Time is a funny thing. Hours spent falling down the YouTube rabbit hole fly by while every minute spent waiting for a food order to arrive draws on for an eternity.
Oftentimes even the most well-intentioned to-do lists and plans are no match for our brain’s ability to warp our sense of time.
If you’re trying to lose weight, you track calories. If you can’t stay awake during the day, you track your sleep. If you have a savings goal, you’ll never reach it until you start tracking your spending.
So it only makes sense that in the never-ending search for increased productivity, we should track our most valuable resource: time.
For the past two and a half years, I’ve been tracking how I spend every minute of my day. I can tell you how much time I spent on math homework during my senior year (90 hours), how many hours I napped in 2019 (40), or how many hours I spent watching TV this summer (too many).
It may sound daunting, but time tracking is a habit that will completely transform the way that you perceive and use your time.
Here are 4 steps for time tracking
Step 1: Finding the time tracking tool that’s a perfect match for you
The first step of this process is to choose a time tracking tool that fits your lifestyle. When it comes to collecting and analyzing copious amounts of data, I’m always a proponent of digital tools.
Sure, you can manually write out what you’ve done during each 5-minute interval of your day and use a calculator to tally it all up, but wouldn’t you rather just press “start/pause” and let computers do the rest?
My personal favorite is an app called Now Then (free for a trial version, $3 for the full version). It has everything I need in a simple format: custom events and as many sub-categories as your little heart desires, the ability to edit or add in events that you may have missed, and powerful filters to view your data in a visual format.
(Editor’s note: At Life Goals, we use ClickUp for time tracking!)
Whether you opt for paper and pencil, a spreadsheet, or a full-fledged time tracking software, make sure that your system has all of the features you need without further complicating your life.
Step 2: Dividing your entire life into time “buckets”
Since we all have different responsibilities and different insights we hope to gain from time tracking, the first step is to personalize your time tracking system by setting up the “buckets” into which you pour your time.
For example, as a student, I was curious to know what classes were taking up most of my time. I created a “school” event, with sub-categories for each class I was taking. On the other hand, I didn’t care whether I spent more time washing dishes or tidying up my room, so all of those tasks were clumped into one big event titled “chores”.
You might find it helpful to begin with a simplified setup to learn the basics of time tracking. For example, you can start with three events: work, personal, and social time, before getting into the nitty-gritty of each of these areas of your life.
Step 3: Get tracking, baby!
Remembering to open your time tracking app will be difficult at first, and that’s totally normal. After doing it for two years though, I can tell you that it’s become so automatic that I need to unlearn the habit when I’m on vacation.
One of my favorite time tracking “hacks” is to pair it with the Pomodoro technique, in which you work for focused 25-minute chunks of time before taking a short break.
Whenever you start a new Pomodoro timer, it only takes three extra seconds to go to your time tracking app and select the task that you’re about to work on. When the timer ends, switch your current task to “break”, and repeat until you’re done working!
Step 4: Analyzing your data
At the end of each month, I like to make note of how my time was distributed amongst the big categories of my life. It’s a nice way to summarize what I was focused on that month, and guide how I want to improve the following month.
However, it’s okay if you don’t have time to pore over the bar graphs and pie charts because analyzing the data really isn’t nearly as important as the actual process of time tracking.
It’s a habit that not only strengthens your ability to accurately estimate your time but also shines a light on what distractions are sucking up your time and where you could better invest those hours.
For example, I now know that sending out a good newsletter for my blog takes me about three Pomodoros. Now when I’m writing each weekly edition, I don’t feel like I need to rush, because I’ve allotted myself a sufficient amount of time, but I also don’t get bogged down in rewriting a sentence four times because I know that I’m working with a time limit.
It may sound counterintuitive, but tracking every single minute of my time has brought a sense of calm and peace into my life.
I’ve become aware of how much more enjoyment I get out of spending a bit of quality time with friends and family versus hours of scrolling through my phone. I feel less guilty when I’m relaxing because I know that each minute is accounted for and I have plenty of time to finish my work.
Most importantly, I know that I’m spending my time in an intentional way and creating the life that I want to live.