Minding the Borderlands

Mark Koester (@markwkoester) on the art of travel and technology

How Much Time Did That Take? Time Tracking Tools for Self and Freelancing

We live in a world with a ton of things competiting for our time. It’s not surprising that we try to think more about where our time goes. For me, thinking and counting, organizing and analysizing my time have become somewhat second nature. There are two reasons for why I am personally so involved in thinking about time in general and my time specifically. The first reason is existential or philsophical: time is basically the the only thing we have and in life we only got a limited amount of it, so our temporality is deep part of who we are. You don’t need to know Heidegger to know the vital importance of time-life. This isn’t the first time I’ve blogged on this point about the value of time.

The second reason why time as a countable thing is such an important reflex in my life is that I largely work on a freelance basis. This means I exchange my work-time-expertise for money. I spend my time on X in exchange for Y money in return. I occassionally take on projects that are on a fixed budget but generally I work on flexible projects such that the need and functions are changing so a one-time budget would be pretty hard. (As a word to the wise, don’t hire on a fixed budget when you aren’t 100% sure what you want, since it’ll annoy your developer.) In any case, I basically have to always know what I am working on, for who and for how long.

A friend of mine who is starting to do similiar time-based freelance computer work asked me the other day how I keep track and manage my time. This more or less led into a description of all the tools and things I use to track my time. In this post, I’d like to describe some of the tools and methods I use to track my personal and professional time.

First Things First: You got to make time tracking a reflex

First thing you need to do is start time tracking as a semi-conscious mental process. Obviously you aren’t going to have a stopwatch next to you (though it might work!). The key first step is to realize that you need to record the time of a task and to be aware once you’ve moved off the task onto something else, because you’ll need to stop recording the time for that event and, of course, note the time / activity of the next event.

While I have several technologies I use to track my time, some actively and some pasively, there is no getting around the fact that you need to make tracking of your time a reflex that you do automatically.

An easy first step is to via this website / google chrome extension: Timer Tab. It’s super simple: open the tab and the timer starts. So, if you start a task, open it up and when you stop, check the timer and record it somewhere (ideally in a timesheet).

I’ll admit this isn’t the best method, but I have used it myself since it does record your time. And if you are putting time into an external document or spreadsheet invoice, this method works fine. It’s not great since it doesn’t let you tag the events you are working on with the timer. Also there are no reports.

Second: Start Using a Sophisticated Time Tracker System (like Toggl)

If you are serious about tracking your time, then you are need to get beyond a simple stopwatch type app. While these simple apps are good for certain things, they aren’t great as a full system for tracking what you are working on and the time you spent on it.

To start tracking time better and the specific activity you were doing during that period, you are going to need to start using a more sophisticated time tracker system. There are tons of choices out there for this, including various desktop and web-based programs. For me, my favorite is Toggl.

(Confession: To be honest, I like Toggl so much that I haven’t really compared it with other services for time tracking ).

I’ve been using Toggl for a couple months now to do more specified, time tracking.

On a business level, I do the same thing I did before by tracking the time I spend on client issues: I note the task I’m working on and assign the related project.

At the end or beginning of the week (though I should be doing this everyday perhaps), I use Toggl’s reports features to see the amount of time I spent on each client’s project. Depending on the specific workflow for that client, I either enter the hours worked into a separate invoice or record it in Redmine, which I use for project management.

On a personal level, I use Toggl as much as possible to track my learning, studying and writing. I could go all the way and track my every single activity, but I tend to limit myself to “work”–either professional or personal. Why? Well, for now, I like leaving a period in the day for relaxation and if I start tracking all of my relaxation, it stops being relaxing.

Overall, I really like Toggl a lot since it it’s very minimalist for the time recording and starts working without much fuss or onboarding. From there, it’s very flexible in terms of how you assign projects and tags. There is also an iPhone app I use to record some of my non-computer time outside of the office (). In the end though, it’s main advantage is this: 1. a clean interface for recording the activity and start and stop times, 2. a flexible system for adding tags and projects, and 3. various reports for viewing how you spent your time.

Bref, if you want to become more conscious about where your time goes and how you spend time each week, start using something like Toggl to record your time on different tasks.

Bonus Points: Passive Time Tracking with Rescue Time

I’m a big fan of RescueTime, which takes a background snapshot of my computer habits and translates it into a kind of a estimate of my productivity. I use it on my computer and Android tablet to track things passively. Unfortunately, due to the way iOS works, it’s not possible to track iPhone usage.

While I don’t think the data you’ll get out of RescueTime (at least how I use it) is as valuable as an active system of time tracking, it’s still extremely fascinating to see this kind of data about myself and my computer time. Since I do mostly gaming and reading on my Android tablet, unfortunately RescueTime thinks I’m pretty unproductive on that device.

Bref, if you want to want to collect a passive snapshot of your computer time, set up RescueTime on your work computer and check out your results.

Conclusion: Time and Self

With all of this technology and media around us, it’s incredibly easy to get distracted. There are really a lot of things competing for our attention. Pretty much every single web service is trying to get you to stay on their site or app longer and come back more and more often.

With work, family, social and so many ways to lose and spend time, there’s little doubt that it seems like there are a thousand things a day competiting for our time.

The Quantified Self movement is a very interesting trend today. People have been trying to better understand themselves for a really long time. In our modern, technological age, we have an incredible opportunity since there are so many simple tools to better track ourselves. Even the ability to carry around a smartphone provides us with a simple way to record pretty much anything we want wherever we are.

With RescueTime, we can know how much time we spend using which applications and when. We can then assign productivity scores for certain programs or web pages and then determine how productive our computer time is.

With Toggl and a personal habit of recording what we are doing and when we stop, we can really become much more aware of where our time is going. And, if you are willing (and you should!) to take things to the next step, then you can take all that data about yourself and optimize your life and your time via self-evaluation, analysis and weekly reports. But that’s a post for another day.

  • Barcelona, Spain

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