A big part of being productive is knowing where the time goes – and that you’re using it constructively. It’s no good spending the entire day with your nose to the grindstone, if you’re not using the time well; far better to work fewer hours and have a sensible work/life balance.
For those events you need to attend physically – meetings and the like – chances are you block them out in your calendar. This means they should be easy to keep track of, and for you to later add up the hours.
Things become much trickier when screens are involved. After all, you can spend all day staring at a screen, but not actually doing anything useful. Fortunately time tracking apps can help, which are broadly split between manual and automated time trackers.
Use Manual Timer Trackers for Productivity
I’ve already written about focus timers on this blog, which are designed to keep your mind on a job, alternating between focussed work sprints and short breaks for reinvigoration. But those don’t log what you’re working on.
Time tracking apps like Harvest (Windows; Mac; web; Android; iOS; depicted below) and Toggl (Windows; Linux; Mac; browsers; Android; iOS) are designed to detail everything from the projects you’re working on to the time you spend away from your desk.
Time trackers may offer integration with other tools as well. For example, Harvest works with Basecamp to-dos and Trello cards – making it relatively easy to infuse them into your existing routine.
Even if you’re using these systems like a glorified bunch of stopwatches, the net result is you’ll at any point be able to peruse what’s eating into your time. For people who charge by the hour – designers, consultants, and so on – this is hugely important. But for tech leaders and entrepreneurs, these time tracking apps can also be beneficial.
When working on ideas and pitches, logging hours can later enable you to make reality checks regarding how long you actually worked on a specific project or deal. Should some come off, you can compare the time investments you made. If trends and patterns become clear, you can more optimally target your efforts in the future.
Optimize Screen Time with Automated Time Trackers
Timely (Windows; Mac) uses AI and training, to figure out what you’re working on, saving you having to input the details yourself.
Timing (Mac) does likewise, and has a great overview that lets you quickly scan activities by project, app, websites, and folders.
On mobile devices, things are a bit different. Phones and tablets are more often time sinks, rather than boosting productivity. And even if you use an iPad for work, it’s all too easy to launch a time-waster app or game for ‘just a few minutes’ and suddenly realize it’s swallowed half an afternoon.
For iPhone and iPad, Screen Time (found in Settings; depicted) deftly deals with such issues. Baked in at a system level, it tracks app usage. You can at any point check out graphs that detail how time on your device has been spent, the number of notifications you’ve received, and even how often you’ve picked up the device. If specific apps are taking up too much of your day, you can set daily limits for them.
On Android, Google’s Digital Wellbeing (again, found in Settings) works broadly similarly, although at the time of writing is limited to Google Pixel and Android One hardware. Third-party equivalents exist, however, such as ActionDash and Space, which are well worth investigating.
Mix and Match for Best Results
If you like the idea of screen timers and time trackers, be mindful you needn’t necessarily stick with one particular kind. Depending on how you work, you may find several apps can be infused into your workflow, enabling you to figure out where your time goes, and make better use of it in future.
In my own work, for example, I use Screen Time to lock down apps on my iPhone I know I’m prone to getting sucked into. A major time-sink is Twitter client Tweetbot, which I set for a maximum of 30 minutes per day – mostly for perusing news over breakfast. On my Mac, I use a manual time tracker to log time spent on projects. And on days when deadlines are looming, and I don’t have time to do anything but focus, Bear Focus Timer locks me into a productive work and break cycle.
With most of these systems being free-to-try and simple to set up, check out some of them yourself. Chances are you’ll find the half hour or so it’ll take to figure out how everything works will be repaid several times over within the first week – and far more in the months beyond.
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