Many resources are scarce, but I can think of only one truly finite resource. Time. Although it is not easy, we can always make more money. Money is not a fixed pie. Money is a pool that expands as people figure out to create value for others.
We’ve been hearing about peak oil for decades. Since as early as 1919 (according to Wikipedia), geologists have been predicting that the rate of oil production will peak very soon and then begin an unstoppable decline. Almost 100 years later new technology continues to steadily boost output (such as hydraulic fracking) and reduce demand (alternative energy).
However, no technology can expand the pool or output of time. We each have 168 hours per week to work with. Use of that finite resource is the difference between those who simply exist and those who make a difference during their time on Earth.
I’m a CPA, and I started my career as a financial and IT auditor. I know how to audit financial systems and statements. But until last week I had never audited my time.
I’ve always tried to use my time wisely, and I knew I could use it more wisely if I knew exactly how I was spending my time. But I never got around to tracking my time because I didn’t have a convenient way to do it.
I installed RescueTime on my computer quite a while ago. It tracks time spent using applications and websites on your computer. It can provide some interesting insight, but it’s limited enough that I don’t find it really useful.
I spent 16 hours in Gmail last week, but I don’t know what was business vs personal. For business, I don’t know which projects took so much time in email. As far as I know, there’s no way to manually record more detail. I also spend a lot of time on my phone, but RescueTime does not have an iOS app due to security restrictions.
Last week I finally felt enough pain to take action. The last month has felt crazy busy, but I didn’t have a good sense for how much time I was spending in different areas. I was afraid I was spending too much time on unimportant things and not enough time on important things.
Ironically, one factor keeping me from auditing my time is not wanting to take the time to figure out how. But I finally took three hours one day to research options, pick a solution, and figure out how to use it.
I looked for a solution that met the following criteria:
- Quick and easy to use
- Time tracking primarily on an iPhone app that syncs with a website
- Ability to separate time into projects and clients
- Good reporting capability
- Free or inexpensive
My search through many options led me to this short list:
- Hours - free and simple iPhone app
- Harvest - web and iPhone apps, free up to 4 clients
- Toggl - web and iPhone apps, free for unlimited clients and projects
Hours doesn’t have all the functionality I wanted, so it came down to Harvest and Toggl. Both seemed to have great functions and reports, so it came down to price. Toggl has more free functions.
I’ve only used Toggl for one full week so far, but the cost has been minimal and the benefits have been incredible.
The cost is a small amount of time to keep track of my time. The iPhone app makes this incredibly quick and easy. I simply stop and start the timer every time I switch tasks. When starting the timer, I choose from a list of projects or add a new one. I can add notes for what I’m specifically working on. The start and stop times are easy to edit.
I keep track of work projects, and I also keep track of every other way I spend my time, such as sleep, family time, exercise, down time, and general overhead (getting ready, organizing my office, etc).
I have found two powerful benefits with tracking time: data and increased focus.
Why is it that we are better at keeping track of less important resources? We use Mint to meticulously track my spending. My utility bills tell me how much electricity, gas, and water we use each month. If we spend too much one month, we can make adjustments the next month.
You can’t make improvements without reliable data to measure performance.
The data provided by detailed time tracking has been interesting. I’m spending more time on some projects than I thought I was, and I’m not spending as much time as I expected on others.
One week may not be enough time to see trends, but over time I can adjust my work habits based on my priorities.
This is an unexpected benefit.
I tend to rapidly switch between projects. I’ll often power through my email or task list and tackle what seems to be most urgent at the time. I’ll jump between responding to a recent email to a small task in one project to a longer task in another project to another email that catches my attention.
I think I’ve always been productive. I am good at using technology to get a lot done quickly. But I’m not always good at focused attention on important tasks.
Tracking time has forced me to be more focused. If I want to track my time accurately, I need to stop and start the timer and make brief notes about what I’m working on. But if I keep switching between tasks, I spend too much time tracking my time.
Time tracking is easier if I focus on one project for longer periods of time. The unexpected benefit is that I'm also more productive and effective when I’m not constantly switching between tasks.
I’m only a week in to tracking my time, but I intend to make this a long-term habit. It’s a small price to manage my most precious resource more effectively.
Question: How do you manage your time?