Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Tracking Time: A Brief How-To Guide

Anytime I write about tracking time, I get a comment or two with questions about the details of how I do it, and whether it takes a lot of time to track time. I've decided to write up the details of my method, so that I can just refer people back to this post when they have questions. If you are completely uninterested in time tracking, you should click away now. But if you want to know the gory details.... here you go!

I currently use a spreadsheet to track time. When I first tracked time- as a contractor billed out by the hour, this was called charging time- I had a custom application that I used to do it. There are apps to do this on your smartphone or tablet, and now that I have a smartphone I may eventually get around to finding one I like. If you want to go looking for one, I'd suggest searching on "time charging" rather than "time tracking" because I suspect that the best apps have been written by contractors who need to charge their time in order to get paid.

No matter how you capture the data, the key parts of the process are to identify your categories ("charge codes' in contractor parlance) and then keep track of which category each specified chunk of time belongs in. I track my time in 15 minute increments. This is what I did when I was a contractor, and I continue to find it a good increment to use. It keeps the spreadsheet a manageable size, and it seems like the right period of time for how I work.

Here are the step by step instructions for my method:

1. Decide on your categories. 

I find it most helpful to aim for categories in a middle level of detail- "work" is not detailed enough for my purposes, and "writing meeting agendas" is too detailed. I also find it useful to group some categories for later analysis- however, this only becomes important when I'm analyzing my results. It has no impact on the actual time tracking.

My current categories(organized by my groups) are:
  • Personal upkeep
    • Sleep
    • Eating
    • Personal care
    • Exercise
  • Kids
    • Child care
    • Playing with/reading to kids
  • Chores
    • Food chores
    • Housecleaning chores
    • Laundry
    • Organizational chores
  • Work
    • Project management - meetings
    • Project management - meeting prep and follow up
    • Project management - other
    • Group management - meetings
    • Group management - other
    • Technical - support
    • Technical - other
    • Work email/communication
    • Work - other
  • Leisure
    • Reading
    • Internet/blogging
    • TV
    • Time with Hubby
    • Time with Friends/family
  • Other
    • Commuting
    • Work/career socializing
    • Other
I think I may add a category for "non-work projects" in the Other group, but so far I haven't had time to work on any of those, so I haven't gotten around to doing that. I also think I should have put in two "time with friends/family" categories- one for when my kids are present and one for when I'm off without the kids. The vast majority of my time with friends and family also involves my kids, but it would be interesting to capture the amount of time that doesn't.

You can see the categories I used the last time I did this exercise in my post about that exercise. That post also contains a link to the spreadsheet format I used, which is in Google Docs.  And of course, there is a post describing the outcome of my last time tracking exercise.

If you look at both of my lists of categories, you'll notice that I'm using more detailed work categories this time. This is because I am doing this exercise in part to learn more about how I manage to be efficient at work. There is no one right set of categories to use, or right level of detail to use. You have to figure out why you're doing the exercise and what questions you want to answer. Then you pick categories at just a low enough level of detail to answer those questions.

2. Set up your system

Pick your app and enter your categories into it or set up your spreadsheets. This will be the most time-consuming part of the exercise, in my experience. Even when I had the custom application to use, I spent more time finding the correct charge codes and getting them loaded into my account than actually tracking time. I spent about 30 minutes setting up my spreadsheets this time. I made a template that I just reuse each week, so this is a one time cost, with a little tweaking after the first week. However, I had last time's template to use as a starting point. I think that if I had started from scratch, it might have taken me an hour to get set up.

3. Track your time

Your data will be most accurate if you track your time as you go. Counter-intuitively, this is also the least time-consuming and least intrusive method. When I was a contractor, I thought this would be a pain, and tried just entering my hours once a day (the minimum frequency required by my company). Within a month or two, I was tracking time as I went, and almost all of the contractors I know eventually settle on entering this method as well.

Tracking time as you go does not mean switching over to your app or spreadsheet every 15 minutes and entering what you were doing. It means bringing up your app or spreadsheet every time you change tasks, and entering what you were doing. Some days my schedule gets crazy with meetings, and I have to enter my time a little bit later- but I always do it as soon as I can, and on those days, I can refer back to my calendar to help me remember what I was doing when if necessary. It literally takes just a few seconds to enter my time each time I do it. I do not find it disruptive at all.

I, of course, have a computer-centric job, so I just leave Google Docs open all day, and switch over when appropriate to enter time. If I had a job where you are almost never at a computer, I'd print out paper copies of the spreadsheet and mark my time there, then enter the data into my spreadsheet at night. This would obviously increase the time spent on tracking. Or, if I could use a smartphone at work, I'd find a time charging app and use that.

At home, I go to my computer (which is always on in the office), and mark what I've been doing every couple of hours. I don't find it hard to glance at a clock and notice when I'm switching categories of tasks, but I also find that the fact that we have fairly set routines in the morning and evening makes it very easy to catch up if I don't get a chance to enter time.

Handling odd amounts of time

I track my time in 15 minute increments, but I don't watch the clock and make sure to only switch tasks on the quarter hours. I just do what I always do, and I round to the nearest 15 minutes. If I switch tasks and it is 10:40, I round to 10:45. If I switch at 10:35, I round to 10:30. And so on.

I know some contractors who have an app open on their desktop at all time, and essentially clock in and out as they switch projects. This obviously gives you very precise data, but only works if you have that app available at all times that you want to be tracking your time. Since I want to track at home and at work, I don't find that practical.

What about little 2 minute "brain cleansing" breaks to read Twitter, or what not? I find these little breaks to be incredibly valuable as long as I keep a tight rein on them, but that is a topic of another post. For now, all that matters is that I don't count those in my time tracking. Nor do I worry about chats with colleagues, time spent going to the bathroom or getting a drink of water... unless any of these activities ends up taking 5 minutes or more. Then I categorize them appropriately. This means that I do sometimes have 15 minutes of "internet/blogging" or "other" in the middle of the work day. And that is OK!

Handling time spent on more than one category

My earlier post on my current time tracking exercise mentioned that I often find myself doing a task that can be considered to belong to more than one category. I handle this in one of two ways: either I split the time between the two categories, or I pick the "dominant" category and assign all the time to that. I think these options are best explained by example.

An example of an activity I split is my lunchtime walk at work. I find the walk to be a very useful time for thinking through difficult problems, so on days when I end up thinking about work issues (as opposed to thinking through a post I'd like to write, or a home logistics issue, or whatever other problem my brain decides to tackle), I could consider this work. Thinking about work problems is part of what I'm paid to do, after all. But it is also clearly exercise, and I let my mind wander while I walk. So I split the 30 minutes between "work-other" and "exercise."

An example of an activity I assign to the "dominant" category is watching TV with my husband. As I mentioned in my earlier post, I wouldn't watch much TV if left to my own devices. I watch TV with my husband because he likes to watch TV together. So I would usually mark that time as "time with husband" not "TV."

It doesn't really matter how you decide to handle these situations- unlike when I was a government contractor, no one is going to show up and audit you! Just handle them the way that makes sense to you, and be consistent.

4. Analyze the Results

This is the most important step! The point of the entire exercise is to learn more about how you spend your time, and hopefully to get some ideas about how to optimize things. I find that the act of tracking my time tightens up my time usage, but the real benefit is in looking at a week or more's worth of data and trying to see patterns. Last time, I was horrified by the amount of time I spent on chores, and tried to improve that. So far this time, I have been struck by how fragmented my weekend days are, and am wondering if I should try to change that. I'm noticing some interesting patterns at work, too, but those are probably also best left for a later post, when I have more data and I've had time to think a bit more about what it means.

Summarizing the data for analysis is not difficult. I have a summary sheet in the spreadsheet I use, and it automatically pulls the totals into the appropriate places. That took 10-15 minutes to get set up properly, but was well worth the time, because now I don't spend any time pulling the data together to analyze it. Any time charging app worthy of the name will summarize by category, too- otherwise, the contractors would have no way to write their invoices.

And that's it. It isn't complicated. Did I leave anything out? Ask me your questions in the comments.


  1. Ok, I've got my spreadsheet set up and ready to go for next week! Now I just have to fit in reading the book over the weekend...

  2. This is awesome - thank you so much for sharing! I'm going to try this in a couple of weeks (we have a long weekend coming up and Evan is transitioning to a new daycare, so things aren't going to be normal next week).

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