Increasing your productivity with a time log

Picture the scene: It's the end of the day, and although you're exhausted, you feel as if you've done nothing all day. "If only I hadn't wasted so much time" you think. "Tomorrow, I'll get up earlier and work extra hard!" The next day, you climb into bed, exhausted but unfulfilled. "If only I hadn't wasted so much time", you think…

There's nothing quite as de-motivating as feeling you've wasted a day doing nothing. It's easy to get frustrated, and even if you have had a productive day, the habit of beating yourself up can still keep your mood down and hold you back. Unless you keep track of what you're doing with your time, your account at the end of the day will mainly be based upon how you feel at the time. The solution to this problem is the trusty time log.

What is a time log?

A time-log is a simple tool that lets you keep track how you're spending your time. This is very helpful when trying to optimise your time, and it also helps to make sure you don't concentrate on the negative aspects of your day. After a few days and weeks of using a time log, you can then build up an accurate picture of how productive you're being, as well as when your most productive hours are. For example, you might find you're much more productive during the first few hours of the day, or directly after you've exercised. Using this information you can optimise your daily performance by scheduling tasks for your most productive hours.

How do you keep a time log?

timelog.png

I use a very simple 3-column format for my time logs. The left column is used to note the start time, the large column contains the activity and the small column on the right is used at the end of the day to calculate the length of the session. Although the example picture is from a spreadsheet, I prefer to use a purely paper driven system for ease of use and portability.

Your own personal circumstances will determine when you start keeping track of your time. If you're self-employed, you might want to start it as soon as you wake yup. If you're in an office environment, it might be more beneficial to start as soon as you leave your front door. If there's a particular part of your daily routine that you feel is causing trouble, make sure you capture it on your log for later analysis.

Once you've started, every single activity needs to be noted down. This includes tea and coffee breaks, toilet stops and the ubiquitous "just 10 seconds to check my email" task. Most of these are trivial activities, but it's quite enlightening to see just how long they take when added up. To give an example, the very first time I used this technique I found I was wasting over three hours on "checking email/web surfing".

At the end of the monitored time period, work out how much time was spent on each task by using the recorded information. After a week or two of using this technique, you'll have a good idea of areas where you need to improve. It's also not unusual to see a direct improvement within the first few days as a result of tracking your time. Often knowing that your time is being monitored is enough to keep you on-track for a little bit longer and can help you push through to a task's completion.

Isn't this all a little excessive?

Keeping a time log is a very small price to pay compared to the improvements that can be gained. If you're wasting a lot of time during the day, it's not uncommon to double your productivity within a week or two. And remember, you can stop keeping a record once you've made the improvements you wanted. If ever you feel your productivity has slipped, you can start recording again.

Posted in: Productivity Toolbox | Comments (4)

4 Comments

#1 | | April 28, 2010 at 09:58AM

This is great stuff, Phil.

I agree with you about the ease and portability of pen and paper. Obviously it depends on where you spend your time. I know a lot of us are in front of screens most of the day, so maybe tracking time should be split into use of time spent at computer and the use of the time spent away from it.

#2 | | April 03, 2011 at 06:42PM

This post it's a little old but I have to comment. I've been logging my time for about a year and a half and I think it's the best thing that anyone could do for his/her work. I not only track my worktime, I also track when I cook, bath, make a tea, talk by phone, read rss, etc. So I know each day if I was procrastinating or not. I've found some weeks I was working only 20 hs at the beginning, now never is lower that 30/35. For tracking the time I'm using a great tool called Grindstone (it's free) (although planning tasks and make a todo list I feel better using just paper and pen)

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