… or, more precisely: what am I doing instead of writing?
Truth to tell, I am getting some writing done on my novel at the moment, but not as much as I would like despite getting up at five (and doing so more consistently of late, but that is another post) and so I would like to know more about how I spend my time.
I’ve confronted this issue of unproductive time use before, and one technique which I found helpful then was a time card.
What is it
In many ways a time card is a reminder of an industrial past when job performance was measured by time spent at work, but this ancient tool is useful for figuring out where your time actually goes. I have an intuition about how the time is spent, as anyone probably does if they are being honest with themselves, but being confronted with firm numbers can be an eye opener.
The one I made this time is below, and is meant to be printed out and scribbled on. You could also use a time tracking app on your phone or computer, which would help with analysis later, but I find paper works for me because the act of writing things down makes them more real, and having a physical token reminds to do the tracking.
- my time card
How to track
First of all, take a time card sheet and put the date on it. In the first instance, I would recommend using one sheet per day.
Secondly, write down the time and what you’re doing.
There are a couple of ways of filling in the time card now: sampling, and noting changes*.
Sampling means picking an interval and writing down what you are doing at each interval boundary. I always write down the actual activity at the sample time, but you could record what you’ve been doing for the last period. I like to use a fifteen minute interval, since then it is possible to get something useful done between sample points.
Noting changes means that you make a note when you switch from one activity to another. It’s possible to collect more accurate data with this method since it will capture tasks which take less time than the sample interval length, but you have to remember to do the recording. While this is a less disruptive approach when you are focussing on large single tasks, it can also be more disruptive if you have a lot of task switching in a short time. Also, you need to scrupulous about tracking when you cut across to email for a few minutes.
These methods can be combined by sampling to keep the data fresh, and noting change for short tasks in between sample intervals. This is an advanced approach, though, which I would keep away from until the habit is established.
For myself, I start with sampling immediate activities because it’s a simple mechanical process that I don’t have to think about to make work.
If you need to keep track of how much time you actually spend on particular tasks, especially for billing purposes, then it’s very likely that you already keep a time card and it is an ongoing task for you.
For the rest of us, tracking time usage can be a permanent addition to our toolset or just a short term thing to do to collect data.
I get several things out of this kind of tracking:
- discovering how I actually use my time
- learning how long tasks really take (which can feed into task estimates on burndown charts)
- staying on task
This particular round of tracking is still ongoing. It’s been useful to keep me focussed on the tasks I should be working on, as I noted above, but also in identifying some times when I could be productive. For example, there’s a half hour gap in the evening which I can sometimes use to catch up on my word count.
I will collect more detailed results in a later post.
Have you used this technique? What did you learn?
[*] which is like the difference between polling and event-driven handling, for those of us like me who see software analogies everywhere.