How time tracking can help you prioritize

by lynettebye 4 min read16th Dec 20192 comments

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This piece is cross-posted on my blog here.

Ann told her supervisor that she would get a draft of her research proposal to them by Friday. However, it’s Sunday afternoon and Ann is just now finishing up her draft. She has to force herself to even look at the draft because Ann is dreading her supervisor being disappointed that she is late again.

She finally sends in the draft Sunday evening. However, she’s not happy with it. She can picture the improved version she could have created with just a couple more hours of work. She determines that next time she will meet the deadline, come hell or high water.

I would be surprised if she meets the next deadline.

I don’t doubt Ann’s resolve to meet the next deadline. I’m sure she truly wants to do so. But she isn’t changing any of the processes that lead her to be late. She has a track record of missing the deadlines she sets for herself, so the issue probably won’t go away by default. Yet she hasn’t identified why she missed the last deadline or made a different plan to correct the issues.

If Ann consistently misses deadlines, she needs to try a new approach - more determination rarely works. In this case, she probably needs better prioritization, more frequent and more realistic deadlines, and some more motivation.

For these issues, Ann would probably benefit from a good outside view on how long similar tasks take. But that information is hard to remember off the top of her head. However, if Ann started tracking her time for a few weeks, I expect the story would continue something like this:

Ann started tracking her time and was surprised at how long it took to run her experiment. The first step had an error in the data collection, so she had to redo it. Then it took her twice as long to write the introduction to her paper as she expected. At the end of the project, it had taken her twice as long as she had originally planned, but she thought it probably took longer than normal. Other projects would go faster.

After two more projects, she decided that it actually was normal for projects to take that long. So for her next paper, she quickly drafted the entire introduction, instead of spending hours trying to get each word perfect. She had less time to polish it up afterwards than she had hoped, but moving the ideal-but-not-necessary steps to the end meant she had an entire draft. She hit her next deadline.

Ann isn’t alone here. Does this story sound familiar? The planning fallacy – the persistent tendency to underestimate how long it will take to do a task - is probably familiar to most of my readers. I think part of the intractability here is that we don’t normally measure time. And it's hard to optimize what we don't measure.

Can time tracking help?

According to this hypothesis, frequently measuring time will improve prioritization by improving the outside view on how long tasks take. (Though we still often optimistically expect the next task to be completed faster than the last.) Anecdotally, I’ve found time tracking to improve people’s ability to plan (especially if they had difficulty planning before), and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that GiveWell/Open Phil encourage their employees to track their work time.

Most importantly, better predictions kill the “I can do everything” impulse. This impulse often feels like “Everything needs to be done, so it doesn’t matter which order I do it in” - a dangerous false trap that can seriously decrease productivity. Knowing how little you can actually do in a day reduces that impulse, so you naturally prioritize better.

In addition, time tracking can be a great motivation tool. You can set input goals and track how much you worked, particularly on top priority work – I track my deep work hours each week and set goals for how many I want to do. Note, I also advise you to set output goals lest you start to Goodhart on time spent working, which can lead to burnout.

How can I track my time?

If you want to track your time, I recommend the free app Toggl.com. It allows you to track time with a few keystrokes and then presents the data in a clean, accessible interface. See an introduction guide here

Because of the automatic data crunching, I expect most people will get more value out of tracking time on Toggl than manually on a spreadsheet. Plus Toggl is easier to set up. It’s available on desktop, browser, and phone app, so you can use it across all your devices. (I don’t have any affiliation with Toggl, I just like the tool.)

If you haven’t tracked your time before, a two-week experiment will likely give you valuable insight into how you spend your days. I think the majority of people benefit from continuing to track work time on a regular basis, but you can see for yourself if it feels valuable enough to continue after two weeks.

If you haven’t tracked time before, here are some ideas for a two-week trial run:

  1. Try tracking your time for one week. Whenever you switch tasks, switch the timer in Toggl. If you missed changing the timer, you can manually edit it afterwards. Checking your browser history may help with figuring out when you switched tasks. You should at least track work time, but you’ll learn more by tracking all of your time for a week.
  2. Enter the specific activity you were doing, not just work/not-work time. E.g. reading math textbook, making edits to revise and resubmit paper, answering email, sleeping. 
  3. Add a “project” label to the time entries to easily process them later. Some common project labels are: work admin, personal life, social, and whatever your big projects are (e.g. AI paper, Thesis, EAG conference). 
  4. Add a tag for time spent on your top priorities. Work that moves forward one of your goals for the week is a good heuristic for priority work. Some people also add tags for deep/shallow focus work. 
  5. After the first week, check what worked or didn’t for you, and experiment with how to get the most benefit from your data. What surprised you? What percent of your time went to your top priorities? How much time did you spend on things that don’t move you forward? Could you do things differently so that you get a task done faster next time, or is your time estimate just miscalibrated?
  6. Repeat for a second week based on your updated ideas for how to best use the information.

But what if...?

...I already know where my time goes?

Many people assume they already know where their time goes. However, they are often surprised by the results when they actually track their time. Without collecting data from past experience, we may never notice the mismatch between our expectations and reality.

If you think you already know where your time goes, try listing roughly what you’ve done in every 15-minute chunk of time today. If you can do that, you probably don’t need more data.

...I’m not sure the above suggestions work for me?

Fair enough - what works for you might look nothing like the above suggestions. So treat this as an experiment!

Do it for a week. Actually do it. Don’t just halfheartedly try for a day or two. Look at the data and see what you want to learn from it. If that didn’t give you the information you need, then see what does. Play around with it. If it hasn’t been very useful after a couple of weeks, then leave it.

But don’t give up just because it seems annoying the first couple of days.

...I find remembering to switch the timer distracting?

The meta-attention can feel distracting, particularly when you’re first starting. After all, you need to remember to switch the timer each time you switch tasks.

However, I’m one of the people who find that awareness valuable. It makes me pay more attention to where my focus is. I had someone tell me recently that forgetting to update Toggl when they switched tasks caused them to notice how fragmented their focus was.

Tracking your time is not going to instantly bequeath the benefits I ascribe to it. It’s part of an attitude toward checking your assumptions with data and updating your beliefs based on reality. Ann thought she knew how long her tasks took, but the evidence was there from the get-go that she was wrong; she was late. But it's easy to miss warning signs that aren’t measured. She needed new data to shake up her wrong assumptions and make progress.

So, if you’ve gotten this far, try time tracking for two weeks. You might find, like Ann, that the results surprise you. In time, better planning can be a step toward feeling in control of your priorities, deadlines, and stress.

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