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Time Log

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  • Time Log

    One of the standard recommendations of the original time-management experts was to keep a time log for a few days: just divide a sheet of paper into quarter hours, and fill it in as honestly as possible.

    The great thing is, nobody gets to see it except you - so you can really dish the dirt on yourself!

    I kept a log yesterday and today – it only took a few seconds to fill in every quarter of an hour. To say that the results were an eye-opener would be a MAJOR understatement.

    It’s probably the very best way to find out if you are “being busy” instead of getting you important stuff done.

    What really hit home is that my recollection of how the day went, combined with the fact that I managed to feel busy all day, left me feeling quite good at closing time.

    But the mind plays terrible tricks – if you try to guess how your day divided up over different areas, it will exaggerate the successes and diminish the failures – but MUCH more than you expect.

    Just look at how little time you spend on the stuff you know you really should have spent most time on.

    Forget about prioritisation and all that school of thought – deep down you know there are some things you have got to get advanced or finished on any given day. But then you get yourself “busy”, and gradually but fatally assure yourself that “it’s OK, at least I got something done today, at least I gave service in return for salary”.

    What has most knocked me sideways is the difference between my sense that the day wasn’t so bad, and the evidence of my time log.

    Try it, even for one day. It will help you to stop hiding from yourself. It will get you out of the denial you didn’t even know you suffered from. It's like having a friendly observer looking over your shoulder all day long. You will find yourself uttering sentences that begin “That’s the LAST time I EVER …” or “From NOW on …”

    It’s free, it’s dead simple to do, but the pay off is priceless.


  • #2
    time log

    Any thoughts are practical ways to collect the info and analyze it?


    • #3
      Time Logs

      Busy Dave,

      Your post really hit home for me. I created a June 1, 2004 -- May 31, 2005 list of top ten goals a la Best Year Yet.

      One of my goals was to spend and log X hours/day at work at activity Y.

      On June 21, I looked at this goal and realized that I was falling short on many days.

      I knew that when I created my goals I wouldn't follow through unless I kept a log. But it took me until June 21 to actually create the log because I had all kinds of rationalizations why I should not.

      The primary objection is that no log can accurately reflect the fact that I keep getting interrupted and involved in multiple activities. At my job the phone rings and I am off doing something else. So, my rationalization went, it does not make sense to keep a log because it would not be representative of how I actually spent my time.

      Another objection is that it is sometimes difficult to categorize time spent. If I am working on activity Y, get up to go to the bathroom, and return to activity Y, should the bathroom time count as activity Y time?

      Then I realized that this is really a form of perfectionism and this kind of perfectionism is self-defeating. I had very good reasons for creating my goal to spend X hours dong Y daily. And as long as I was not timing myself, I was not regularly achieving those X hours.

      Once I realized that I better well keep a log if I wanted to achieve my goals, I found out that I could keep a log and live with the fact that there were errors of 5 minutes here and 10 minutes there. The big picture is that since this Tuesday when I began inputting to the log I have spent at least X hours a day engaged in activity Y.

      I have had various unpleasant experiences with logs in the past. I had not found it useful to keep general logs of how I spent my day. I am sure that they may be indispensable for some but they did not help me.

      I have found that very specific, narrowly focused logs help me in the way that general logs of activity do not. They help me maintain my focus on what exactly I want to achieve. If I just want to waste less time, then I would need to define "wasting time" and then keep a log of when I was wasting time.

      What has made my most recent log effective is that I had a narrowly defined goal: spend more time on activity Y. Once I realized that I then set myself a daily time goal. Now, I don't worry about how many hours I spend on Y as long as attain my daily goal of at least X hours.

      One other thing. There will be days when I do not achieve X hours. The point of the log is not to beat myself up, get depressed, or condemn myself. The point is to provide objective feedback which I would not have if I were not consciously timing and recording myself. You are right, BusyDave: It is very easy to overestimate or underestimate how much of the day I am engaged in any given activity.


      • #4

        Two or three words per each quarter hour are all you need: just enough to identify what you were doing at the time. At the end of the day you can see how many hours you got to spend at what you actually wanted to do. Then you can work out how much of it was your own fault, and how much of it was the fault of others.

        You just want to find out how you actually spent the day compared to how you thought you spent it.



        • #5
          Hawthorne Effect

          In addition to a hearty endorsement of everything Coz wrote above, I'd also like to mention one other thing.

          For many people there is a "Hawthorne Effect" that happens to them when they start to log their behaviors. For example, I knew a guy who started logging the cigarettes he smoked. Within a day or two he went from 2 - 3 packs per day to 2 - 3 cigarettes per day. He wasn't really trying to quit smoking, but his behavior radically changed simply because he was paying careful attention to how much he smoked and when.

          When you start to analyze your time logs, ask yourself "Is this how I normally behave?" If you seem to be on your best behavior, that is the Hawthorne Effect kicking in. The answer is to continue logging your time. Eventually, your normal behaviors will return. At that point, you will either start learning something about how you spend your time, or you will stop logging. If you stop logging, you are probably into the Blaming/Shaming that Coz was warning you about in his post. The logging is telling you something you don't want to hear, and you don't want to hear it because of the recriminations you will heap on yourself when you do.


          • #6
            I track my time using an Excel spreadsheet. This method gives me an instant profile of where I am spending my time. I think it is far more informative than a log in the form of "9:30-10:30: meeting with Jim". Here's how I do it.

            Along the top of the spreadsheet, I have the following headers:

            Category  |  6/25/2004  |  6/28/2004  |  ...  |  TOTAL  |  %  |  Cum. %
            Each subsequent row under this header is devoted to a particular category of activity I do during the workday. Over the course of ten days or so, I accumulate 30 or so different categories of activities that I do.

            The "Category" column is for the name of the activity, like "process e-mail" or "meetings" or the name of a project. Embarassing activities, I have code names for.

            I have ten different dates in the date columns. Under each date column, I list the number of minutes I spent on that activity that day.

            "TOTAL" is, of course, the total number of minutes I spent on that activity over the 10 days that this log covers.

            "%" is the percent of the total elapsed time so far that this activity represents. For example, I spend 17% of my total working time processing e-mail.

            "Cum. %" stands for "cumulative percentage". It is the sum of the "%" for this activity and all the "%"s above it. Why is this useful? I use Excel's sort feature (under the Data menu) to frequently sort all my activities in descending order by their "TOTAL" column. That puts my most-used activity first, second-used second, and so on. So by looking at the "Cum. %" column, I can say things like, "My top four activities take up 75% of my time" (this is not hypothetical!). If I want to make any changes in how I use my time, I can use the Pareto principle to focus my efforts on changing those activities that will make the most difference.

            "TOTAL", "%", and "Cum. %" all calculate themselves automatically, of course.

            I keep this spreadsheet open all day. When I start doing something, in a random cell at the bottom of the spreadsheet, I put in the curent time, and I put the name of the activity I am about to do into the cell next to it. When I am done doing the current activity, I look at my watch, figure out how much time has elapsed, and add that number of minutes to the correct activity under the current date. I then replace the old time I noted down with the current time and go on to the next activity.


            • #7
              time log

              I think the Excel method is novel and hope to eventually try it. The only two methods I have used is a column in a paper planner that lets you write in what you did in a given time slot and a piece of graph paper where you just use a sqaure for a time unit (e.g., 15 minutes) and a code such as W=writing, F=filing. But then the problem is always how you are going to actually capture anything of value from the data collected. So, I have found that data collection is best in the service of a particular project. If one is, really interested in this type of thing from a scientific view, one might locate the writings of the Galbreaths, the founders of time and motion studies (the parents in Cheaper By the Dozen). They actually created a code for specific motions and actions.


              • #8
                Useful palm software

                I use SDS Time to record my hours (I work on projects, so I have to bill my hours). You can also use it for looking where you time goes. You can download it from and it costs 19$ (there is a demoversion).



                • #9
                  Again, I think the time log works best as a means of seeing if you stuck to your guns during the day. It is more of a personality/behaviour measure than a work analysis tool.

                  For example, in my job we have to produce timesheets that identify what each quarter hour is spent on, in other words, which clients did I deal with? I could reach the end of the day and have a fully chargeable timesheet, yet have spent no time on the things that matter.

                  For example, I might have a major project to handle for a big client, but then spend the whole day on minor correspondence for other clients.

                  All the time log has to do is show which, if any, quarters you spent working on the thing you really should be doing. Just say there are three things you really want to get done in a day. Number them one, two and three. For each quarter hour, if you are working on one of those, write a one, two or three in the box.

                  Even if you provide a single service within a single department, there are always specific things you have to do. Some are bound to be more important than others. Which ones for example will form the main focus of your performance reviews?

                  By the end of the day you can look at your log to see how much of the day went YOUR way. If the numbers are bad, start asking yourself what went wrong. Was it me or was it interruptions from those-who-must-be-obeyed?

                  If you were your own undoing, you're on the road to improvement just by knowing that fact. If interruption were the cause, you can start negotiating.



                  • #10
                    my spreadsheet

                    If anyone would like a copy of the time log spreadsheet that I desperately try to describe above, send me a private message containing your e-mail address. I'll send you an example. It makes more sense when you see it.