How to Start Tracking Your Time Use

When I was younger, I thought that I knew how I spent my time — efficiently. Even so, there never seemed to be enough hours in the day. At one point, someone suggested something profound: Track your time use.

For those who use hourly billing in business, a time tracking tool makes sense, and can make it easy for you to figure out how much to charge your clients. If you are trying to be more productive to boost your work/life balance, or if you are trying to find more time for your side gig, that’s another story.

You might be surprised to discover that you aren’t actually using your time efficiently. If you want to get rid of the time drains in your life and concentrate on what really matters, you need to acknowledge the holes in your time use.

Track All of Your Activities for Two Weeks

A good way to start figuring out how you’re really using your time is to track all of your activities for two weeks. Choose a two-week period that is likely to be fairly standard for you. (Start after you’ve recovered from your latest vacation.)

When I completed this exercise, I carried a little notebook around with me. Today, there are plenty of ways to use advanced applications on your smartphone to track your time use. Whatever tools you use to record your activities, be consistent. Every time you start an activity, note the time. Then, when you finish, make sure you pay attention to the time.

It might seem silly to note an activity that you only do for five or 10 minutes, but you’ll be surprised at how effective it can be at forcing you to stop and recognize what you’re doing with your time. That 10 minutes you spend playing Candy Crush while waiting in line at the grocery store might actually be better used by sifting through your email inbox. (I deleted the games off my phone and now I use short periods of downtime to manage email.)

After the two weeks end, review your time use. I guarantee you’ll be surprised. One thing to pay attention to is how much time you spend watching TV. According to the American Time Use Survey, those age 15 years and older spend almost three hours a day watching TV. Yes, it can be important to relax and watching TV can be a part of that leisure time. But three hours?

My own time tracking exercise revealed that I spent a lot of time surfing the Internet (not doing research for work) and a great deal of time reading fiction. As with TV, there isn’t anything wrong with relaxing with a good book, but my reading time was a little excessive. At the very least, I realized, I should switch to reading something useful and informative for part of the time.

Identify Peak Work Times

While tracking your time use, also pay attention to when you are most productive with work and business. I discovered that I was cutting into some of my most productive work time while messing around on the Internet, and that sometimes my late-night reading kept me up so late that I missed good working time in the morning.

Tracking my time use allowed me to look at my schedule and identify problem areas and habits. Turning things around wasn’t easy, but starting out by tracking my time use helped me see that I wasn’t using my time as efficiently and effectively as I thought. This is the first step to building a schedule that works for you — and that allows you to get more done.

Once you’re done tracking your time use, you can start to implement changes. You don’t have to stick to a rigid schedule to be successful, but it does help to have a general idea of when you work well, and what your time-wasting triggers might be. As you make changes, check in every so often by tracking your time use for a day or two, just to confirm that you are still on track.