“If you can not measure it, you can not improve it.” – Lord Kelvin
There is a precept that what you can measure, you can improve. And with the abundance of tracking technology available to us today, it can be easy to be overwhelmed by the number of things you have to keep track of.
As a reader of Asian Efficiency, you’re likely already managing your schedule, your tasks, your email and your information, so the last thing we want you to do is to have to track a bunch of different life metrics.
There is only one metric that truly matters when it comes to productivity: your time.
Time is the only metric that matters
Time is the one resource that everyone has the same amount of (unless you factor in outsourcing and delegation). And so, how you decide to and how you actually spend it is of vital importance and should be of significant interest to you. As Roger Hamilton says in the parable Wink, you get 24 drops of time each day. Do you want to waste, spend, drink or invest them?
Especially for those AE readers who work from home, or who don’t have the structure of a 9-5 work environment, how you spend every single minute of every day is incredibly important.
Toggl is an application that was introduced to me by a friend of mine, who used it for measuring billable hours and project work. I’ve since repurposed it for a more personal use.
The setup and application is incredibly simple. You open an account:
You then set up your projects (we’ll go through exactly what projects you need in detail below):
You download the mobile application:
And then you start using it:
Toggl has applications for iOS and the Android platform, as well as desktop (I would avoid their desktop application) and the standard web application. In theory, any software designed for time tracking can be used to track your personal time. I just happen to like Toggl because it’s free and simple.
OK, so you don’t want to use Toggl. 1) Reconsider, 2) Here’s an alternative.
Edit: OK, so there are a number of other iOS Apps that we’ve found since that are pretty good. We’ll be reviewing them very soon.
Start an Excel spreadsheet with five columns:
- Item name.
- Project name.
- Start time.
- End time.
- Total time.
And throughout the day, log your items, projects, start and end times. You’ll understand this more as I use the Toggl example below. The downside of this approach is that you have to calculate the time you spend on each item manually later on (or use some Excel formula wizardry – included below), but it is an application-free alternative (I’m assuming you have Excel already).
In fact, here’s a template for you to download and use. Right-click and save-as (XLS file).
And here’s a printable version if you’re not at your computer all day. Right-click and save-as (PDF file).
Real World Time Tracking
Time Tracking is mostly used in corporate environments or by freelance workers to bill by the minute (or hour). You start the clock when you begin working, and you stop it when you’re done. To track your personal time, things work a little differently.
When you track your personal time, you want to be running a timer all the time. Yes, that’s right. ALL THE TIME. Every minute, of every day, for however long you decider to continue measuring your time… you will have a time running.
If you suddenly have an urge to make your day-to-day activities and “downtime” count more, then that’s a good thing.
Here’s how it works in Toggl. I strongly suggest you use the mobile application as that way you can change activities instantly and on-the-go.
1. You start your day with an activity. In my case, it’s my morning ritual.
2. When I start eating breakfast, I switch to that.
3. And when I start doing work for the day, I switch to that.
4. And this continues on for the rest of the day. Every activity gets its own item in Toggl (or Excel). Now if I have an activity that happens multiple times a day, for example my “daily actions” item, I’ll start the timer, stop it when I stop working on those daily actions, and when I come back to it, I’ll just restart the same timer. Technically I could create a new activity, but there’s no real reason to unless you want to measure data by time-of-day. In Excel, you have no choice but to create a new line item.
Something to note with Toggl (at least the mobile app) is that it is dependent on an Internet connection to work properly. Now sometimes, there is a synchronization bug where your activity time is wiped out by what the server was tracking. You’ll notice this when you have say [47:03] logged on an activity, and after a refresh it becomes [00:00]. The way I get around this is to look at my current activity when remember the time logged as soon as I open the application. If the time is overridden by the server, I tap on the time and reselect the prior time.
Unfortunately there is no long-term solution to this unless Toggl updates their mobile applications. If the Toggl guys are reading this – please fix it!
Elements of Time
So now that you know how to measure and track your time, we should discuss WHAT to measure.
This is highly personal. It will largely depend on how you structure your personal projects, your work, your task manager and your life in general. Below is a standard and simplified template based on my own systems that you can take and expand on.
I have the following projects setup in Toggl:
- Books / Media / Learning.
- Life Management.
- Personal Projects.
Let me explain each in detail, and answer some common questions as to “where does XYZ fit”.
Books, Media and Learning
This is any time spent reading, taking notes, watching educational videos or in general, absorbing information of any sort.
Breakfast, lunch, dinner, dessert, supper, afternoon tea, snacks, coffee breaks, etc etc
If you are a smoker I would put cigarette breaks in here or under “Excess” if you want the extra motivation to quit.
I personally call this Enterprise. It is time spent in the office or working on office projects. I have very distinct individual items based on mental contexts for this, but if you work a 9-5 you can lump it all together under “work”.
Any time that is not productive (remember, we define productivity as time spent directed towards your goals). For me, this includes video games, chilling with my roommates, and doing things that I shouldn’t have to do (unexpected things that crop up and have to be taken care of). If you commute to work, I would consider putting commute time under this too, as a motivating force to find a more effective way to get to work, or to negotiate a remote working arrangement.
I only allow four items in here: my morning ritual, my evening ritual, my daily actions and my weekly / monthly / quarterly / annual reviews.
Things you have to do every day that are not inherently productive but more along the lines of essential. For example, taking a shower or doing your laundry (though I could argue that one under “Excess” too).
Any time spent towards my personal projects. This can range from planning a vacation to handling financial affairs.
Self explanatory: Sleep and naps. When you nap, start the timer. Stop it when you wake up. Same goes for sleep. Once you have enough data, you can optimize your sleep.
Any time purposely set aside for spending with family or friends falls into this category. Not “unplanned” time (which should fall under “Excess”), but purposefully-assigned blocks of time for socializing with other human beings. Examples: dinner with friends, dates, time with the kids.
What About That Time I…
So sometimes an activity will have more than one productive purpose. For example, having dinner with friends could fall under “Eating” or “Social” in the setup above. As to which you assign the activity is largely up to you and what you want to track. Personally, I want to optimize the amount of time I spend eating, so if I’m eating alone it falls under “eating”. If I’m out with friends and catching up and socializing, it falls under “social”.
There are also other activities that will encompass a range of other activities. For example, when you go on vacation or when you’re spending time with friends. The two options here are to either 1) change item every time an activity switches, which can be annoying, or 2) create a large activity item that encompasses the smaller activities. On a night out with friends we may: 1) get drinks, 2) go to a lounge, 3) spend time in a taxi, 4) spend time at a fine drinking establishment, 5) eat food on the way home. I tend to classify this as just “going out” and file it under Social. As you’ll see when we discuss how to use the collected metrics to optimize your time, the actual individual line items don’t matter as much.
On occasion you will come across “necessary evils” in life. Visiting a doctor, helping a family member out in an emergency, needing to deal with your taxes etc… How you classify these is really dependent on what you want to do with these activities. My rule is this: if it is an activity that has arisen out of someone else doing something (i.e., I didn’t create the circumstances intentionally), I will file it under Excess. Why? Because then I become motivated to find a permanent solution to the problem, and to make sure it never occurs again. Now if it is something that you have to do (e.g., file taxes) I would actually consider that a Personal Project and log it accordingly.
Got any other questions about how to classify an activity? Post them in the comments below and we’ll answer them.
You want to review your time data on a weekly basis. Daily is too much, and monthly is too long to chart any meaningful comparisons.
Here’s how you do it:
1. Export your data out of Toggl. Select Weekly Report. Select “Last Week”. And most importantly, click on “show” to refresh your data.
2. Export to CSV, and put it into an Excel spreadsheet, expressed in minutes for analysis.
Now you want to look at your data and ask yourself: should the time I spent on this activity or activity group go up or down for next week?
As an example, here’s some of my more recent data:
From the above, you can see that I’m working on increasing my focused working hours (“Enterprise”) and on decreasing the amount of time I spend eating.
Over time, you can chart what your life looks like in terms of time allocation. If you couple this idea with what your goals are (and what goals you’re achieving), you can actually work out exactly how productive you are really being.
Some average weekly numbers:
- Sleep – 3234 minutes.
- Work – 2610 minutes.
- TV – 1680 minutes.
* Source: US Department of Labor: http://www.bls.gov/tus/charts/
* Source: Sanchez-Tabernero, Alfonso (1993). Media Concentration in Europe: Commercial Enterprise and the Public. London: John Libbey & Co.
The interesting thing about collecting time data about your life is the ability to mash it up with other data you have available. A couple of thought-provoking examples are:
- Consider that the average worker has a 40-hour work week. What activities and what categories in your life exceed that 40 hours a week?
- If you’re into actively managing your finances, you will know what your Real Hourly Wage is. Using this, you can see what the opportunity cost of your “Excess” and other activities really is.
“This is your life and it’s ending one minute at a time.” – Tyler Durden, Fight Club
- Sign up for a free account at Toggl.com and install the application on your phone.
- Setup your categories of elements of time.
- Start tracking your time.
- Review weekly, and make adjustments for the upcoming week.
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