The Perils Of Time Tracking

Parsing how you spend your workday can be an effective practice–sometimes. Don’t let it become a second job.

The Perils Of Time Tracking
[Photo: Flickr user V∆NESS∆ GERL∆CH]

For the productivity obsessed, there’s no dearth of tools to track and dissect precisely how the workday is spent. Software like Toggl can parse your tasks down to the second; Excel spreadsheets can transform a scattered log of minutes into a tidy pie chart; and, for Luddites, a pencil and pad of graph paper work just fine.

Time tracking is a necessity for professionals who bill by the hour, but the practice has devotees in a range of industries–and has garnered enough support to buoy a growing crop of apps and services.

But are they always a boon for the overworked and overwhelmed? Perhaps that sometimes-compulsive attention we pay to the day’s vicissitudes is sapping our productivity, not boosting it. Imagine a timesheet with this self-defeating entry: “Time spent tracking time: two hours.”

Fast Company spoke with a slate of productivity experts about the perks–and perils–of entering that tricky realm of time tracking. Their advice? Tread carefully.

“Why are we wasting time figuring out how much time we’re wasting?” says Laura Stack, the author and speaker who operates under the moniker The Productivity Pro. “People are spending far more time creating these elaborate systems than it would have taken just to do the task. You’re constantly on your app refiguring, recalculating, recategorizing.”

“A better strategy would be [returning] to the core principles of good time management,” Stack adds. “Block out time on your calendar for the non-negotiable things. [Or] have an organized, prioritized task list.” Stack does note there are cardinal exceptions: Time-tracking apps can be a panacea for payroll professionals, or those who charge clients on an hourly basis.

For those who do decide to document their days, there should be a clear motive, says Dave Seah, the designer and blogger who develops productivity tools. “Tracking anything at all saps time and attention,” he says. “Without a context for why one is tracking tasks, tracking is a waste of time.”

Ari Meisel, a productivity expert and the author of Less Doing, More Living, says tracking can be more disruptive than helpful. “If you’re in the mind-set of logging…every activity you’re doing, you’re actually going to be really hurting your productivity,” he says. “That touch-in, touch-out mentality is very different from the mentality you need to do creative work, or research, or make an effective phone call.”

Meisel also notes those drawn to the precision of detailed audits might not be equipped to act on their findings. “The people that really want to get into the nitty-gritty of tracking time are a very different personality type than the person who will actually use that information,” he says.

Instead, Meisel suggests Evernote, the app that allows users to deposit their ideas into a personal, searchable database.

But there are those services that make tracking passive. The RescueTime app–which Meisel praises–can lurk in a computer’s background, auditing time spent on websites and in programs without demanding data entry from the user.

“As a species, we’re really bad at keeping track of all the little chunks of time that add up,” explains Robby Macdonell, RescueTime’s vice president of product development. “The goal of RescueTime is to allow people to get a sense of their time without having to do that manual entry.” At week’s end, RescueTime delivers an email summary to users, offering a pithy audit of their workweek. (There are options to dig deeper, too.)

RescueTime can be a bit sterner, too, by blocking distracting sites. It’s a feature that dovetails with one of Stack’s beliefs: That we’re already keenly aware of how we squander the day.

“People know what they do to waste time,” she says. “If you know you spend inordinate amounts of time on Facebook, don’t go on Facebook.”

And so Stack suggests, perhaps only half kidding, a slightly less nuanced tool: A fist that lurches out from the computer monitor and socks the worker who opens an unnecessary tab or absent-mindedly meanders from his inbox to social media.

“That would be much more effective,” she says.

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