In his book The Compound Effect, Darren Hardy says that all winners are trackers. Successful people track many aspects of their lives, from how much money they spend on coffee to how many calories they digest every meal. Elon Musk, after splitting with his second wife, told Bloomberg BusinessWeek reporter Ashlee Vance that he'd like to allocate more time to dating. He consequently asked her how much time a woman requires. Ten hours a week was his best guess.
That's an extreme example, but my guess is that most people would agree that it makes sense to track the areas of your life that you want to improve in. After all, tracking gives you the baseline you need before you can improve. It tells you where you're currently at, so you can figure out where to go from there.
Tracking also tells you whether you're on track to reach your goals. If you'd like to cut down your student loan debt from $30,000 to $22,000 this year, tracking how you spend your money will help guide your spending decisions towards achieving that goal.
Money and calories are two things that many people count. Time, however, is something that fewer people seem to track. This is somewhat ironic, considering many would quite probably agree that time is the most valuable currency there is. You can always earn back lost money, but you can never earn back lost time.
The Case for Tracking Your Time
Tracking your time has the same benefits as tracking anything else. It gives you a baseline. It also tells you whether you're on track to achieve your longer-term goals. For example, if one of your 2019 New Year's resolutions is to read 30 books this year, but you track your reading time and notice you only spend an hour a week reading, you're unlikely to reach your goal. The good thing is that you now know, and can adjust your reading behavior appropriately.
Time tracking is particularly important for remote developers, considering many developers bill their clients by the hour. Even the developers that bill by project will need to give some estimate as to how much time a project will take. Knowing how much time previous projects took will allow you to give a reasonable estimate.
Tracking the amount of time you work on particular projects for your clients is quite likely the minimum amount of time tracking you'll do. It's up to you to determine how far you want to go beyond that. Many are somewhat resistant against time tracking, particularly when it comes to tracking all your time. And I understand. Before 2018, I felt the same resistance.
After all, what if I decided, on a whim, to go to an amusement park instead of spending those hours on my programming side projects? I'd rather not have a weekly time report tell me I spent more time sauntering along in an amusement park than I spent time working on the side projects I'm supposedly passionate about.
Time tracking shows you your real priorities, and that's not always a nice thing.
However, we cannot be too hard on ourselves. Life is unpredictable, no matter how hard you try to squeeze it into a time-tracking corset. If you decide to comprehensively track how you spend your time, you should also be able to take a step back when you review the data and refrain from judging yourself.
If your short-term actions aren't aligned with your longer-term goals, then you can either decide to adjust your goals or adjust your actions until there's less friction between both. This is a better solution than not tracking your time and being okay with not knowing whether you're on track to reach your goals.
For about half a year in 2018, I tracked how I spent all my time. I divided everything into the broad categories of my life: work, personal development, exercise, eating, fiction writing, relaxing. I realized that, while I identify as a writer, and while I want to write fiction, I spend little time actually writing fiction.
Strangely, although I'd always kind of known this deep down, it came as somewhat of a surprise when I saw the numbers. But I didn't beat myself up about it. Instead, I looked at some of my more unproductive habits and made a few changes so I could gradually allocate more time to writing fiction. Gradually is the key word here, because you don't change habits at the snap of your fingers.
Eventually, I realized that tracking everything in my life became quite time-consuming (ironically). Today, I track everything I do when I'm looking at a screen, whether my phone or my laptop, which is most of what I do anyway.
I use Toggl to do so. It's a non-intrusive mobile and web app where you can start tracking time in a single click. It's easy to use and you can get as granular as you like by dividing your time into categories or clients with specific descriptions. It's a good balance between tracking most of my time while also reducing some of the cognitive load that comes with tracking all of my time.
There's no cookie-cutter solution to time tracking. I encourage everyone to track all their time for a while, because it can be quite eye-opening. Afterward, you can decide individually how to implement time tracking so it's a net positive for your life.
It's important to track the things in your life that you want to improve in. However, sometimes you don't know where you can improve. Time tracking can show you how you spend your time, which allows you to see how your actions align with your goals. This might not always be a fun exercise, but the key is to review this objectively and avoid getting too hung up about it.
If there's friction between what you're supposed to do, according to your goals, and what you're actually doing, use time tracking to look for easy wins. What can you exchange that will lead you towards your goals? Then, see what you're willing to sacrifice. Or reevaluate your goals. After all, it's much better to be honest with yourself than it is to live in willful ignorance.