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Discussion Forum > 24 Hour Time Tracking?

I've been tracking time now for almost a year, but it's using a tool I built myself. I started it out of tracking time for work, but eventually I made the leap to track the time outside as well. Most of the tools I've found are for tracking work time, but I think that's silly. Most of the time you can't change what you're doing at work. You couldn't shorten or eliminate the time, unless you plan on quitting. The vast majority of my time that I can improve or change is personal time, and the options are much better because I could go anywhere or do anything.

My key has always been to focus on the outcome. What is it that I gained from that minute? Did it go towards a tool that can save me future time? Was it spent to eat? Was I asleep? Was I relaxing outside? Or was I wasting it watching funny videos? It's good to have some downtime but you really have no idea how much time you spend until you can see it.

I do a review every 10 days of my time, and what I've been able to find fairly consistently is that I can go through the time items and pull out vast gobs of time. I don't worry about the sleep - which is almost always the biggest item (and now it's by far the biggest), because we as people need sleep. It's not an option to not sleep. If you don't sleep, you get sick or make stupid mistakes that cost even more time. Instead I focus on the biggest other items that I have control over.

I could have done that faster, or why did I spend so much time doing something, or that was a complete waste. Then I think of a specific concrete step that I can take, and how much time it will save. I focus on 3 defined goals for the next 10 days, which usually add up to 5-15% of the waking time. Proceeding like that, in 7 sessions I can double the amount I've gotten done. Of course, I'm not always perfect and sometimes will get back into bad habits or old failures from weeks ago, but overall I find I have a lot more time now.

I don't see any tool online that is anything close to what I do, where I input the time and what I was last doing. Nothing to show a visual breakdown of the day. Most (like 80%) are focused on businesses, and the ones that remain are just simple stop/start timers, nothing is really 24 hour tracking or would have enough categories to represent the complexity of the number of tasks I'm engaged in. There's nothing to support multitasking (which I admit I'm still working on. I presently just put a separate entry half way through which cuts the time in half for each item). No colour coding of what was time well spent, time on a task but could have been faster, time of questionable benefit, or time of absolutely certain uselessness.

What I want to know is, is there a market out there for this? Would people want a tool like the one I have? It's a lot of effort to build a login system and harden the code and all that. I don't want to waste my time, if at the end of the day I'd be the only one using it. So, is there anyone out there who would use it? Anyone reading this where that sounds like something you would end up using? What would be the main concerns for you with some software like this? Any features I should focus on?
September 11, 2017 at 19:07 | Unregistered CommenterMatt
I did time tracking with paper, then put it into Excel and made pivot tables, but only for two months Never did get around to entering and analyzing the third month.

It gave me some good information, but was a lot of work, even after I'd worked out most of the bugs.

I'm not sure if or when I'll time track again, but here are things that I missed in the existing apps.

1. Easily enter previous day(s). It's often easier for me to enter times on paper during the day than phone or computer.

2. Having said that, I liked cloud-based apps. One let me start on one device, and end on another. Not a big need, though, since like I said, it's often easier to use paper than turn on and fight through the small keyboard.

3. Assume that next start time is previous end time. Allow over-ride.

4. Allow entry by stop time or duration or "now". Allow easy small adjustments, +/-5 minutes. "Stopped Now minus 5 minutes." "Will start in 5 minutes."

5. Report on un-declared time, maybe in ranges. Undeclared morning, evening, weekend. Otherwise, there are many small entries between activities.

6. Don't make me use the ":" key.

6a. Short and long date formats, and day of week. Include yyyy-mm-dd and day of week options. Do not rely on the system settings for date format. I don't like my country's default.

7. Long list of frequently-used activities. One app listed them by last-used, and by the next morning, breakfast was already off the screen. Maybe recommend based on what I usually do at that time of day. (Yep, thinking ideal app, not realistic first release.)

8. Categories and sub-categories. Also labels, so we can put multiple labels on an entry. Kid#1, appointment, school.

8a. Easy to add activity types on the fly and adjust later.

9. Recognize that some activities fall into both Useful and Non-Useful use of time. For example, reading. A little bit is relaxing. Too much is procrastination.

10. Ability to squeeze in new entry, or split existing. Eg. I recorded FaceBook between 2 and 4. When looking at it more carefully, I want to change it to FaceBook-ok for half an hour and the rest Facebook-too-much.

11. Chart showing time use by time of day. Date across the bottom (mark columns for weekends differently), time of day the side. Colour each cell by activity.

11a. Record energy type or mood, and show on similar chart to 11. I might learn that planning to do difficult computer work between 2 and 4 usually results in FaceBook rather than work. (Oh, the joys of working for yourself from home.)

11b. How on task was I? add this to each entry, and combine with the chart. Maybe two columns per day? Or density of colour?

11c. Note field for the day. Might explain why I couldn't focus.

11d. Show/hide weekends, holidays and sick days. Replace them with a visible line. The day after staying home sick will be different, but how much different?

11e. Day satisfaction rating. Looking back, was I happy with how I spent the day?

12. Ideal time. Did I do as much as I wanted? More? Less? Many things have a sweet spot.
September 12, 2017 at 22:19 | Registered CommenterCricket
I give an easy method of time tracking in my first book "Get Everything Done". It requires nothing except paper and pencil and doubles as an effective No List system.

You just write down the current time and what you are about to do, e.g.

2318 Write Comment

When you've finished that write the current time again and what you are about to do next, e.g.

2323 Go to Bed

Interruptions are done in the same way but indented with a finishing time as well as a start time.

That's all there is to it, but it's highly effective and above all simple.
September 12, 2017 at 23:23 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
@Matt, yes, there is certainly a need for a tool such as you describe. What is your current tool, paper, spreadsheet or your own built software? And if software, is it an application or web service?

As to what it should do. As simple as possible, with one click to start time, one click to end time. And easy way to enter what the category is. From there, easy way to go back and enter or edit time if forgot or where away from computer and want to enter hours later (maybe kept a log while out on paper).

And if you want to keep going, to see trends over time.

I'd suggest NOT build all this at once, and use the Lean Startup ideas to build modular upgrades as you go.

So that is enter. And then, nice ways to see at a glance where time it going. With as you mentioned easy at a glance colors.

I suppose various round to 15m or 30m or no rounding sort of settings. Maybe visual drag time bars as well as or instead of enter numbers.

If it could double as also time predicted or scheduled, planned. That could be useful. To compare and or just use as calendar.
September 14, 2017 at 0:42 | Registered CommentermatthewS
The tracking is easy, but without analysis it's not terribly useful.

Now I'm thinking of ways to do the analysis directly on the page, starting with Mark's simple list of start times. Heresy for us (we?) spreadsheet lovers.

Maybe record it on a timeline, so you position the entry at the start time (or close-enough). Then colour the timeline by action type. Easy to look at timelines of several days to find patterns. Could even do several timelines per page to see patterns.

Or add columns for activity type, calculate the duration of each activity, then total each column. Can be combined with the previous method. Lots of info on a single page. Hard to program, easy to do by hand.

David Seah has an Emergent Task Timer. Variations are at the bottom of the page.
Each action gets a line. Column per hour, with 4 bubbles per hour and 3 sections per bubble, for 5-minute divisions. Some room in each cell for exact times or a symbol. I like that if you do more on a project later in the day, it goes on the same line. Keeps it compact. You could also pre-load the activities with goals for the day, and even pencil-in a plan, although that level of planning doesn't work for me unless the day is very tight. If you're doing project A and someone from project B interrupts you, easy enough to mark a few minutes on B's line. Add a column to the right for totals for each activity. More work than the previous idea, but an easy way to get total times, and if you write the activities in the same order every day you can see patterns.

David also has a Task Progress Tracker.

Lots to think about next time I wonder where my time's going. (On a roll so far this month. Enough of my time is going into the important things that I don't care where the rest is going.)

September 14, 2017 at 3:10 | Registered CommenterCricket

If you want to make a time-tracking app that people absolutely HATE, then just don't support the Apple Watch nor any other wearable. ;-)
September 14, 2017 at 11:37 | Unregistered CommenterChristopher
what is wrong with toggl?
October 17, 2017 at 0:38 | Unregistered Commenterladybird
incidentally work timers are not silly. They are typically used for someone with multiple clients to track how much work is done for each client.
October 17, 2017 at 3:20 | Registered CommenterAlan Baljeu
ladybird: toggl is my favourite so far. Definitely need a backup system, though. It glitched a few times.

The biggest problem I had with it was editing. I often forgot to stop the timer or change what I was doing. Editing, even on the large screen, took a lot of clicking. That might have improved over the last few years. The other problem was lack of export (for the free plan, $9/month is pricey).
October 19, 2017 at 16:02 | Registered CommenterCricket
Thanks so much everyone! I can see I picked the right forum.

I've been going through your responses bit by bit, really taking the time to let everyone's opinions and ideas soak in. There's still more stuff in some of the posts I haven't yet been able to look at fully or think about completely. I think it is all really awesome and useful. I'm still going through it all.

My main goal is something simple and fast to use. Braindead simple and as efficient as possible. And it needs to produce useful and actionable information.

The simplest system in the comments is Mark Forster's, which is pretty much precisely what I started out doing. The only difference is that where he says he records what he's about to do, I record what I just finished doing since the last recording. I don't think it makes a huge difference. That's just the way I started doing it.

What I ended up with was sheet after sheet of minute by minute details of my days for months. All these papers kept getting out of order on my desk and I lost a few of them, so I started putting it in a notebook. This was also to be my company timesheet information. Most of the entries were completely readable, but many were ambiguous and several each day drove me absolutely crazy trying to decipher what I had put and I had very limited memory of what I'd been doing weeks ago. I lost a decent chunk of my Christmas holidays because that information all had to be entered for the year end, and I was literally sleeping at work for a couple weeks to get it done. So much for saving time and getting more done.

That exercise is what prompted me to put together the system. It was fundamentally the same pencil and paper system, but it took only a few keystrokes to record legibly what previously took 30 seconds to a minute. The key advantages are numerous:

1) No mess. Nothing out of order. Nothing can get wet, degrade, be erased, get ripped, torn, shredded, coffee stains, blow away in the wind, get filed away, or crumpled into a ball.

2) Nothing is illegible and everything is assigned to a measurable activity. My notes from a year ago are just as clear and complete as when I first wrote them. This means that I can actually compare my time from 8 months ago to my time from today in a meaningful way.

3) I can get instant visual feedback of where my time goes. Presently, that's a live display based on a pie chart which shows the last 45 minutes and how much of it was allocated to which activity. It updates live as I spend my time, allowing me to change course in real time if I see I'm spending too much time on something I'm likely to regret.

4) I can also observe long-term trends. Every 10 days I do a time review, where I look at and form strategies I could implement to save time. I can see a sorted list of the activities I spent the most time on, and all I need to do is think of ways to avoid or optimize the most time-consuming activities, add up how much time I could save, and choose three goals which will save the most time to become my goals for the next 10 days. Because the information is already pre-generated for me, it takes about 30 minutes to do, 1 hour if I feel like going more in-depth, to get something concrete, actionable, and powerful.

5) As part of that time review, I colour all the time I've spent. Green are things I am glad I did. Yellow I could have done faster. Orange I question. Red I shouldn't have done and there's not even a question. Sleep or time tracking go on their own colour (I don't touch those). I then look at a nice visual of when I'm most productive and when not. I haven't found this as useful, but others might.

6) I can set and track activity-based maximum and minimum goals. For example, a minimum amount of exercise that I should aim for each day or a maximum amount of random videos I am allowed to watch. This is something new I've started to experiment with. I plan to display these goals/status live in the final product.

7) The entire history is completely searchable in a wide variety of ways. Let me not even mention how completely and totally useful that's been when I want to remember when something happened or what I've done on a particular project or some obscure detail about a problem I'm trying to hunt down. Also, think about the power you hold in a disagreement or dispute when you know basically exactly what was said and when.

All of this takes about an hour and a half to actually use every 10 days, including the tracking and analysis. I count a minute towards tracking if the clock ticks over when I'm entering the information, which on average will be an accurate measure. Sometimes I have to track large chunks of time on paper or in my phone and then transfer it to the system later, which takes more than twice as long. And sometimes I've spent an extra half an hour looking at all the graphs and information in a bit more depth. The minimum time savings I've ever been able to find in three goals was 9 hours, and the maximum was just over 30. (That was a bad week.) So even though about two thirds of the time I fail to meet my goals, I still net over half a standard work day worth of time spent more productively week over week.

As I said, I'm still going through all your feedback here. I had a much longer post which was comparing my system line by line to some of the systems and ideas suggested. I think it's important that a system be easy to use and highly flexible to all of life's unique circumstances. Whoever suggested the egg timer strategy - that may not be the most efficient way to go through airport security. But all in all this is a great discussion and there's lots to think about in here.

Thanks again so much for what everyone has given me so far!
October 26, 2017 at 0:04 | Unregistered CommenterMatt

Thanks for a very interesting and comprehensive report. It's a great thing when one has developed one's own time system which works for oneself.

I'll take you up on one point - where you say it doesn't seem to make any difference whether you write down what you are about to do or what you have just done. In my experience it does matter, because writing it down before you do it focuses your mind and helps you to make a better choice.

Here's how I would have done it:

Use a notebook so I have a permanent record - not sheets of paper which will get out of order or lost.

Write down the current time and write down what I'm about to do next. Do it. Repeat throughout the day.

If I need to allocate time to clients or categories, then I do that at fairly short intervals throughout the day so that I never have to spend more than a few minutes at a time on it. Adding data in this way means I am continuously aware of trends, so there is no need for lengthy analysis and reviews.
October 26, 2017 at 12:14 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Min/Max goals !!! Yes! I have many things I want to do some of, but then do too much. I've experimented with two categories for them. Up to the amount I planned to do (good things to do), and over the amount I planned (not good things to do).

I'm currently using a graph-paper book to write both what I actually did and what I plan to do, sometimes as far ahead as an hour. That way I don't have to get the book every time I change tasks, just often enough that I remember what I did. Then columns to the right for total time in each category.

Except...I started a weekly budget report as well, updated daily. More details on that next week if it continues to work. Still experimenting with categories. It's easier to edit those on a spreadsheet, so today I built a spreadsheet recording start times, category, detail for each activity, calculating time, and using a pivot table to see the results, which get copied into the weekly budget. I did the spreadsheet before, and think it took an hour a day, including analysis. That seems like a lot, but it kept me focused, for a net improvement on getting the right things done.

I'm tempted to try financial software to deal with subcategories and budgeting time.
October 26, 2017 at 17:14 | Registered CommenterCricket
Matt, what platforms?
October 26, 2017 at 17:14 | Registered CommenterCricket
Right now it's just a website suited for desktop/tablet. I plan to provide a version for mobile, a CSV import/export feature, and an API for any internet-enabled device.

Thanks for your feedback Mark. Thinking back, I've done that a few times where I put down an activity before I started it, and it does help to give some degree of focus. There's certainly nothing preventing using my system that way, and I will definitely give it a try.

My biggest issue with the tracking was with how I would put things in generic terms (ie "Meeting") or in a way that could have referred to several things (ie "Fixing Software Issue"). It's really difficult to reflect on that data weeks later (or put it in timesheets). This is what I meant by ambiguity and that was the biggest problem with the records I was keeping.

My second issue was illegible writing. Although I'm generally a neat writer, I had quite a few items that were nearly impossible to read later. Sometimes I would figure it out in a few minutes, but I still have quite a few I never deciphered.

I wont try to say that using my website is the only solution to these problems, but it immediately solved the illegibility problem, and the activity list allows me to create hundreds of detailed activity names that I only ever have to fully type once.

I solved the mess and losing papers fairly easily by using a notebook, and I still use that regularly to organize thoughts and track minutes whenever I'm not in front of a computer. I can also use loose paper or my phone notepad to track things. I can continue for weeks at a time like this if I have to, but there is substantially and measurably more time spent gathering the information this way. I found that using the website is about 2-3 times faster, not counting any time I spent digitizing it later. Because entering information is something I do hundreds of times a day, I have worked to shave precious milliseconds off each time.

I have found incredible value on looking back over the last week and where I can save time for the coming week. This is a 30 minute focused process, so I wouldn't consider it lengthly. There are two key areas that provide the most insight over continual tracking on it's own:

1) Large chunks of time doing things like video games, television, random browsing, scrolling a news feed, really long discussion, composing an engrosing email, social networking, videos, reading random articles, responding to forum threads, etc... Basically, I may berate myself in the moment, but my perception of time while doing these tasks is highly distorted. Without the long-term analysis I have no idea how much time was really spent overall, and what the real impact is. Before I started tracking my time, I never imagined how much time could have been consumed each week by these activities. It's way more time than I want to admit. Seeing the total time prevents me denying what happened and has been quite impactful to motivate me to set reasonable maximum goals, and follow up review sessions hold me accountable.

2) Small recurring tasks that eat up time. At a small scale view, it's just 5 minutes to check something. But if that happens 10 times a day on average over your week, you've almost spent 6 hours by the time the week is over. If you did that check in 1 minute, average 5 times a day, you save over 5 hours every single week. There might even be a way you can eliminate the task entirely that you could put in place in less than an hour.

I still did not understand your last paragraph, and I've read it a few times. I really appreciate all your insight and I do really like to understand every perspective that I can.

And as for everyone thanks so much for all the ideas and feedback so far once again!
October 28, 2017 at 1:49 | Unregistered CommenterMatt