I finally have a time-tracking process that I love, and it only took me 22 years of trial and error to figure it out. With how often I hear others complain about tracking their time, I figured I needed to share this big news with the whole world.
Consulting businesses like Trailhead make our money by charging our customers for our time (and arguably, our expertise). For this reason, it has always been critical to track my time accurately, and so I have, but it’s always felt like real work until recently.
Now, before I explain my new process and why I think it works, let me take you on a little journey with me through many years and many attempts at other solutions for tracking my time.
What Didn’t Work
The most simple solution is often the best one, so having a small notepad or journal book with me to write down what I was doing seemed like it might be all I needed. However, when I tried this method, I found that I’d sometimes forget about it since it was the only thing I was doing that wasn’t digital. Every other part of my work was on the computer. Clearly, a digital solution was going to work better for me.
Other times I’d leave my desk to attend meetings or travel for work and forget to bring the notebook with me, and then it became even more difficult to keep up the habit.
2. Just Remembering
This “method” is probably the most foolhardy, and one that only tempted me in my younger years. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve found it increasingly difficult to remember everything I did for a whole day, let alone for a whole week.
You could probably point to the way memory gets worse with age as the reason for this decline. I suspect it also has something to do with the complexity of my workdays later in my career. In the early days, I would work solo for hours at a time focused on a single task. Now my work involves more meetings, answering questions, urgent issues, collaboration, and interruptions in general. That type of piecemeal work is inherently more difficult to remember than long, focused hours of work on a single task.
That, plus, I’m getting old.
Almost every time tracking tool includes a timer component. Tell it what you’re doing and hit the “Go” button and it starts counting up from 00h:00m:00s. If you hit stop after 2 hours, most of these tools will log a 2h:00m time entry for that task, project, or client. Seems simple, right? Again, not when you often get interrupted in the middle of a task or have to switch tasks regularly or unexpectedly.
In those cases, I’d find that I would accidentally leave the timer running too long and have to manually adjust the time entry it had created. Sometimes I’d leave the timer running for many hours after I finished a task or even overnight. Then I’d have to guess what time I should have stopped it AND try to remember anything I worked on after I should have stopped it.
4. Interruption Checks
I thought I was a genius when I came up with this idea, but ultimately, it didn’t work much better than timers for me.
The idea was, instead of having to remember to start and stop a timer, what if I interrupted my work with a popup every 15 minutes (my employer’s minimum billing interval at the time) asking what I was working on. The popup would remember what you answered last time and show you the same values again 15 minutes later so you could dismiss it with one simple click. As long as you answered the same project, the time entry would continue. A new time entry would be started the moment you told the popup you were working on something else, and the whole process would repeat itself.
The problems with this method were starting and stopping the process at the beginning and end of the day, and whenever I left my desk for long periods. Ultimately, I wasn’t able to overcome these shortcomings, and so I abandoned this method of time entry.
What Did Work
A Near-Perfect Solution
Users of Windows will no doubt be familiar with one of its oldest tools: Notepad. When I decided I needed a simple, digital solution to track my to-do list for each day, it was a natural choice. It’s ubiquitous, simple, and doesn’t use much memory to leave it running all day.
After a few months of using this for my to-do lists, I noticed two things:
- At the end of the day, the finished items on my to-do list were basically a record of what I’d worked on that day, and
- That editing a to-do list in Notepad made it a little too much work to save those completed to-do lists for reference later.
And The Big Reveal…
At the point where I was using Notepad, I was very close to my eventual solution. What I needed was something a lot like Notepad that would also automatically save my to-do lists without me having to choose a name or location for the file to save.
I found just such an application in Microsoft’s OneNote, a part of the Microsoft Office suite of tools. It is meant for note-taking, and it automatically saves everything into the cloud without any effort on the part of the user.
At the top of OneNote’s hierarchy is something called a Notebook. I create a new notebook every month, and this takes me about 5 seconds to do. Notebooks can then have Pages, which I create one of for each day, and use the YYYY-MM-DD DDD naming format. For example: 2021-04-19 Mon.
Within each page is my to-do list for the day. I use a format like this for each entry
- XX Short description
I place a dash before each item left to do. I replace this with a lowercase-x when it’s complete. The XX is just a two-letter code I use to identify projects or clients, and the short description is just that–a short description of the task to do.
Occasionally, when I mark an item as complete, I’ll put the amount of time it took at the end of the line in parenthesis.
x XX Short description (1.5 hours)
I’ve found I only need to do this when it might not be apparent to me later how long I worked on it. For example, if I have a meeting on my calendar for 1 hour, but that meeting ran over 30 minutes, I might forget about that 30 minutes later, so I add the total time to the task to help me remember.
At the end of the day, or the beginning of the next, I simply copy what was left undone from the previous day and move it forward to the next day’s list, then re-prioritize the list. Sometimes tasks get removed from the list before they actually get done–maybe because they are no longer needed or maybe because they are being tracked somewhere else long-term.
When a day starts out, my list might look something like this:
- TH Send invoices to clients - TH Write blog post about time-tracking process - AB Write code for client AB - XY Update client XY on latest changes - XY Meeting with client XY to go over progress
And when the same day is over, that list might look like this:
x TH Send invoices to clients x TH Write blog post about time-tracking process (1.25 hour) x AB Write code for client AB x XY Update client XY on latest changes x XY Meeting with client XY to go over progress (2 hours)
With all of that information stored for each day, the only thing left to do is copy this information into the company’s time-tracking tool once every day or week. Why not just enter it there to begin with? If your time tracking tool works for you in that way, then by all means, skip right to that. For me, I know I’ll follow a process when it’s easier to follow than not to follow, and all the time tracking tools I’ve used so far have not fit my process well enough, allowed me to use them for both to-do lists and to-done lists, and have not been as easy to use as a simple note in Notepad or OneNote.
That’s what works for me. What works best for you? Let me know in the comments.