Time tracking FAQs

I’ve started a few folks time-tracking for the forthcoming time makeover series. In doing so, I’ve realized that I get a lot of repeat questions on how to track time. So here are some answers for anyone who’s been thinking about giving it a whirl! (You can find my various time-trackers here).

What do I write down on my time log? How detailed should I be?

Just write down whatever you’re doing; the level of specificity depends on what you’re trying to accomplish. If you’d like to segment your work by different projects, for instance, or your family time by family member, then you’ll need more detail. But if you’re just trying to get a broad picture of your time, then broad categories (work, sleep, drive, read, hangout w/kids, make dinner, clean, watch TV…) are fine. With a 30-minute log, I generally write down what I spent the majority of that 30-minute chunk doing. I don’t record every bathroom break or trip to the kitchen to refill my water glass. If a chunk of time is pretty clearly split between 1-3 activities, I’ll list them all with commas. “Work, bus” might occupy a morning half hour during which I worked for 15 minutes and then walked my kids to the bus stop and waited with them.

How often should I check in?

Every few hours should be fine. I’ve been doing this for a while, so I tend to remember time markers through the day and can reconstruct a whole day if I need to. But generally, I’ll check in once in mid-morning, once in mid-afternoon, and once before bed. Until time-tracking becomes a habit, you might need to set an alarm or figure out some other reminder that it’s time to look at the log.

What if I’m not around my computer? How can I remember to track time on weekends?

You don’t have to hover over your log on weekends! However, I recommend that you DO track your weekend time. I’ve had a number of time trackers over the years simply stop for the weekend, which I find fascinating. Is the mindset that only weekdays count? I think weekend time is real time that is really part of life. We shouldn’t ignore it. In any case, feel free to just jot notes on a piece of paper about your time and then reconstruct it whenever you’re back at your log (e.g. Sunday night or Monday morning)

What if I multi-task, say by listening to an audiobook while driving? Am I reading or driving? How do I classify this?

When someone asks this question, I suspect they’re trying to make a really cool pie chart. They want to account for all 168 hours of the week with categories that are mutually exclusive and comprehensively exhaustive. If this matters to you, then you’ll need to account for all categories of time. That means, for instance, that “drive” will be a different category than “drive/audiobook.” But the truth is, you don’t need to make a consultant-worthy pie chart from your time tallies for a time log to be informative. Somebody could feel perfectly happy reporting that he or she read 7 hours over the week, knowing that it was split between traditional books and audio books. Some family time is multi-tasked with housework. I’m fine with this.

This isn’t a typical week! I chipped a tooth, requiring an emergency dentist visit, so I took a half day on Tuesday. Should I start over?

Probably not (and sorry about the tooth!). There are no typical weeks. Declaring a week “typical” or “atypical” is more of a value judgment than anything else. One reason people report longer work weeks than they actually clock is because their mental picture of a “typical” week involves no work interruptions. But in my time diary study for I Know How She Does It, I found that three-quarters of the women I studied had something personal occur during their work hours over the course of their diary week. Sometimes it was planned, sometimes it wasn’t (sick kid, snow day, broken pipe requiring an emergency plumbing visit). Life happens. Let’s account for it!

Phew, I kept going for a week! Now what?

If you’d like, you could add up any major categories that you care about. Roughly how much time did you spend working? How about sleeping? Did you sleep about the same amount each day or did it vary? Was it all at night or did you nap? How much time did you spend exercising? In the car? Doing housework or errands? Reading? Watching TV? Scrolling around online? (That one is often hard to track because people tend to do it in small bits. You’re working for the majority of a half hour, but there are two small Instagram checks in there. If you care about this, you’ll probably need an app to help.)

When you’ve got these tallies, you might see if any categories surprise you. I was shocked to see how much time I spend in the car, given that I don’t have a daily commute.

You should ask what you like about your schedule. Hopefully something is working for you, so celebrate whatever that is. Then figure out what you’d like to spend more time doing, and what you’d like to spend less time doing. Looking at where your time is currently spent, figure out if there are any opportunities for redeploying time from one category to another. What sort of logistics would that require? What if you started small?

If you want to spend time better, you need to figure out where the time really goes. Time tracking certainly helps me with this, and I hope it will help you too!

7 thoughts on “Time tracking FAQs

  1. 75% of women have something personal come up during the week — YES, THIS. I was talking to my husband about this last night, because he was complaining that there is always something “extra” on the home front that he has to deal with. My response was, yes there is. So? It’s never going to be better. You need to just learn to deal with the stress that comes with it. It’s part of being alive. I’m not sure that was helpful to him. Maybe he needs to learn to catastrophize about it less?

    One thought I had was whether women take on a disproportionate share of these “personal emergencies”, such that for most men the number is more like 10%. Do you have any data on this?

    1. @OMDG- totally agree. It’s just part of life, and most of us are better off accepting it (while taking steps to minimize the interruptions that can be minimized). I don’t know what the proportion would be for men, or for people who aren’t caring for children, because I haven’t done similar studies for them. I would imagine it is lower, for the reasons you note. It wouldn’t be zero — even someone with an army of personal assistants couldn’t outsource a trip to the dentist for his own tooth.

  2. LOL, making cool pie charts is the most fun part of time tracking for me! I am a big nerd when it comes to this sort of thing. When multi-tasking, I just count the “primary” activity, that is, the one I would be doing at that time regardless. So driving to work while listening to a podcast which needs to be paused every five minutes because my 4-year-old in the back seat has something to say = commuting.

    1. @Gisela – that’s a good solution. Yep, people can easily get lost in the weeds on these things, but it’s the big pieces that tend to count.

  3. If you are away from your laptop and are on the go/around people, it’s helpful to just jot down what you spent 30-minute segments doing on your phone’s notepad app.

    1. @Shar- good tip. Sometimes I’ll use my phone for this, or send an email to myself (since I know I will process my inbox later).

  4. I’ve tracked my time last week, for the third time or so. A lot of categories are okay for me (though I wish chores and evening routines would take less time but I guess there is no getting around to making tea for myself, haha). What I’ve hated every since I started time tracking is the time I spent going somewhere. I spent 10 % of my week commuting somewhere, ugh. I already tried seeing it as exercise and reading time (biking, audio books or even calling people). But it still bothers me.

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