A 30 minutes lunch break? Time entry. 12 minutes of arguing with mom? Time entry. 7 minutes of stalking my ex on Instagram? You guessed it!
That was my life over the last 4 months, being my own time tracking cop while carrying out the most outrageous experiment of my life so far. The results amazed me in ways that I would never have expected, so I decided to write about them. Who knows, maybe you’re also going to find something of value in my journey.
To be honest, it was a combination of frustration, guilt and fear — all generated by the fact that I kept setting big goals for myself, but never seemed to make any progress towards them. Time was passing, and I had nothing to show for it.
All I had were vague reports at work, where “working” covered everything from writing code, to talking to people, to watching Russian slapping contests on youtube.
I knew I had to do start tracking my time if I wanted to keep my sanity. And I’ve seen how something casual/half-hearted would quickly become too vague to be of any use. If I wanted to do it, I had to go all-in.
I used an app called Toggl to do all my tracking. I chose this specific app because:
- it’s available on all platforms and syncs very nicely between them
- it has an intuitive UI, with suggestions that become more and more accurate over time
- it allows for very fine customization and reporting
At first, I devised 7 main areas where all my entries would fall, using tags and colors to mark them in the app:
Then, I created some high-level projects that I knew I was already spending time on:
After the setup was done, I would simply start a new time entry, every time I would move from one activity to the other.
One important note here was that, because I decided to go all-in, I had to be particularly careful not to have any entries “cover up” unrelated things that I was doing. For example, if I would be writing code on my project and I’d receive a call, I’d have to create a separate time entry for it, even if it only took 5 minutes.
This level of strictness was a bit taxing at the beginning, but after a while, Toggl’s UI came in very handy. I rarely had to create new entries. Most of the times when I’d switch to something else (even just short interruptions), I would just have to press “continue” on a previous entry.
At the end of the week, here’s how my timetable would look like:
And now that the “how” is also out of the way, let’s move on to the exciting stuff. Here are the biggest changes I noticed, over these 4 months:
Yep, the biggest impact of this time tracking journey didn’t come in the form of a mind-blowing insight at the end of the week, when I was looking over my timetable. The biggest impact was in how I was spending my time while I was doing the tracking.
At first, nothing big happened. But after a while, I found myself more and more often in an interesting situation. Whenever I was working and felt the need to “zone out” by jumping “just a bit” on youtube or Instagram, I’d find myself thinking “nah, I don’t want to start a new entry now. I’ll just get this thing done, and then take a bigger break for that”.
And, more often than not, I wouldn’t even feel that need for youtube or Instagram anymore, once I actually finished the task. The feeling of accomplishment was enough to give me the refreshment I needed.
This increase in focus sent my productivity through the roof. Yes, I’ve always read and heard of how context switching is a very bad idea. But, until I tracked it down, I never knew how often I was doing it — and I never knew that getting rid of it would make me get things done literally twice as fast! After seeing all this for myself, I felt like I somehow hacked my own life.
One of the most shocking insights that I had in the beginning, after looking at my reports for a week, was that I was spending over 20 hours a week on food-related activities (buying food, cooking, eating).
Every day, 3 times a day, I would take some time off to cook. And, since eating healthy was always an important thing for me, I didn’t feel bad if it sometimes took a little longer. But I never knew I was doing the work of a part-time cook out there! At least if I’d learned to cook something more exciting than this boring salad:
Once I became aware of this, I automatically started thinking about how I could make it a bit more efficient. A simple thing that popped into mind was that, instead of cooking everything from scratch in each of the 3 breaks, I could simply prepare everything in the evening before, and have my food ready to go for the next day, with minimum adjustments.
This trick solved all my cooking for the day in under 1 hour, instead of 2–3, which amounted to over 10 hours of saved time, per week. And the best part was that I didn’t have to sacrifice anything in terms of how healthy or tasty my food was!
Such a simple solution. However, I would never have thought of it, if there wasn’t this table that was telling me straight to my face: “here’s how much time you’re actually spending on this thing”.
Turns out time tracking helped with my habits and routines, as well, in two not-so-obvious ways:
1 - If I would have the same entries at roughly the same hours, Toggl’s mobile app would start suggesting them, in those time intervals. This made my tracking way easier, and turned the clock into a kind of trigger for the habits I was trying to form:
2 - There was a deep satisfaction when I would look at my weekly timetable and see all the entries nicely aligned. Here’s one of the weeks that I’m most proud of. Just look at how satisfying those morning entries look:
It might sound trivial, but just these two simple tricks were enough to make me form and cement very helpful habits, without thinking too much about them.
Here’s something interesting. This experiment, which was chiefly meant to increase my productivity, had another very unexpected — but very welcomed — effect: it increased the quality of my “chill time”, as well!
Firstly, as I was doing my work much more efficiently and saving time from all kinds of unexpected places, I found myself with more and bigger blocks of time on my hands. That meant I could fit in some leisure activities that were more time-consuming — but that I really enjoyed doing.
Secondly, all this increased amount of “chill time” came without the usual guilt I felt before, when I was “chilling” by scrolling through the Instagram feed, while I knew I had to fix that stupid programming bug at work.
This made me enjoy my free time like never before, and rekindle old passions like salsa & bachata —passions that I forgot how good they made me feel, amongst all this clutter of work and guilt and continuous distractions.
Since I was being as honest as I could with those time entries, weighing my decisions wasn’t that complicated anymore: I would look over my timetable, see exactly how much time I spent on something I decided to do, and look at how much I got out of it.
This way, “Is it a good idea to write that article for my 23rd birthday?” became “Is it a good idea to write that article for my 23rd birthday, given the fact that last week I spent 11 hours, and got nowhere with it?”. Not so hard to see the issue, from that perspective.
As a bonus, tracking my time solved another one of the biggest problems I had, in terms of decision making. I always had the tendency to overestimate my abilities and take on much more than I could actually handle. This obviously had some very bad consequences, like frustrating other people that were working with me.
Well, once I had this sheet that was telling me “this is how much it actually takes you to do it” and “this is how much free time you have on your hands right now”, deciding whether I could or could not handle something new became a factual decision, rather than a whim of my arrogant ego.
As I said in the beginning, the irreversible passing of time was one of the biggest sources of stress and anxiety for me. And, while I’m still having my fair share of existential crises about it, doing this experiment drastically reduced that stress and anxiety. The main reason was that, again,
I finally felt in control of my time.
Yes, I was still binge-watching cat videos on youtube, probably more than I should. But at least it was a conscious decision, rather than a reaction to some algorithms designed by smart people to make me mindlessly spend hours on end on their website. And this “conscious decision” part was what made all the difference, for me.
And the coolest thing was that I didn’t have to change anything in the way I was spending my time, in order to feel better about it. Simply having it noted down was enough to give me that empowering feeling of control.
Surprise-surprise: this is not a silver bullet to shoot down all of life’s problems. It actually came with some not-so-nice consequences that I have to mention, if I am to paint an honest picture of my journey.
First up, I became more tensed and uneasy, especially in the beginning. I think that’s not too unexpected — just imagine having a cop on your back, 24/7, that sees every single thing your doing, and tracks it down on a sheet that’s gonna stare you in the face every Sunday. Quite a reason to feel uneasy…
The other thing was guilt. Again, especially in the beginning. After the first few weeks, I was confronted with a hard truth: I was wasting time. Lots of it. And not in a vague way. I could actually count the hours I spent on things that were totally unproductive, projects that failed and times when I did something completely different than what I had to. Talk about pills that are hard to swallow…
I eventually managed to keep those bad sides under control through other habits, like meditation. That being said, this journey was definitely not all fun and rainbows.
So, that’s about it for my journey. Currently, I got so used to this system and it seems to work so well for me, that I’m gonna keep doing it — as long as I’ll be able to keep those negative sides under control.
I’ve been showing this article to some friends, to get some feedback before publishing it. A common response was: “Wow, that’s so impressive! You must be so disciplined! I could never do that.” And while it tickled my ego to hear this, the truth is, it’s really not that hard.
Yes, like all things, it requires effort in the beginning. But after you got it all set up and run it for a few days, it becomes pretty easy. 99% of the time, you’ll just press “continue” on a previous entry, which only takes 5 seconds. And since you’ll have to do it dozens of times a day, it will become instinctive much sooner than the usual “3–8 weeks to form a new habit”.
Even now, my timer runs “Blog — time tracking” for 9 minutes and 20 seconds. I don’t remember having made a conscious decision to start it.
If you like the idea and consider trying it for yourself, here are some things I wish I knew when I started, and that I hope will help you in your journey:
- Try to be as honest as possible. The benefits are gone if you find yourself scrolling through your Instagram feed, while your timer says “preparing yearly report”
- Keep it personal. Don’t mix it up with any tracking software from work. Don’t tell anyone about it. Basically, don’t do anything that would make you feel even remotely uncomfortable about recording those 2 hours of binge-watching Japanese eating contests on youtube.
- Keep it simple. As simple as possible. Don’t overkill it with tags and projects (the way I did, in the beginning). You can always add those later. The whole system should be a pleasure to use, or you’ll have trouble using it at all.
- One step at a time. At first, don’t change anything in how you spend your time. Just get used to tracking down what you’re already doing. The main focus is to get used to pressing “play” every time you’re doing something new.
- Be patient with yourself. Once you start doing this in full honesty, you’ll probably see that your time isn’t really spent the way you imagined. That’s an easy way for guilt to creep in. But don’t despair. Once you become aware of this, things will get better by themselves. And keep in mind that, just by trying it out, you’ve already done something very courageous that’s a huge achievement in and of itself.
Tracking every minute of my time is, by far, the most effective thing I’ve ever tried, in terms of becoming more focused, getting more done and improving the quality of my time.
But, at the end of the day, this is just another way in which someone on this planet is trying to deal with the fact that life is hard. And if my trick doesn’t work for you, what will definitely work is keeping this healthy mindset that makes you read these kinds of articles, in the first place. Kudos to you, for keeping an open mind in the face of life’s hardships!
We’re all trying to make the most out of our time. Thank you for spending some of yours with me, today!
PS: This is the first article I’ve ever written, so I think you can imagine how anxious I am about it 😬 Any though (positive or constructive), clap, comment, share, or feedback in any form would be very, very much appreciated!