Tips for time-tracking (featuring Toggl!)

Written by: Spencer Greenhalgh

Primary Source:  Spencer Greenhalgh

I’ve experimented with time tracking ever since starting grad school, but it’s only since last May that I feel like I’ve really gotten into a routine with it. In this post, I’d like to share a couple of tips that I feel have really made this useful for me.

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Track whenever

If you want to boost your productivity with time tracking, I think it’s critical that you do it most hours of most days of most weeks. When I was flying out to California over the holidays, I told myself that I would use the time on the plane to study for my comprehensive exams. However, I had decided not to track my time while travelling, and something about that decreased my sense of accountability. I did use a lot of that time to study for comps, but I also found myself spending a lot of flying time reading fantasy novels that ended up being of no help during the exam. Now, you can go too far with this (I didn’t track a second on Thanksgiving or Christmas), but if you have goals and objectives for a day (even if they aren’t work or study related), you ought to be tracking.

Of course, this probably means that you need a time tracker that is cross-platform. That’s one of my current rules for any productivity software: If I can’t use it easily on my laptop, my phone, and my tablet, I’m not likely to us it. I used to use the Zone time tracker, which worked great as long as I was in front of my computer, but it was a real pain to come back to my computer and try to remember everything that I had done while I was away so that I could log that. Now, I use Toggl, which I use just as much on my phone as I do on my computer. With such easy access, there are very few places and very few times where I can’t be keeping an eye on what I do.

Track whatever

As far as I can tell, Toggl was designed for timesheet and billing purposes, so someone’s first instinct might be to just track the time you spend doing productive stuff. However, one of the greatest breakthroughs I’ve had during my tracking experiments has been to track everything I do: the time I spend running, the time I spend reading, the time I spend watching TV with my wife.

This decision came along with a mental shift in how I thought about tracking. My first efforts to track my time were all about making sure I spent enough time reading, writing, and researching. That’s all I tracked, and if I didn’t like the number I saw at the end of the day, I got kind of dejected. My current approach to time tracking is less about reaching a magic number as it is about seeing how I spend my time. By tracking the time I spend with family, at church, exercising, or catching up with fantasy novels, I can look back and see where all of my time went at the end of the day. If I spent too much time reading fantasy, then I know that I have a problem. It’s not just about punishing myself, though: If I helped someone move one afternoon, I want to be able to see that (and not just the lower levels of reading, writing, and research) on my daily report. By tracking my other responsibilities and pursuits, I validate them as an important part of my life and boost my work-life balance.

Keep an eye on the clock


In the above picture, you can see not only the sweet picture of Nien Nunb that currently graces my desktop background but also that there’s a timer running up at the top of my screen. This timer is key for reminding me how I should be spending my time: For example, at that time, I was supposed to be in research mode rather than posting screenshots of my sweet desktop background to Twitter.

Obviously, I don’t always switch timers when I move from writing to tweeting, but I do make a real effort. Forcing myself to turn off a Researcher timer to turn on my Hobbyist one adds some extra cost to my break and pushes me to ask myself if I really need to check Facebook right now or if I can write for a few more minutes. Plus, that timer really weighs on me when I have a time running that isn’t work related. I’m a lot more careful about the time I spend playing games or just bumming around the Web when I know exactly how much time I’ve spent doing it.

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Hi there! My name is Spencer Greenhalgh, and I am a student in the Educational Psychology and Educational Technology doctoral program at Michigan State University. I came to Michigan State University with a strong belief in the importance of an education grounded in the humanities. As an undergraduate, I studied French and political science and worked as a teaching assistant in both fields. After graduation, I taught French, debate, and keyboarding in a Utah private school before coming to MSU, where I plan to study how technology can be used to help students connect the humanities with their lives. I have a particular interest in the use of games and simulations to promote ethical reasoning and explore moral dilemmas, but am eager to study any technology that can help students see the relevance of studying language, culture, history, and government.