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The Mechanics Of Recording Time

A 9 minute read from Lorraine P

Recording how you spend your work time is a chore, and if you work for customers on a time-and-materials basis you need to report time even more accurately. Even so, in the past I’ve resorted to a little creative accounting from time to time having failed to keep perfect records. If you’re responsible for accounting for team productivity, a consistent way of accounting across all team members is helpful.

Those who work in project managed teams may not see the challenge. You’ll most likely have a good system and structure for recording time. Unless time recording is a core requirement of your job, though, you probably don’t do it. Even if it’s mandated by your employer, if you work in a less structured role where interruption of workflow is normal – for example, reacting to incoming calls – capturing how you spend your time can be more challenging.

Timekeeping can be a sensitive topic. A personal anecdote: faced with a departmental report that suggested the balance of how I spent my time was off-kilter compared with colleagues I was puzzled. Far worse, though, I felt pressured by the implication that I was not recording enough working time. It challenged my integrity and undermined my confidence: how could I be so bad at keeping records? A problem solver by nature, I was driven to find a solution. Later, the solution I found was adopted by some initially sceptical colleagues. Later still, it was offered to any employee that wanted to try it. Read on!

Productivity methods

A review of the wide range of productivity methods and theories is out of scope for this piece. Nevertheless, it’s worth considering your overall approach to managing time, and I found a useful quiz on the Todoist website. Spend a while on question 5 (what’s your biggest, current challenge). Try the Todoist quiz.

Aside: if you decide that a technique that involves working in preset short bursts of time is for you, the Znewtech rotating timer is worth a look. Kitchen timers do the trick too but I love how simply setting the hexagon timer on its side starts a countdown.

Why capture time if you don’t have to?

If you’re not obliged to record and report on how you spend your time, why do it? My thoughts:

  • Let’s make those hours spent in work meaningful. Wasting time makes me feel wretched. Spending time well leads to good outcomes, and helps self esteem.
  • Remote work makes separation of work from home difficult. If work feels like it’s encroaching on home, recording activities accurately can help you work out where the balance has been lost.
  • Being faced with the choice of being late on a deliverable or looking for an extension can be miserable. Knowing where the time went helps me improve next time.
  • If there seems to never be enough time in the day, reflecting on how I spent the time can reveal opportunities for improved practice. If the job has just become too big, then I have evidence to support any requests for a review of workload with management.
  • A decent time log can be the memory jog I need when I’m applying for a new contract and trying to match my experience to the role’s shopping list. In fact, without keeping track, if you were to ask me today how I spent my working hours yesterday, at best you’ll get an estimate. But I’ll know that I had been busy!

The underlying thread that binds these is stress reduction and achieving a better work-life balance.

Capturing time

In my experience, the mechanics of timekeeping can be a chore. I’ve tried most things, and only found one approach that suits me. Considering the range of choices available, there’s no one-size fits all solution, and the challenge is far reaching. Some tips:

  • Know what problem you’re trying to solve so that you can assess if small changes are having a positive effect.
  • There’s little point pretending. If you take a long exercise break then record it. Equally, if you dive into ‘just a little more’ work after your supper, make sure you record that too. Gainful insight requires accuracy.
  • Once you’ve decided on a mechanism, be patient. It takes about two months to develop a habit[1], so whether you’re doing this as a team or an individual, be prepared to allow the muscle to develop before drawing your conclusions.
  • Accept that sometimes you won’t manage to record accurately 100% of the time and let it go. Whatever you capture will give you better insights than not capturing at all.
  • Don’t try to be too granular in the way you capture time. For voluntary timekeepers, I think a few well chosen categories will give you better insights than obsessively measuring every subtask. This I discovered only when I found “my” solution. If the categories you choose to measure against don’t give you the insights you hoped for you can always change them.

Let’s consider the mechanisms.

Option 1: pen and paper!

There’s nothing wrong with an analogue method if it works for you. Capture what you’re doing, start time, and end time – the basic elements of timekeeping. It works best for work that’s predictable and regular, but is less useful if your work pattern varies and is influenced by things outside your control – such as customers!)

Pros: cheap, portable, accurate if you remember to do it, and minimally invasive.

Cons: analysing the records takes time. Without enforcement of categories, your records over time may not be consistent. Looking for patterns over a longer period, or reviewing if small changes you make have a positive effect on your use of time, is difficult.

Option 2: spreadsheets

There are lots of templates available online or you could very likely make a simple one of your own. Again they’re better for predictable work patterns.

Pros: cheap, and cloud based versions are portable across devices, and accurate if you’re diligent. Most readers will be able to wrangle a spreadsheet to some degree. Basic reports and calculations are simple. Export of data to csv format for import into, say, a group sheet is straightforward.

Cons: You have to manually record the date and time that a task starts (and in some cases when a task ends). Unless the spreadsheet is sophisticated you’ll have trouble spotting patterns and monitoring if small changes to activities have had positive outcomes.

Option 3: Time recording apps

Examples: Toggl, Clockify, Monday, Timecamp, and many more

Created to address the need to record activities these apps move you towards better, interactive recording. You set up categories and tasks – and customers if needed – and record time against them. Some apps incorporate elements of best known productivity techniques (such as Pomodoro®) and many include API integration with well known project management software. While most offer free editions, for teams or more advanced features you’ll almost always need a paid subscription.

Pros: once set up, a record can be initiated in a few clicks and summary reports are normally a part of the app. Often they allow you to set up a customer and costs per task. The better cloud based apps allow you to register to multiple devices so that you aren’t tied to a location. If your work has you frequently on the move, then these can be the best choice.

Cons: I tried several of these but there was a common blocker. The act of starting recording against a customer/category/task was a multi-click action that interrupted my workflow and made me less inclined to do it. In my work I react to incoming calls, so multiple steps proved too much of a fiddle. If you’re reactively switching tasks though, they can work.

Option 4: Context sensitive time recording apps

Examples: RescueTime, Time Doctor, Hubstaff, Insightful

They provide similar functionality to the time recording apps mentioned above but with the added feature of monitoring your screen activity. These trackers are more likely to include the words employee attendance monitoring in their descriptions, and some include GPS trackers too.

Pros: If you primarily work on a laptop or desktop then having activity automatically tracked may be beneficial and is almost certainly very accurate. Look for the ability to manually add and adjust tasks.

Cons: Privacy concerns have me reluctant to use these apps. If working time is not entirely focused around a laptop/desktop they’re not that useful. They’re the reason mouse movers like Mouse Jiggler were invented.

Option 5: a physical device

Examples: Timeular, Timeflip2, timeBuzzer

Finally – and after much trial and error – I reached my favoured solution. These apps are linked to a companion device. Actions – such as pressing a button or setting a die on its side – are coded to a set of work activities. As you start on a task you take the physical action, the device communicates with the app and sets the timer running.

Pros: the action seems not to interrupt the train of thought, and is separate from the screen. In most apps, manual entries and adjustments can be made, The app may be trialled before you buy the device. The number of measurements is limited by the device: the Timeular die has eight sides, while Timeflip2 has twelve.

**Cons: **some devices tie you to a subscription (though Timeflip promises the app is free for life). The number of categories being physically limited may also be seen as a disadvantage, and while most allow manual recording in the app if you do this as a habit the device becomes redundant.

To help illustrate, using an eight sided die, this is how I categorised activities:

  • As technical account manager: one face to each customer (3), internal meetings, project work, training, online communication, content
  • As community manager: community support, internal meetings, community analysis, project work, events, social media, content, online communication

Why did the physical approach click?

I found creating the habit to tie a physical action to a change of thought very straightforward. I can accept an incoming call and turn the die at the same time without having to set focus on an app. With the raw time data captured to a category, I can catch up on the details later if necessary and as long as it’s the same day(!) I’ll remember enough to record accurately. Compared to working with apps alone, I found the physical device made me more willing to engage and consequently more accurate. Again it’s to do with the speed of the switch: apps without a physical device require a change of mental focus that’s not always captured ‘in the now’. Rather than being a chore, the activity is _almost _fun.

Returning to my original anecdote, a word of caution. Context and accuracy are all. Having solved the immediate challenge by adopting a tracking device, I was still troubled by the lack of accuracy that led me down the path of looking for a solution. The mystery was eventually easily solved. While some employees had recorded time spent on vacation, others (me included) had not. The ‘worst performers’ that quarter were, in fact, those who had not reported the hours they’d spent on paid time off. Much angst might have been saved by having a consistent and clear process from the outset.

[1]How long does it take to form a new habit? James Clear https://jamesclear.com/new-habit

Having worked in data for longer than she cares to recall, Lorraine currently works as a community manager, helping others get the best from their data technologies. Working with technology start ups for the past five years has led her to try to wrangle time and work towards maintaining a good work-life balance. A passionate lifelong learner, she indulges her love of art by taking courses, enjoying creating collage works as her alter ego Atomic Mutton.

@atomicmutton on Twitter