Twenty-four hours per day, seven days per week, I have a timer running that describes what I am doing. I have found this helps keep myself accountable for what I spend my time on because any time I start or stop doing something, I have to consciously mark it down. That moment forces me to confront what I am doing and ask myself if I will look back on that activity and the amount of time I spent on it and feel good about myself.
Hopefully that moment encourages me to engage in more productive activities. That’s the plan, at least. I’m not trying to conquer the world or even start a business or something grandiose. I would just like to spend more time reading, writing, working out, cooking, etc. instead of sinking into my couch for eight hours of Fortnite or mindlessly scrolling across the internet. At the same time, I don’t want to become my own personal productivity tyrant. If I want to play some video games or binge a new show, that’s totally fine – click the button and go. I’m allowed to enjoy myself! Eight hours later, though, I will have to reckon with clicking stop on that timer.
The plan doesn’t always work out. There definitely have been more than one or two eight-or-more hour video game or television timers that I’ve shrugged at and accepted as who I am that day. But having the data is still useful for looking back at what exactly I have been doing with myself. As long as I keep myself honest with the timers, the reports won’t lie. It can be easy for life to feel like it’s just passing by without feeling like I know what I’ve been doing, but time tracking has alleviated a lot of that because I know exactly what I’ve been doing and for how long I did it. Having that data laid out clearly has made it a lot easier for me to have an honest conversation with myself about what is consuming my time vs. what I wish was consuming it.
So, for me, there’s a two-fold benefit I find in tracking my life:
The quick, in-the-moment “Hey dude, do you really want to start playing video games right now?” reflection that forces me to own up to my actions right then and there.
The big picture view the reports give to evaluate what I’ve been doing lately, which then feeds back into the first benefit if I know I’ve been telling myself I should be focusing on other activities but go to start something else instead.
I take care of all of this in one application: Toggl. In it, there’s a four-level hierarchy for organizing: Workspaces, Projects,Time Entries, and Tags. Each of these is nested in the previous, so a Workspace contains Projects, a Project contains Time Entires, and Time Entries contain Tags. There is also a Client functionality which is structurally adjacent to projects, but I do not use it.
As I’m not tracking business the way the app is classically built for, I keep my setup pretty straightforward. I only use one workspace (“Life”) and from there I have six high-level projects and around 20 or so Time Entries. I’ve spent the last six months or so tweaking the exact language I’m using, but I think I’ve built a solid foundation for what I’m trying to track while giving myself room to grow from here. My structure looks like this:
- Internet Browsing
- Video Games
A couple of details:
- I don’t break out any sub-entries at work right now, which is why it’s just “Work/Working.” I’m more concerned with the productivity and details of my free time than my day job right now. I intend to revisit this in the future, but for now just knowing the hours I’m at work is enough.
- If any personal project/hobby gets off the ground (for instance, this blog), I intend to break it out into its own project. For example, all writing for this space goes under “writing,” but that is mainly meant to refer to my handwritten journaling, so if this blog becomes more of a regular project, I’ll break it out into its own. Same if I were to more actively spend time writing a new album, I’d create a project for that band.
- “Loading” is my catch-all for in between activities. If I’m not sure what to do and I’m just sort of wandering a bit, I’ll throw on loading. Most of the time this tuns into Internet Browsing, but that’s a story for another day. It’s good for catching the “in between” minutes of life to know when I’m just “losing” time.
- I’m finding myself wanting more details from my “maintenance” timers when I look back at reports, so I may make it its own project and give it sub tasks like Home, Body, After Work or something like that and swap out things like Showering and put them under there. Most of my maintenance sort of falls in line with loading, so I think I need to re-evaluate what this means and be more specific so I know what that really is accounting for.
- Food is for all food-related things as I didn’t want to break out cooking vs. eating vs. out to eat.
- Toggl doesn’t support multiple timers at once, so if activities overlap, I will prioritize the one I want more detail about long term. For example, socializing takes priority over what I am doing during that time, so I’ll keep my “Socializing” timer running instead of flipping to a “Watching” timer if we go to the movies. I don’t consider this a restriction of the app’s capabilities. Life is full of multitasking, but part of what I’m trying to get out of this is seeing what I consider a priority, so this helps me better focus and have a clear 24-hours of data on each day. Giving yourself clear standards on what you prioritize for tracking during an overlap is really helpful to not have paralysis about not tracking “right.”
Getting started can be easy from a mechanical perspective: make an account, create some projects, and you’re off to the races. The harder part is keeping with it. There’s definitely a mental overhead to remember to switch timers and create your own standards for what to track. I still forgets sometimes! There’s no trick to it, but slowly building up what you track and when is a nice way to ease your way into it. I also have learned to lean on other things to retrace my steps to when I change activities like my last “I’m here” text message to someone if I accidentally left my “Driving” timer on after arrivign at a social event. Going whole hog from zero to 24 hours is a quick way to feel overwhelmed. I have also found that tracking every moment of my life can feel…clinical. It’s at odds with my softer side that wants the human experience to feel less rigid. Quantifying everything doesn’t always feel good, so pick a level of detail that makes you feel comfortable with your own humanity.
I set off all my timers through the iOS app. At one point I used some Workflow actions inspired by CGP Grey and Federicco Vitti’s writing and podcasting about time tracking, but I found it more burdensome than just flipping open the app, clicking the start button, and typing into an auto-complete field. If you’re just starting, I recommend not overcomplicating things at the get-go by trying to overengineer your solution or structure. Make some projects and tasks, start collecting data, and go from there. Feeling it out week by week was the only way I was able to stay consistent. I’ve had to go back and purge or change entries a few times to standardize everything, but it helped me wrap my head around what I wanted and how detailed to be about my project and entry names. Being consistent in that language is really helpful and figuring out what works is unique to everyone.
I think the big idea for me with this whole ordeal surrounds self-reflection and accountability. I want to know where I’m focusing and give myself the opportunity to change that and because the data is self-defined and curated, it’s my own little microcosm of truth about who I am. If I tell myself I want to spend more time doing something, but the data doesn’t bear it out over several weeks, then it’s easier to call myself out with the report that shows me what I was doing instead. Toggl won’t force me to make a good decision, but it does force me to reflect on that decision and live with it. That’s a small step in the right direction, so I’ll take it.