“Time tracking” is almost a dirty word for some. They equate it with control, surveillance, or sacrificing everything on the altar of efficiency.

To me, it’s none of that. Au contraire, keeping track of how I spend my time is one of the most important tools in my setup. It keeps me grounded, realistic, and has played a big role in helping me cultivate my self-awareness.

“But that’s just you”, you might say, which is a fair point.

Except it’s not just me.

To prove it, Toms Blodnieks, Chief Operating Officer at DeskTime.com, lends his experience and data-driven insights to break down the misconceptions around time tracking.

Our over-reliance on memory makes it easy to lie to ourselves

We think that we can remember everything and that’s false. We can’t. We can’t remember everything we need to do or everything we need to buy at the supermarket.

I know exactly what Toms means. If an item is not on my grocery list, there’s a 9/10 chance I’ll forget it.

The science of memory distortion has documented all the ways our memory is inaccurate, incomplete, and unreliable. (Shane Parris has a series of 3 articles that talk about this – start with this one.)

If we can’t remember stuff we need to buy at the supermarket, how can we expect to know exactly how we spent our time in the past week and what made the biggest impact – all without any objective source of data? The uncomfortable truth is we cannot, no matter how much we want to believe otherwise.

Overconfidence in memory could emerge from our daily experience: We recall events easily and often, at least if they are important to us, but only rarely do we find our memories contradicted by evidence, much less take the initiative to check if they are right. We then rely on confidence as a signal of accuracy — in ourselves and others.

Why our memory fails us

Without an unbiased account of our previous effort, it’s more difficult to assess what’s not working, our behavioral pattern around repetitive tasks (work and personal), and how we might be able to improve things to lessen the feeling of never catching up and never doing what we want.

I agree with Toms when he says:

We can’t remember everything we do, so we need objective data to help us make increasingly more accurate estimations that we can rely on.

Not planning comes at an extra cost

The point of keeping track of how we spend our time is to know what is a valuable use of our time and what isn’t.

And by valuable, I don’t mean being an effective robot but rather doing the things with the biggest impact, both at home and at work. That can be learning, doing deep work, volunteering, spending time with loved ones, or simply resting and giving the mind space to roam.

With no data to expose time-wasters (which are often energy-wasters too), we can’t make better plans for the future. A few of the costs that come with poor or no planning include:

  • Paying more for things, which adds up to a lot in the long run
  • Delays and frustration and can cause tension in relationships and yourself
  • Lack of progress at work, which reduces your ability to gain more
  • Doing what others want instead of pursuing your goals.

If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there.

Paraphrased saying from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland

The distraction spiral escalates quickly

It’s too easy today to fill our days and nights with an abundance of time-wasters. For me, examples include watching TV, reading the news, or spending more than 1h per day on social media (60% of which I use for work). When you don’t make short-term changes for your long-term endgame, you might end up living by someone else’s decisions rather than your own.

daily time spent on social media statista 2020 2021

Last year, people spent 2.4 hours/day on social media. That amounts to 17 hours per week, 2.8 days per month, and a shocking 33.6 days/year – so an entire month per year spent (doom)scrolling, commenting, consuming, and surely getting angry at a million things.

The distraction spiral is easy to get into, difficult to get out of, and almost imperceptible, unless you care about your most important non-renewable resource – time.

As Toms notes:

It’s that big thing or small thing you need to plan because even a 15 minutes or half an hour call or distraction can lead you to a bigger distraction later on.

So with our memory failing us and our brains looking to procrastinate as much as possible (so our body can conserve as much energy as possible), we, humans, clearly need some help to get and stay organized.

One thing that’s been working for me for years is using time tracking to understand how I spend my time and what I’m doing that’s working against my better judgement, my health, and even my relationships.

“Time tracking is not spying”

Unfortunately, a lot of people have a strong misconception about time tracking apps. They feel it infringes on their freedom, especially if they came across it as part of their work.

So I’m glad Toms emphasized that:

Tracking is not spying. Tracking is not monitoring. Of course, it can be used like that and every piece of technology can be misused.

The example of having knives comes to mind: you can use them to hurt someone but most people use them to cook food.

Keeping tabs on how you spend your time helps you build awareness of your habits. In that awareness we can usually find the trigger for improvement and change for the better.

Toms observes this benefit first-hand in his role at DeskTime.com:

We see people becoming more productive, more focused when they gain that awareness of how they spend their time.

Overcoming task overload is a matter of awareness

If you feel like you’re never going through your to-do list for the day, it’s probably because you’re overstuffing it with tasks. I do this as much as anyone and, because I hate repetitive problems, I’ve been working to understand why I do it and how to curb this behavior.

Toms sees it in the data too: “90% or even a hundred percent of the time we plan more tasks that we can do.”

When you never get to the end of your to-do list, you start losing faith in your ability to go through tasks. You experience the consequences of delays. Your relationships may become tense, whether it’s work-related ones or personal ones. This one thing has more consequences than we realize.

So if you’re looking to make a change and get better at estimating tasks and planning, start by answering this question:

How much time do you spend on specific tasks?

This is one quick question that the time tracking tool can answer. If you use it for yourself, you will quickly see how many tasks you do and how long they really take you.

Once you have a more accurate understanding of that, you can start improving one of the key abilities in life: prioritization.

I agree with Toms when he says that:

Nowadays there are so many things that everyone thinks are important. Everything is a high priority. That’s why I try to teach my team and my coworkers the well-known Pareto principle.

It states that 80% of the outcomes can be achieved in 20% of the time. So, actually, we really need to work 20% of the time to do those big, important things. Of course, we need to evaluate and measure which are the important things.

Overcoming task overload requires an exercise in reflection. With objective data at hand, you can:

  • avoid overpromising and under-delivering
  • avoid that last-minute push that takes everything you have (and more!) to get it done
  • reduce tension or avoid conflict
  • in a team, it builds transparency and can help normalize things like unplanned time and the healthy need for more frequent breaks.

Toms also mentioned an important way to use this objective data if you want to keep your newfound flexibility:

For everyone who’s working remotely or doing hybrid work, here’s how you can use time tracking.

I know that many managers want to get people back in the office because they don’t see how they work. This year has proven that we can get things done, that we can do the job and all the tasks working fully remotely. But if managers need proof of work, time tracking tools can provide it – and everyone can decide how much and how rigorously they want to track their time or attendance.

This is not a panacea but it is a very useful tool.

Unplanned time is what we need more of

Building unplanned time into my schedule is what I’m the worst at when it comes to organizing my schedule. Because I grew up in a household where everyone worked all the time, there’s still a voice in my head that’s telling me I’m not doing enough.

While I’ve worked through this in therapy and the voice has gotten quieter, I’m still struggling with reserving part of my day for the unexpected. And the unexpected always, always happens.

That’s why Toms’ reminder may be key for both of us:

I suggest not to be afraid of putting at least 30% of the time aside as unplanned time. Some managers will think it’s a waste of time to not have a fully booked schedule but it’s untrue. Of course, the percentage also depends on the number of things you need to do.

I try to plan at least 30 to 40% of free time for myself because I know there will be someone who will need it. I will need to attend an unplanned meeting. I will need to reply or explain things in person or via email. I will need to review something. I will find something that I need to do ASAP and the list can go on.

The easiest way to do this is to add that chunk of unplanned time in your calendar, so any task that you plan takes it into account.

Don’t do what I used to do every day, which is squeezing unexpected tasks on top of an already full day. Keeping this up for years led me to burn out not once but twice and it took a toll on my health and relationships. It took me a long time to recover and keeping tabs on how I spend my time was an essential component of that system that now keeps me a lot healthier.

Respecting your time helps you do the same for others

When you understand how precious our time is, then you might develop a lot more empathy for others, no matter who they are.

Toms told me about a thing they do at DeskTime.com that I loved:

We have the unwritten rule in the team that we don’t set any meetings in the current day and we don’t disturb – or try not to disturb – people next to us.

The best meetings are the ones with a clear agenda and expectations and that never happens from one moment to the next. Being mindful of that is immensely valuable for everyone involved.

Planning your breaks keeps you sane

Although I haven’t mastered the art of building unplanned time into my schedule, I now take more frequent breaks which my brain, eyes, and back thank me for.

If you’re not good at taking breaks either, you’re not alone. Toms has the same issue and he’s part of a team that builds time-tracking software:

I’m actually a bad person when it comes to taking breaks. Even though we have the Pomodoro function in our tool.

Tiny note: if you don’t know what the Pomodoro technique is, here’s the TL;DR. It’s a time management method where you use a timer to break down tasks into intervals with short breaks in between. For example, when I use it, I work for 30 minutes and take a 10-minute break. It’s a great tactic to overcome writer’s block because anyone can write for 20 or 30 minutes.

Toms shared that the data they see confirms it as well:

In 2014 we at DeskTime performed a study that analyzed the top 10% most productive people to see what they had in common. In essence, it was that they worked on average in sprints of 52 minutes, followed by a 17 minute break. […]

The productivity ratio from right before the pandemic was 80/17 – 80 minutes of working sprints followed by an average of 17 minute breaks. […]

It was found that the top 10% most productive individuals now work at an average rate of 112 minutes, and then take a 26 minute break.

If you can’t manage to prioritize breaks on your own, it’s okay to need a helpful reminder.

It really shouldn’t be a topic for everyone in every business, in every household. We try to educate individuals, to educate managers, to educate employees to trust time-tracking tools that help them manage their time.

It’s not just about becoming more productive but also about improving oneself. We see a lot of potential in helping people understand how important time really is.

If you’ve made it until here, I hope you picked up the things you need to not only develop a kinder relationship with your time but also the tools and tactics to help you maintain this newfound motivation.

I’m off to enjoy a well-deserved break after publishing this article.

Thanks for your contribution, Toms!