A brief history of time tracking (why I swore off single-purpose tools).

Time Tracking

Up until last year, every time-tracking method I’ve ever used has ultimately served just one purpose: compensation. That is, to log time spent on work activities so that I can, in turn, get paid for that time. And if you’d asked me prior to August 2017 if that suited me I’d have shrugged and said, “I guess.” Ah, innocence. So pure. So uninformed.

A wizened eight months later, I know that any tool or method that tracks my time without helping me to effectively use my time is, frankly, a waste of my time. Because while it requires my attention, it doesn’t give me anything in return. What about money, you ask? Look, if my only options are a timesheet or a glorified stopwatch, just pay me a flat salary and let me get to work. At least that way I can preserve my focus for the duties I’ve been hired to perform. Twice in my life I’ve done exactly that: worked for a flat salary, no time tracking necessary. The first time, it was pretty great. The second, I worked so far beyond my agreed-upon hours that if I’d been paid by the hour my rate would’ve been below minimum wage. Gross. Anyway, what differentiates the former from the latter is at the heart of why single-purpose tools don’t work for me. So let’s dive in there.

Time tracking ≠ time management.

Time tracking can (and perhaps should) play a role in time management, but tracking alone is not management. And it was management I needed in my first salaried position. I was a few years out of college and working in the advertising department at a daily print newspaper, which, if you’ve ever worked for a daily paper, is all I need to say. If you haven’t, well ….

You know how lots of job ads feature words like “fast-paced” and “deadline-driven”? Whenever I see those words, I know I’m more than prepared for whatever pace, whatever drive they’re dishing out. Daily print newspapers are the definition of fast-paced and deadline-driven. They build and deliver an entirely new product every. single. day. A product that—because it’s material, not digital—can’t be altered once it ships. If someone (not me, you understand, but someone) were to typo the sale date in an ad, "they" could certainly print a correction in the next edition. But ask any advertiser and they’ll tell you that—correction or no correction—the damage is done. It’s not enough to work fast; you also have to stay focused and on task.

So I developed a system:

  1. I found five plastic inboxes and stacked them one on top of the other.

  2. I labeled each one with a day of the workweek.

  3. Everything that needed doing (or might need doing or might only possibly need considering at some vague point in the future) got a piece of paper that represented or spelled out the action necessary. It could be an old ad, clipped from the paper, that an advertiser wanted me to recreate. It could be a business card, a copy of a contract, or a handwritten note from Yours Truly.

  4. Each piece of paper got tucked into the inbox for the day I’d need to do whatever it was that needed doing. If it had to get done or started on April 11th and April 11th was a Wednesday, the piece of paper went into Wednesday’s box.

  5. Every evening before going home, I’d pull out the next day’s stack of paper, go through it, and write out a list of the things that would require my attention come tomorrow.

This was all just an attempt to keep my head above water, so imagine my surprise when I realized I’d stumbled onto a crude, but totally legit form of time management. The inboxes honed my focus by organizing tasks according to day, never hijacking my attention on a Tuesday with something that could (and should) wait until Wednesday. I synced my workflow with the industry I was immersed in and, in doing so, managed my time.

But did I track it? Well … sort of. I could definitely have ballparked how much of my day was spent meeting advertisers versus servicing their accounts versus everything else. And whatever my system lacked in accuracy, it more than made up for in, you know, not being a useless irritant.

Hello darkness—I mean timesheet, my old friend.

Just to reacquaint myself with its evils, I busted out my old timesheet the other day. How I’d forgotten the terrible beauty of those neat little rows, those tiny gaping maws eager for me to feed them numbers! When did I arrive? Leave for lunch? Get back to work? End for the day? All that spreadsheet cared about was the amount of time I spent on site. What I did with my time was of no importance to this tool that was, ironically, used to calculate the dollars I would get paid for what I did with my time. Isn’t that strange? I could literally have been holed up in my office writing bad fan fiction and I’d still have gotten paid the same amount. One would assume I’d eventually lose my job by virtue of the fact that surely someone would begin to notice that the things I was supposed to do weren’t getting done, but that’s not the point. The point is that this pay-by-attendance timesheet method contributes nothing to time management. When you get down to it, it’s not even real time tracking.

Once at a nonprofit I worked for, my boss asked me to create a mission wall in our retail space. The idea was a fantastic one—to connect the social service arm of our organization with the more public-facing operation so that anyone who visited us could clearly see what their patronage did for the people our mission served. Nice, right? Now ask me how many hours I spent on it. Let me just consult my timesheet … uh-huh, I see, and carry the one, and voila: Your guess is as good as mine, folks. All I know is that it took several months to complete amid my other job duties, countless interruptions, and wrangling for the money to spend on supplies (nonprofit coffers might as well be turnips for all the blood you can get from them). I could plan, sure. But outside of the newspaper industry where the many daily deadlines create a solid, unbending framework, my plans proved shockingly subject to change. Plans meant nothing. Dollars, on the other hand ….

Gosh, if only there was a way to track the amount of time used on specific projects so that I could calculate their cost, estimate their value, and have a leg to stand on when, just for example, the work culminated in something that was used less as a mission wall than as a place-to-stack-inventory wall. How cool would that be?

Enter the time-tracking app:

It sounded cool, anyway. Then I tried it.

I signed up for a web-based time-tracking app to bill for contract work and my, was it pretty. Beautiful colors, sleek graphics, lots of white space. Gorgeous. It was also a royal pain in the keister. I could track individual projects and tasks, but to do so I had to go through three different screens for each one, which meant setting tracking up on the fly for unexpected things was out of the question. If I took a call that wasn’t associated with any of my pre-set projects, I had to try and remember what time the call started and ended, then set up the new project afterwards. Plus, because the tracker logged time in the same way as my old friend the timesheet did—by time of day—any mistakes I made (e.g. forgetting to clock in or out) were really difficult to correct. It wasn’t enough to say, “Okay, that call lasted about fifteen minutes,” and just log fifteen minutes. I had to think back to what time it was when the call ended then subtract fifteen minutes from that, go to that time in my tracker and insert a new fifteen minute task. I hated it. Not least because even though yes, I had data (and some of it was even accurate!), I still wasn’t managing my dang time.

I was managing my time tracker.

It kind of reminded me of the only other time I worked for a flat salary. The job was supposed to be super part-time, just ten hours per week producing a web tv show. The trouble is that producing a web tv show takes more than ten hours per week, and the effort I expended trying to keep to just ten hours per week meant that I was focused more on my time than on my job. I made mistakes. Mistakes that then needed correcting. Which took even more … you guessed it, time. The moral of the story being look, why take a job and then hamper your ability to do it effectively by watching the clock? If I have to track my time, shouldn’t I be able to do it in a way that, like my inbox system of yore, hones my focus rather than fracturing it?

Planning + time tracking = time management.

I never would’ve asked that question a year ago. It wouldn’t have occured to me. Time tracking was a chore that served one end: compensation. Then last August I started using a day-planning app that doubles as a time tracker—sort of a paperless and far more accurate version of my inbox system—and lo, time management was back in my life. Because I track my time right there in my planner (and notably without regard to time-of-day) what used to require a separate effort now happens seamlessly. Which means:

  • I can focus on work, not the clock. All I have to do is what I’ve always done (or tried to do, anyway)—plan my day and work through it, logging in and out of tasks as I go.

  • I have real data, minus the struggle. I don’t have to sacrifice productivity in order to collect useful, up-to-the-minute info about which projects get what percentage of my time.

The dream that never was

The dream that never was

  • I don’t get sidelined by the unexpected. How easy is it to add something to your handwritten todo list? Ridiculously, right? That’s how easy it is for me to add a task on the fly and keep right on tracking.

Full disclosure: I started using Daycast because it’s how we log our time here at Open Door Teams. Fuller disclosure: My coworkers built it. But frankly, any tool or method that integrates planning with time tracking will do. These days, those are the only time-tracking tools that will do. Because I’ve now tried enough of them to know that single-purpose time trackers create more hassle than value. They dilute my productivity by disrupting the very work for which the paycheck they bring me compensates. It’s not worth it, friends.

Not when there are perfectly good inboxes in the world.

Photo by Jean Scheijen