4 Lessons I Learned From Time Tracking
Time is a non-renewable resource, one that each of us has in varying (but unknown) amounts. That’s why it’s so precious and needs to be used wisely. Once it’s gone, it’s gone.
As a long-time freelancer, I’ve been tracking my billable time for decades. As someone who’s intensely interested in productivity, I’ve also done some small side experiments where I tracked time while doing everyday tasks. Tracking time has provided me with some interesting insights.
1. Tackle the small stuff right away
Perception of time and objectively-measured time may be radically different. Sometimes tasks go much more quickly in reality than I would have guessed in advance.
During the lead up to doing things on my list that I feel resistance or dread about it, I often have the sense that the task will take quite a long time. But then when I do the thing, I’m sometimes surprised to discover it went much quicker than I expected.
A great example of this was my dishwasher experiment. I had the sense that unloading the dishwasher was this big job that took 10 or 15 minutes. When I actually timed it, though, I was shocked to discover it really only took 3 minutes. In the time I spent dreading the task and procrastinating about it, I could have had the job finished!
Resistance and dread seem to contribute to “making mountains out of molehills” for me. Now that I’m aware of this tendency, I try to just tackle small, dreaded tasks when I think of them. (Those of you who are fans of David Allen’s Getting Things Done approach will know about the 2 minute rule—if you come across a task that you can do in 2 minutes or less, do it right away; don’t bother putting it on a to do list to address later. I agree that's a wise tactic!)
2. Tracking work time can provide valuable insights
In my dishwasher experiment, I learned that tasks I dread might actually be much quicker than I anticipate. Sometimes the opposite happens, though. There are times when I think I’ll be able to do something quickly and it ends up taking ages. This is more common with work-related tasks, and that’s why I find it’s so helpful to use a timer to track how long you really spend on a task. The more you do this, the better you get at estimating how long things will take, and the better you get at mapping out realistic daily, weekly, or longer-term plans. (I use Toggl to track my time.)
3. Being hyper-aware of time can be draining
Other than rare experiments like I did with the dishwasher, I don’t track time spent on personal activities. Generally, I don’t need or want to know how long everything in my life takes. I also don’t track all of the time I spend on work activities anymore.
I learned a lot from years of time tracking and find that I am pretty good at estimating times for my most common work tasks now. And, I’m moving away from billing clients by the hour which decreases the need to know precisely how long things take.
I find that if I track every minute of work time, I become hyper-aware of the passing of each minute and hour, and I don’t like how that makes me feel. So now I balance some time tracking with some time spent in flow, i.e., immersed in tasks with dedicated focus and no sense of how much time something is taking.
4. Time constraints can boost productivity
Usually, I track my time counting up from zero and things take however long they take. Recently, I tried a different approach, using a timer to count down while I worked on a task. For example, if I was starting a task I thought I could do in an hour, I’d set the timer for 60 minutes and get to work. It felt very different than counting up to me. I found that it helped me maintain focus and almost felt like a fun game to try and finish in time (or sooner). As a result, it boosted my productivity.
This probably shouldn’t be a surprise. It’s aligned with Parkinson’s Law that states that work tends to expand to fill the time allotted for its completion. So the less time you have, the quicker you tend to get something done. Using a countdown timer is like setting a mini deadline for yourself.
I’m not sure if the counting down method might become stressful if used frequently. Just like the counting up method, it may make me more aware of the passage of time than I want to be.
I’ll continue to experiment with both methods, observing how each influences my productivity and inner peace. I suspect I may end up using a combo of both methods plus generous chunks of unmeasured time spent in flow.
Productivity isn’t the only metric that matters
While I do love tools that boost my productivity (like time tracking), getting more done in less time is not the only thing that matters. One of the most important questions to ask yourself is if the right tasks are on your to do list in the first place. By “right” tasks, I mean the highest-impact activities that are realistic and aligned with your values, strengths and personality.
If you’re a SOULopreneur who could use some help figuring out what the “right” marketing tasks are for your unique business, I can help with that. You can check my offerings at www.calmandcreativestudio.com—including a Mindful Minimalist Marketing Planning Retreat, Marketing Audit, and Momentum Mentorship.