A Case for Time Tracking: Data Driven Time-Management
Tl;dr: Time-tracking everything I do in Google Calendar has made me happier, more productive, and a better developer. You should do it too! It’s really easy and pays off quickly. All you have to do is make personal calendar events for everything you did at work each day, and you’ll have data about where all your time goes.
Having more data available is really cool. It lets you make decisions with more information, and alleviates a lot of doubt as to whether you’ve considered all possible options. I time-track everything I do. I use Google Calendar because it’s easy, and all I had to do to get started was create a few more calendars:
Here’s what an example week looks like (with titles hidden):
Here I’ve hidden the titles of all my tasks, because I really do track everything and I’d rather not share all the details, but I found a week where I can publicly share at least the work-related tasks (red) in full:
As you can see, the titles aren’t very specific, and many of them are just copied directly from my work calendar. The important part is to get the gist of where the time went. Since I have my calendar open for most of the day the added overhead of clicking and typing what I’ve been doing for the past half hour is really minimal, and in return I get to know (months later) that I spent a lot of time during that week talking to people on the team to make sure everyone was on the same page, and triaging development tasks in Asana. (This was a week where I was wrapping up being the tech lead of an 8-month project – nicknamed “Bibliotron” – and also on a support rotation where I was fixing bugs from our support queue.) I also spent a lot of time working in the evenings since we were in a time crunch that week.
If you’re not totally freaking out about the idea of seeing your life in such detail, read on to learn more about why on Earth I do this.
About a year ago, I realized that I had very low self esteem about my work life. I was constantly worried that I wasn’t getting enough done, and that people would figure out that I wasn’t a good developer. Anyone who has been down that road knows that it self-propagates: having low self-esteem causes you to take on less responsibility, which makes you stagnate, which makes you feel like you aren’t very good, and so on. It’s a cycle that’s really hard to break.
The biggest thing that was keeping me down was that I had no idea where my time was going. At the end of each week I knew that I had been at work for an adequate amount of time, that I had put in effort, but I didn’t have very much to show for it. The weird part about being a developer is that you do produce a lot of really solid relics of the time you spend working – commits, docs, features being deployed – but you also spend a lot of time chewing on hard problems and bugs, and not having much to show for it other than a better solution later. It makes it hard to figure out what time was wasted.
Then I started time tracking, and in the past year I went from having almost no confidence in my engineering abilities to being the technical lead on not one, but two of Khan Academy’s major initiatives. I’m still pinching myself, because I’m pretty sure it’s a dream, but I’ll go ahead and finish this blog post so other people in this dream kingdom can benefit too.
The biggest difference between me now and me a-year-ago is that I no longer worry that I’m not getting enough done. I don’t have to worry because I know where all of my time is going, even if I’m wasting it! It’s empowering to have data.
Fear of not getting enough done leads to a lot of bad things:
- Paralysis: Every task that crosses your mind spins around in the decision tree of “is this worth my time? I haven’t done enough today so I probably should do something more important? Is this important?”
- Stress: Your body gets all knotted up and anxious whether you like it or not. You worry that someone will ask you what you did last week and you won’t know what to say. Time slips away from you and you obsess over losing it.
- Working on weekend and in the evenings: If you don’t feel like you got enough done in the day you’re more likely to go home and keep pushing yourself to work. Working overtime isn’t always a bad thing, but if you already feel like you’re behind, chances are you’re just going to make it worse by not giving yourself any time to relax.
- Fear of talking to your manager: It’s really important that you have a good relationship with your manager and can talk to them about what you’ve been working on. If you can say “these are the things I worked on this week, can you go through them with me and help me find ways to make better use of my time?” then you can take advantage of the relationship to become an even better developer and make your manager happy in the process, If you’re constantly scared of your manager finding out that you don’t know what you’ve been working on then your relationship and growth are going to suffer.
My solution to not knowing where my time was going was to write things down. I’ve time-tracked before, but with a different purpose. My first job out of college was at a design & development agency where I was paid hourly and had to submit detailed time sheets for each client. The time tracking has a major, and very crucial, difference: I time my track for my own gain. Not for my manager, not for a client, not to show off. The most important part of doing this is that you remember that you’re time-tracking for you and you alone. Don’t let other people see where your time is going. In order to get good data, and to figure out where you’re wasting time, you need to be honest. When you spend a half an hour reading tech news, write it down. Pick a different colored calendar for your wasted time. No one will see it, and you’ll soon learn that after you send off some code for review you typically spend a half an hour not knowing what to do with yourself.
Tracking your time will give you data. I’m a scientist! I love data. You might not love data though, and data can be overwhelming. Having data is always better than not having it, but here are some ways you can put the data to use:
- Look at where your time goes: It only takes a minute to scan through your week and see where your time went, and it will better equip you to say “no” when someone tries to put something else on your plate, or push yourself to block off a few hours of “heads down coding time” every day.
- Feel more productive: Every so often you get to write down what you’ve been working on. After a while it turns into a great feeling of self-competition to make the most of your time. You’ve got a half an hour left before lunch – why not fill it with those code reviews you’ve been meaning to do?
- Work reasonable hours: If at the end of the day you can look back and say “I’ve worked 8 solid hours today!” then you can go relax without having the fear weighing on you.
- Talk to your manager: Before your weekly/bi-weekly/monthly meeting with your manager or team lead, glance over what you’ve been up to since you last talked. Where has your time been going? Have you been swamped with email? Is that low-touch side-project of onboarding new developers actually taking up tons of your time? You manager can give you advice, help advocate for you, and shift around responsibilities to make sure you’re in a good place. (Bonus: Their job is to make sure you’re making the best use of your time, so they’ll love you for helping making their job easier!)
- Advocate for yourself in your self-review: You now have a record of all the cool things you’ve been working on! Bring them up with your manager during review-season and make sure those cool things you’ve been working on don’t go unnoticed.
- Write weekly summaries: I’ve been combining time-tracking data with writing weekly snippets, which are weekly summaries that each person at Khan Academy writes to share what they’ve been working on with the team. Writing snippets becomes much easier if at the end of each week you can see exactly what you spent time on.
If you do want to try this out, start small. It took me many weeks to get into the habit of writing down everything, and for the first while I just tracked work, then added in sleep and exercise. I now track everything because it’s fun and I’m weird, but feel free to just try the work part. There are also apps out there that will track your sleep and movement for you, which will help immensely with filling in data after the fact. At this point it’s pretty much effortless to keep on top of it, and has saved me many times. Good luck, and happy time-tracking!