and goal setting, you can keep track of all the tasks you’ve started and ensure that you complete them.
- The Planning Fallacy describes the psychological limitation that leads us to underestimate how long it will take to complete a task. Time tracking can help you be more realistic about how long tasks actually take, so you can plan your time more effectively.
- The Power of Habits: Research shows that about 40% of our daily behaviors are habitual. By tracking your time, you can become more aware of your aware of your habitual behaviors and work to change them if necessary.
- The Role of Self-Determination: Self-determination theory suggests that people are motivated by three basic needs: autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Time tracking can help you feel more in control of your time (autonomy), improve your skills and knowledge (competence), and prioritize your time based on your values and relationship (relatedness).
Personally, I’ve used time tracking to change my own behavior in several ways. For example, I dramatically impacted my phone usage by looking at and reflecting on my screentime stats weekly over several years. During a 30-day No YouTube Challenge, I realized how much of my downtime was there and changed how I used YouTube (less entertainment and more learning). My Youtube usage and stress associated with binging on news dramatically shifted. My time spent watching TV or Netflix is no longer the same either. I read more. By looking at my yearly time graphs like my most recent Year in Time data visualization, I actually spend less time on my computer but have had better work and career outcomes and pursued various startup and creative projects too. I exercise and sleep better too. While this “transformation” isn’t purely just due to time tracking, time tracking has definitely helped.
So, now that we’ve looked at the philosophical reasons and overall benefits of time tracking, how can you get started? What should you use to track your time?
How to get started with time tracking
Considering how important time is to productivity, workplace efficiency and self-awareness, it’s no surprise that there exist many different time tracking tools and even methodologies. Personally, I use several technologies to track my time, both passively (meaning without any input from me) and actively (meaning by using a manual timer that requires me input).
If you’re new to time tracking or self-tracking as a whole, getting started can feel overwhelming. However, let me share a few simple steps on how to get started and start reaping the benefits of this powerful practice.
1. Choose Your Time Tracking Method
There are several different methods for tracking your time from simple paper-based methods, which are more like list-based task manager, to more sophisticated digital tools. Here is a breakdown:
- Manual analog tracking: Using a paper or digital note-taking tool, you can record your activities and the time spent on each task. You could adapt one of the habit tracking templates from Bullet Journaling or you might setup a spreadsheet.
- Passive computer time tracking: Apps like RescueTime or Mac OS’s Screentime track how you spend time on different applications and can generate charts and graphs so you can see your activities in a day, week, or longer.
- Manual time tracking for specific tasks or projects: Timer apps, like Toggl, require you to start and stop the time as well as note the task and project. These can seem like a lot of work but I find this approach to have the greatest impact.
- Device screen time tracking: This refers to your phone usage. If you are struggling with device or social media addiction, it’s likely you would benefit from looking and reflecting on how much time you spend on your phone or tablet. Apps like iOS’s Screentime, Moment app on iOS or Google’s Digital Well-being on Android, all enable you to track and see how much time you spend on your phone as well as often offer trigger to remind you to take a break or even block your usage after a certain period.
With that being said, choose the method that works best for you and your lifestyle. If you spend most of your time on a computer or mobile device, a digital app may be the most convenient option. If you prefer a more analog approach, a paper-based journal or spreadsheet may be more your style.
2. Set Goals
Before you start tracking your time, it’s helpful to set some goals. What do you hope to achieve by tracking your time? Are you looking to improve your productivity, gain more insight into how you’re spending your time, or prioritize certain activities?
Setting goals will help you stay focused and motivated as you start tracking your time. It will also help you determine what metrics you want to track, such as time spent on certain projects or activities.
It’ll also make it clear why you are time tracking at all, especially when you forget or it feels time-consuming.
3. Determine What to Track
Once you’ve chosen your tracking method and set your goals, you should determine what specifically you want to track and reflect on. For a startup or digital marketing business, you would call this a KPI or Key Performance Indicator, which enable you to quantify behavior and conversions. For time tracking, it can be useful to start with one KPI based on your goals. For example, you might want to track:
- Phone Time or social media
- Work projects
- Personal projects
- Entertainment time watching TV or movies
- Daily routines
- Sleep and self-care, like exercise
If you have a challenging, long-term goal you are pursuing, it might be good to track your actual actual time spent on that goal. By setting realistic time input goal and tracking that time, you can see if whether or not you are putting in the time to make progress and hopefully acheive that goal.
Again, it’s important to choose what works best for you and your lifestyle. You may choose to track everything, or only certain activities that are most important to you. Personally I recommend starting with either device time, RescueTime computer usage or tracking a specific area or goal.
4. Start Tracking
Now that you have your tracking method, goals, and activities to track, it’s time to start tracking! The aim is to try to be consistent with your tracking by doing it every day at the same time. If you’re using a manual method, such as a paper journal or spreadsheet, be sure to record your activities and the time spent on each task as you go. You might do this as you do these tasks or at the end of the day. If you’re using a digital app, the behavior change you are trying to initative is that each time you start a task, you start your time. You might forget from time to time or even a whole day. But once you setup your timer and start doing it, it will become automatic and habitual. The app will largely do the work for you.
5. Review Your Data
When you are getting started, I recommend you schedule a time to review the data. As I said in a previous section, the goal isn’t to track just to track but to track so you see and act differently on your time. For me the review process is key component to my form of time tracking.
So prioritize taking a look at your data and reviewing it. What does it make you feel, think, etc.? Does it aligns with your goals and priorities? Are there areas where you’re spending too much time or wasting time? Are there activities you’re neglecting that you want to prioritize more?
It’s also useful to consider whether or not your approach to time tracking make sense and adjust accordingly. For example, after I had sorted out my phone addiction and decreased my YouTube and TV watching, it made less sense to obcessively track or review those. While I have tried to track all my time in the past, it quickly turned quite burdensome and I realized I needed to dial it back to just where it made most sense to me.
The intention in reviewing your time data is to use this information to make adjustments to your routine and schedule as needed. Remember, time tracking is a tool for self-reflection and personal growth, so be open to making changes as you learn more about how you spend your time.
My Approach to Time Tracking
Whatever method or goal you set for time tracking, there is no getting around the fact that it’s a behavior change and will be hard to pull off for several weeks or months even. If you are new to time tracking or tracking your life in general, then you will need to incorporate some new technologies and initiate some form of behavior change, which will require setting a goal, making a plan, taking active steps, monitoring your progress, etc. The end state is to develop a reflex and habit that you track your time automatically. Additionally, as I argued in the previous section, I believe to get the real benetfits of time tracking you also need to regularly review your time logs and reflect.
For those looking for a specific playbook on time tracking, here are the three primary methods that I use for time tracking:
- Passive computer time tracking with RescueTime
- Manual project time tracking with Toggl, my preferred timer app
- Passive device screen time tracking with iOS’s Screentime
When it comes reflection, I do a weekly review of my data with a special focus on my time logs. This involves a few steps. Periodically, like at the end or beginning of the year or when I finish major projects or goals, I review a larger range of time data. The yearly review gives me a high-level snapshot of my time and helps me see larger trends. My goal-specific time logs help me see how long pursuing and/or achieving a goal takes.
Let’s look at each of these one by one, before sharing a few additional ways to track time using other non-time-oriented technologies.
Passive Computer Time Tracking with RescueTime
Passive tracking involves adding a bit of software that records how you use a device and gives you back reports and charts on your software time usage. Passive time tracking remains one of my most common tips to anyone getting started with self-tracking, time tracking or quantified self. It’s simple to get started, easy to maintain and you can almost immediately start to see where you time is going.
I’m a big fan and long-time user of RescueTime. RescueTime is a simple program you install on your computer. It records what software you use on your computer and for how long. It then translates those raw usage logs into productivity scores, category usage charts and many other data visualization.
Here’s what the first month of January 2022 looked like for me in terms of my computer usage:
As a point of comparison, in 2013, I recorded 254h 8m with a large percentage of that time on entertainment apps, like watching movies or YouTube. By Jan 2016, I was down to 165h 21m with a much smaller perecentage (spent on 18%) entertainment. By Jan 2018, I recorded 123h 1m with basically zero time on entertainment. Put another way, over this span of time I changed how I use my computer and essentially eliminated entertainment from my computer usage.
While I still use YouTube, Netflix and other entertainment services, I no longer do it on my computer. My computer is largely for work, study and creative pursuits. If you are interested in how I tracked my YouTube time, see How to Track Your YouTube Watching (And Understand It) or No YouTube: 30-Day Challenge.
Besides tracking software time usage, RescueTime can be configured to trigger reminders when you spend too much time on certain sites or tools. You can also configure it to disable access to certain sites or software using what’s called “FocusTime.” For example, I still start my day on the computer in “FocusTime” by blocking access on distraction sites, like YouTube, new sites and even Google Search. While it’s easy enough to disable or get around this blocker, starting my day this way is a gentle nudge to get started with work, rather than seek out distraction and procrastination.
Another area where RescueTime helped me pursue better digital habits was around email. By looking at my time logs, I realized I was spending a lot of my time on communication tools. While email, slack and other tools are important parts of coordinating the work we do, they are rarely where the work actually happens. In order to nudge an email off-boarding moment in my day, I set up a notification and “FocusTime” automation that gets triggered when I spend more than 1h 15m per day in communcation and scheduling tools. This prevents me from unknowingly spending most of my day on email.
As a point of comparison, in 2015 (pre-Zoom), I spent 693h on communication tools or roughly 2h45 per workday. 340 hours of that was on email alone. By contrast, in 2021 (including with Zoom), I spent 261h on communication with about 100 hours on email. That’s 160 hours per year I don’t spend on email now.
Overall, I believe RescueTime and similar automated or passive time trackers can be a great start to time tracking and can enable better productive and creative usage on digital tools. Unfortunately due to how app usage might span different projects and use cases RescueTime’s time logs miss out on telling you exactly where your time goes. For example, I might use a design or writing tool on several different projects per day, but RescueTime will not be able to separate what project my software usage was on. Fortunately that’s exactly where manual project time trackers can help.
Manual Project Time Tracking with Toggl
Manual project time tracking involves actively recording what you are doing and how long. Basically you start a timer when you begin working on a project or task and stop it when you finish. You note the work you are doing and typically assign the project or area.
As you can imagine there are hundreds of time trackers available today. My favorite and tool I’ve used for many, many years is Toggl. Toggl offers a version for web, mobile and desktop. The interactions are intuitive and quick, and the data reports are clear, searchable and exportable.
Here is an example of my active time tracker:
As you can see, each time entry includes a description of the task I’m working on and a way to assign it to a related project or goal. I have setup workspaces for personal, client and startup work so I can see my breakdown across the big divisions in my life. I have created projects for everything.
In general, I almost exclusively use Toggl on the Desktop so there is a strong overlap between my RescueTime logs and Toggl logs. The ratio between total computer time and total project time is an important time-related KPI I look at each week, which I consider my golden ratio because I strive to keep project and computer time as close as 1:1.
Originally I used Toggl mostly for tracking my client and freelancing work. Each month I used my time logs to generate invoices. Over time I realized it was useful to also track and monitoring my non-paid work time too. Now I use Toggl as much as possible to track anything I consider a project or goal. As such, I record the time I spend on learning, writing and even music production.
At the end of each week, month or even year, you can then view your project time. Here is a heatmap of project time in 2021:
Here is my project time got split across different workspaces:
Personally, I orient my time-related reviews and reflections around weeks, meaning I’m mostly viewing and thinking proactively about my time on a week-by-week basis.
While sometimes I have periods where I put in a lot more hours, in general right now I log about 6 or 7 hours of project time per day. This means on a typical day I show up from 9am until 4 or 5pm and deliver a solid 8 or 9 hours of honest work each and every work day. I also tend to find an additional 1 to 3 hours each evening for creative doings and learning.
Overall, I believe manual time tracking can be a powerful practice for anyone with a lot of interests and work but struggles with quantifying where their attentive project time is going. While RescueTime can help you decrease certain digital habits like YouTube or email addiction, it can’t really orient you around your biggest time-related choices, like where should I focus my time?
Time tracking tools like Toggl can make it incredibly revealing where our time goes. Since we all face the same existential limits of how much time we actually have in a day, we can’t really avoid the hard choices of doing one thing over another. I personally struggle with having a lot of interesting projects and goals and feeling unable to quite put enough time into all of the things I care about. By having a project time log, I’m able to see where my time has gone in the past and make choices about where I want to put my time next.
For example, even though I loved volunteering for a local startup program all of 2020, by looking at my time logs I realized it was taking more time than I really wanted it too. So as I looked at where I wanted 2021 and beyond to go, I had to make the hard choice to sacrifice that project in order to give myself more time for other objectives. The time-in, value-output just didn’t really align.
Interestingly, even though I wrote my first post on how to track your time over a decade ago, my two recommendations have remained the same, namely passive time tracking with RescueTime and active project time tracking with Toggl. Since I wrote that post, one of the biggest societal shifts and concerns is phone addictions. Fortunately it’s now easier than ever to track your device time.
Device screen time tracking on iOS and Android
Much of our lives are enmeshed and immersed with technology. According to one survey “nearly half of the respondents stated that on average they spent five to six hours on their phone on a daily basis, not including work-related smartphone use.” Many teenagers and adults struggle with some form of phone addictions, related to social media and gaming apps. I’ve also struggled with phone and communication addition in the past. One of the ways I was able to better understand and change my device usage was using screentime trackers.
Several years ago screentime tracking required weird workarounds using an app like Moment or deducing phone usage from your iPhone battery stats. Nowadays both iOS and Android phones and tablets come with screentime trackers:
Google’s Digital Wellness (Left) and Apple’s Screentime (Right) both provide a way of viewing how you are spending your time on phone as well as how often you unlock, pickup or get notified. Both of these apps also offer ways to set limits on or trigger downtime, which are great ways to get reminders and nudges around phone usage.
One limitation with both of these apps is tracking over time or exporting your usage data. iOS’s screentime doesn’t provide data beyond about 4 weeks ago so it’s hard to see how your phone usage has changed compared to a year ago. Neither provides an API or export option for you to look at data in other ways or places.
So if you want to store and track device screentime overtime, you are going to need to log it elsewhere. Personally, I log my device screentime on my phone and tablet into a google form during my weekly review. This gives me a comparative and high-level overview of my device usage. It gives me a way to notice if my phone or other devices are worth looking into or changing.
Here is an example of my weekly screentime:
One of the chief benefits of this data overtime is I can notice changes over time and compare with the past.
All in all, if you want to make better choices about where your time goes, tracking your device screentime is another great opportunity for time tracking and cultivating self-awareness around tech usage too. For me personally, time tracking my phone or tablet are less about the moment and more about seeing at the end of the week how my time on the phone likely carried a signal of stress, distress or something else.
Attending to my time: Reviewing and Reflecting on My Time Tracking
What matters more than just tracking your time is spending it in ways that align with your personal values and bring you joy and fulfillment. In order to pursue my time meaningfully, I find it necessary to reflect on my time. I am a huge believer in the power of weekly reviews. Over the last 10 years, weekly reviews and weekly goal setting are two cornerstone habits that enable to me to live in alignment, stick to my habits, make progress, and acheive my goals. In fact, if you ask me to recommend one thing more than time tracking itself, it would be weekly reviews. When combined with real data and iterated over time, a practice of weekly reviews can lead to dramatic changes in your life.
Since I’ve already written a detailed guilde to data-driven weekly reviews, I’ll leave out the details which I covered there.
The short version is that each week for my weekly review I do the following
- Gather data and log to a google form: This involves about 5 minutes taking screenshots and logging key data point from my tracking tools into a google form. I pull in and log my sleep data, exercise, and tasks completed. I also noted my time spent on my computer and on my devices. Most importantly I log my project time, broken down my paid client work, personal project time and my startup/creative projects.
- Weekly Goal Scoring: Each week I set two main objectives and several support objectives for week ahead. At the end of the week I do a form of weekly goal scoring wherein I see if I actually did what I set out. These scores provide a benchmark week to week on hitting my goals and help me drop or prioritize goals over time.
- Process data logged: My logged data gets put into a google spreadsheet, which I then use formulas to calculate changes over time.
- Generate charts and weekly review template: I then use a few different scripts to create charts and generate my weekly review template.
View and screenshot my weekly data dashboard: With the data in google sheets, it’s easy to pull it into a data visualization tool. I personally use Google Data Studio / Looker since it’s free, web-based and consumes my spreadsheet data easily.
- Combine data and charts into my weekly review template: Using my generated template and screenshots, the last before I start actually reflecting is putting this all together. For me this is again just 30 seconds to a minute or two, since I have my note-taking system pretty dialed in. All told collecting data, generating charts, and combining it all into my template can take 5 to 10 minutes.
- Review, reflect, and write: I’ll admit that I would love to see this combining data and template generation process get more automated and streamlined. There isn’t much benefit in doing it myself. What really matters is reflecting on the data. I have several reflection questions I have used, but the two that have remained pivotal are Thoughts for the last week.. and Thoughts for the week to come. One forces me to look back critically and objectives and summarize into a narrative, while the other activate prospective thinking and makes me think and look ahead. The other component I like in my weekly review is noting Things to Remember from this Week. Oftentimes it just 2-4 items but looking back weeks or years later can generate profoundly detailed recollections.
- Set my weekly goals: For me the final step after pulling the data together and reflecting is setting goals for the week ahead. Ideally and in the majority of weeks, my data review, reflect and goal scoring makes it only a two or three minute process to set my goals. Other weeks, as I deal with various challenges and need to reorient at the beginning or end of a new cycle, I may spend more time setting these goals. Ultimately the point is have a simple list I can look to each week (or at least feel reminded about) so I am pursuing what I care about and intended to.
Hopefully this list provides a good starting point for doing your own weekly review based on your time data. I encourage you to find some key time buckets to log and reflect on weekly. Personally these are:
- Device time - computer, tablet, phone, all combined
- Client projects
- Personal projects
The simple act of noticing and noting my time in each of these buckets have help me orient my own life journey and productivity.
Beyond the weekly review, I also do periodic broader time reviews. For example, at the end or beginning of each year I look at my time data to see where my last year went and how it comes with other years. I often share these as public posts in my year in time series. While these charts have largely taken on an artistic component, I still think looking and reflect on the big picture of my time has benefit.
Even more tactical and important are my project-based or goal-based time reviews. This often happens when I’m just finishing a major goal or project. For example, when it came to learning music production and producing my first album, it took around 500 hours over 2 and half year years. By contrast, writing and finishing my second album happend over 21 weeks and in roughly 135 hours. I often look to my time logs to help me decide whether or not the time investment is worth it on a project or goal.
Writing, while one of my favorite activities, is an extremely time-consuming task, at least for me. Writing a blog post might take 3 to 15 hours depends on the amount of research, writing and editing. I’ve recently shifting my creative goals away from music and more into writing and have had to shift my schedule so I have the time to make progress writing.
Challenges, Drawbacks and Limitations
While time tracking can have many benefits, there are also some potential challenges and drawbacks to consider:
- Challenging Habit to Start: Time tracking can be a hard behehavior change to initiate and maintain. You need to actively engage and remember to track at the beginning. Over time, it has become automatic for me most of the time.
- Time consuming: Depending on the method you use to track your time, it can be moderately time-consuming to record and categorize all of your activities. This can become a burden. I recommend Toggl since it provides autofill when you set a task so most of the time I’m just readding a previous task in a few seconds. Beyond just tracking, you’ll really want to schedule and commit to reviewing too.
- Inaccuracy: If you forget a few hours, day or even week, it can lead to inaccurate data and limited sense of your time. Personally I think a certain amount of missed logging is ok, especially initially. Your initial goal is just capture something and build from there. That’s why I encourage focusing on tracking just one habit or project initially, like music practice, coding, etc.
- Obsessive behavior: In some cases, people (myself included) may become overly focused on tracking their time, which can lead to obsessive behavior and increased stress, especially if you miss a day or period of tracking.
- Unrealistic expectations: Some people may set unrealistic goals or expectations for themselves based on their ability to track and the time tracking data itself. This can lead to disappointment and frustration. Changing how we spend our time, whether on our phone, studies or creative pursuits, doesn’t happen over night. You need to be patient with yourself and expect bumps in the procdess.
- Loss of enjoyment: Tracking every minute of your day (which I don’t recommend) can take away from the enjoyment of certain activities, such as hobbies or leisure time. It can feel weird to track time for fun. I personally have failed whenever I tried to “track everything.” I find it’s better to leave many things untracked, especially social time and even chores.
Based on this, it’s important to weigh the potential challenges and drawbacks against the benefits of time tracking to determine if it’s the right approach for you. If you decide to try time tracking, it’s a good idea to start slowly and adjust your approach as needed to ensure that it’s sustainable and effective. Lock in a simple area to track and review it regularly to see if you are putting in the time according your goals. This cycle of set a goal, measure and review should be the primary aim of this approach. Similarly once you have set up a good routine of putting the time in, you may not even need to track your time anymore.
Conclusion (or Why A Time-Tracked Life is Worth Living Today and in the Future)
*What, then, is time? If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks, I do not know.*
Saint Augustine (AD 354-430, The Confessions)
Philosophically, time has proved a tricky concept to define, even for great thinkers and philosophers. Early 4th Century writer and philosopher, Augustine suggests that while he knows what time is when he doesn’t have to explain it, he struggles to put it into words when someone asks him to. While we may not be interested in probing the metaphysical nature of time, we can all relate with a certain assumption of knowing about our time until we are asked to explain. In looking back on a recent day, week or year, what can we say about where are time has gone? Can we even remember roughly, let alone define objective where our time has gone?
Our time management is not merely a question of productivity, as I wrote, but a question of the value we live and create through living in and across time. I might also quote philophers like Martin Heidegger or Fredrich Nietzsche about the existential nature of what time means to us. Leaving aside the mystical expressions in both writers, we as humans cannot avoid the the deeply personal and deeply existential reality of self and time: We are time. We are bound up with time. We are time-bound beings. Time and our allotment of energy over time defines much of what our lives are.
Addmittedly, time tracking can be a challenging behavior to start and maintain, and it may be difficult to define or explain to others why it’s valuable.
Time tracking has had a profound impact on my life pursuits. Personally, time tracking and time-based reflection have been a huge enabler in my own life. Owning where my time goes, noting my momentary attention, and scheduling focused time have enabled me to pursuit a range of personal and professional goals. I recently even completed learning music production (which took 500+ hours) and releasing my second album (which took 140 hours).
In this post, I have argued for a range of benefits associated with time tracking including improved productivity, better self-awareness, heightened creativity and greater accountablity among others. I believe when combined with a reflective practice (like Weekly Reviews) you can overcome major psychological limitations we all deal with (like the planning fallacy, Zeigarnik effect and even Self-Determination) and can pursue a more aligned, empassioned and successful life. There are many ways you can track your tasks and time, and, while I put forward several options and my favorites, it’s important to figure out what works for you, since time tracking as a behavior can be challenge to start and a tough habit to maintain.
While it won’t help you answer these philosophical and metaphysical questions about the nature of time per see, time tracking can enable you to lead a life of great self-awareness and heightened self-alignment.
Putting aside all the technicalities of time tracking, it can be useful to remember that the underlying purpose of time tracking is enable you to see your time objectively and holistically. From seeing your time and reflecting on it, you can make different choices, formulate different versions of yourself over time, and change. Time tracking at its core should be framed as an approach and a tool for reflective self-transformation.
Best of luck and happy tracking!
NOTE: This post is an update and rewrite of How much time did that take? Time Tracking Tools for Self and Freelancing, which I published in 2013. Check out that post for what I thought and used nearly 10 years ago!
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- Mark, G., Gudith, D., & Klocke, U. (2008). The cost of interrupted work: More speed and stress. Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, 107-110.
- Ottenbreit-Leftwich, A. T., Glazewski, K. D., Newby, T. J., & Ertmer, P. A. (2010). Teacher value beliefs associated with using technology: Addressing professional and student needs. Computers & Education, 55(3), 1321-1335.
AIDA (AI Disclosure Acknowledgement): The following written content was generated by me with minor assistance of an AI-based system (ChatGPT). Specifically I used it to help me in copyediting and minor re-writing and drafting a few individual points.>