How not to hate time tracking
Last updated on: June 7, 2022
Time tracking can be an absolute pain, and for a long time, I’ve felt like my output didn’t matter – so long as I had the numbers in my timesheet. That was before I realized how tracking can actually save my hide at work, be more fun, and make me feel like I’m accomplishing something with my career.
But for that to happen, we need to overcome the unpleasant and annoying feeling of having to remember to track time, and actually do that additional work. In this article, I share some tips that worked for me. I’ll discuss things like finding the right motivator, making time tracking into a game, and simplifying it to the core.
Make sure you have the right motivator
While motivation in itself can be very fleeting (if you’re waiting for inspiration to strike), one shouldn’t neglect the power of the right motivator.
The only “abstract” advice I will give here is finding a very good reason why you need to track time. For example:
- I’ll avoid misunderstandings with my boss/manager/team lead/coworkers;
- There will be a “paper trail” of my work time, so I can back myself up when needed;
- My clients are likely to be more trusting and/or willing to pay more because I come across as diligent and transparent;
- I’ll get a better idea of where I waste my time, and can do something about it;
- I want to stop working overtime;
Once you have your reasons on paper, time tracking has more of a purpose. This is something you can put up on a pinboard, above your work desk, or on a post-it on your monitor. As artist and coach Katy Arrington believes, the right motivator can get you through so much mental pushback when working on your productivity.
The same goes for time tracking, which happens to be one of the core elements of productivity.
Turn time tracking into a game
Gamifying your productivity can bring a lot of progress.
When you take the unnecessary seriousness out of time tracking, it’ll suddenly be more entertaining to start up your timer and take note of how you spend your time.
Treat time tracking as a skill to level up
Time tracking can become a game if you think of it in terms of filling out an experience progress bar. You gain experience bit by bit, and after some time, you level up. The same method can be applied if you treat time tracking as a game skill, and your tasks as experience (exp) points.
So, it will look a little like this:
- Make a progress bar much like the ones you see in video games;
- Assign them values or, experience points;
- Every time you successfully track time on a task, assign an experience point (or more).
You can make the concept as simple as this, or expand on it. For example, each task can carry a different number of experience points – if it takes an hour, it’s 5 points, and if it’s 20 minutes, it’s 2.
Here’s how I did it for a short while:
- I need to reach level 4 in one month of time tracking. Level 4 requires 200 exp points;
- I have four work weeks, meaning I can earn a maximum of 50 points per week;
- I have 5 days of work each week, making it to 10 points maximum per day;
- Goal: Earn 10 points a day while tracking time.
- If I tracked each task successfully, I would get the full 10 points.
- If I failed somewhere, I would deduct the points accordingly.
It may sound complex, but it was the simplest math, and with a hand-drawn exp bar on my desk, I somewhat felt like a video game character leveling up.
Fortunately, there are plenty of progress charts and templates online that you can either copy, or adapt them to suit your needs. Either way, if you’re even the smallest bit of a gaming type of person, this should work nicely.
Bring color and creativity into your timesheets
Way back in 2011, former Stamen tech lead Michal Migurski devised a clever, funny way to keep track of his team’s time.
He programmed a browser-friendly app that displays time spent on a project, with a twist: time would be tracked with a famous Angry Birds bird avatar, as it moves to hit the pig (aka the deadline). Here’s how it looks:
As Migurski himself explains it’s simple goal, you are supposed to hit the pig. If the bird flies over the pig’s head, you’re losing money/resources, and if the bird flies past the pig, you’re way behind your deadlines. On his website, Migurski had left a link to a Github repository, to check out Angry Productive Birds for yourself.
Reward time tracking milestones
Maybe the long term benefits of time tracking aren’t a good drive forward for you. The benefits of time tracking are obvious, but not always a tempting end goal. And that is okay, because a short term motivational boost can be equally successful. When gamifying your time tracking, make sure to set specific milestones and appropriate rewards.
For example, if your goal is to successfully track time five days in a row, the reward can be a pricey takeout dinner, shopping for something you’ve wanted for a while or… just a guilt-free nap in the middle of the day.
Milestones can also include successfully tracking time X number of times throughout the day, tracking a total of four hours at least (leaving some room in case you forget), etc.
Make time tracking fun with applets
If This Then That is a very popular and useful app we’ve mentioned quite a few times on the Clockify blog. The website lets you create small actions called applets, that trigger certain behaviors in your computer or phone. For example, every YouTube video you like can be added to your Spotify playlist, or every time your dishwasher starts, your roomba will start cleaning the kitchen. It takes the small chores off your plate. As another example, you can connect your Trello and Clockify so that every time someone puts a task card in Trello, an applet will enter that card as a time entry in Clockify. All you have to do is start the timer when you get to it.
A more fun way to track time would be to connect, say, YouTube and Clockify, where every time you stop your timer, a short celebratory video pops up. You can also do the same with an audio clip, or a gif you find amusing. These automated celebrations are like tiny rewards to look forward to when you track time on tasks.
Track time first – categorize later
In the past, whenever I thought of time tracking, I would immediately roll my eyes just picturing the whole process of typing what the task was, labeling it, deciding how long my Pomodoro would last, etc. The idea of preparation for each time slot was killing me – it was missing the flow and made me feel like a robot.
So, I fixed the issue with a few simple tweaks:
- When making my task list, I premade all the labels and projects;
- I threw out the Pomodoro timer (except for time-sensitive tasks);
- I would fill in only the basic information concerning the task;
- The sorting, additional notes and everything else was pushed back to the end of the day.
I found that taking out these small technical nuances made time tracking less annoying for me. As a bonus, at the end of the day, sorting all the time entries proved to be a great gradual unplugging ritual. I didn’t need an additional task for analysing how my day went, and going through the entries rewarded me with a sense of accomplishment and closure.
The above is an example of how you can make tags for recurring tasks in Clockify, so you simply choose what you are working on from the drop-down menu. If categorizing time entries makes your skin crawl, this is the perfect solution.
Get yourself a perfect tool
I’ve personally tried countless time tracking, habit tracking, and focus apps. And while I haven’t found any one that works for me 100% aside from Clockify, I can say with certainty that they differ so much, each caters to a different kind of person.
Whether you want an app-only tracker, one that is cross-devices, auto tracking or manual input, reports or no, invoicing, calendar integrations, you name it – they have it.
My best advice would be to spend a few weeks trying them on for size. Clockify has the most robust feature system for its free plan, so it’s a good starting point, in my opinion. You can see what you like and need, and work from there.
Don’t strive for perfection
One of the reasons I hated time tracking was because every failure to document my time felt very personal. As if I was lazy, inattentive, incapable of doing such a small task, and other very… unpleasant opinions.
And it was that negative mindset from the get-go that stopped me from doing this for a long time. Why even try time tracking when it brings out the worst in me?
So, to combat the negative assumptions you will most likely have, try nurturing different opinions.
“It’s okay to fail every once in a while”
Things will sometimes get in the way.
You will be distracted.
You will have a bad day.
Learn to forgive yourself for occasionally dropping the ball. So long as you push through those unpleasant feelings and keep trying, those small defeats don’t matter. And this is the healthiest mindset to be in, especially if you’re only starting to track your time.
“I don’t need to track everything”
Bathroom breaks, coffee-brewing breaks, or writing a follow-up email that just popped up as a task really don’t need their own time slot, nor tracking. Five-ten minute activities are probably not important in the long run (unless they’re entertainment breaks that add up), and they don’t give you any useful information about your habits.
They’re especially unimportant for your client/manager report.
Don’t overburden yourself, and you won’t hate time tracking as much.
“Time tracking is like eating broccoli”
Time tracking can make us feel like a robot who needs to fill out a specific quota for their engineer. And it kind of hurts to see that numbers seem to get a greater value than our quality or output.
But the truth is, good habits don’t come naturally. Just like a child needing to acquire the taste of broccoli because it’s good for its health, we too need to go through the annoyance of remembering to track time to be more productive in all aspects of life.
So yes, I suppose I am comparing time tracking to broccoli.
“Time tracking keeps me safe”
One of the best reasons why you should be on board with time tracking, is that it is irrefutable proof of how you’ve spent your work hours.
The modern workplace can be littered with doubts, broken deadlines, distrustful clients, and even scammers. When you know that you’ve done your part in making a fair report on hours worked and how much you’re owed, it takes a lot of stress off your chest.
You also get written evidence in case a client tries to evade payment, or an office dispute among coworkers goes south.
“It gives some semblance of control”
Nowadays, there are far too many factors that influence our day-to-day work as well as careers. So, when you are presented with the opportunity to have a miniscule aspect of total control over your resources and time, why wouldn’t you take it?
Time tracking is such a tiny action, and yet makes a huge impact on how you work and present yourself to others. Not to mention that, with how digital time trackers like Clockify have evolved, they’ve been perfected into an unobtrusive experience for anyone who hates time tracking.
Time tracking comes with a lot of negative press. We don’t like it because it appears to turn our output into numbers, and we mistakenly believe that we as humans start to get valued through our timesheets. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. Time tracking can give us control over damaging distracted behavior, keep us safe from malpractices both in office and in freelance, and be a great path towards building healthier work habits.
What personal gripes have you had with time tracking? Are there any methods that have helped you change your mind about it? Write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org, and we could include your answers in one of our future articles.