I recently recorded a podcast episode of Nat Chat with Nat Eliason. It was super cool and I really enjoyed it — Nat's a brilliant guy and someone I've greatly enjoyed getting to know recently, and the podcast was quite fun and informative. The episode will be out in the next week or two.
One thing we talked about was time tracking and its value. Time tracking is super valuable and important. By explicitly tracking your time, even for a short little while, you get a much better and more objective grip on how your life is going — and then you can start making improvements.
I wrote about this somewhat years ago, but I hadn't publicly gone through what I do in a while. So in this post, I want to walk you briefly through the theory, what I do (which is a little complex), and what I recommend you do to get started (which is very simple and easy).
I. The theory: You need to know where your time goes.
One of my favorite books is Peter Drucker's The Effective Executive. I re-read it around once per year. The first chapter is titled "Effectiveness Can Be Learned." The second? "Know Thy Time."
"Effective executives, in my observation, do not start with their tasks. They start with their time. And they do not start out with planning. They start by finding out where their time actually goes. Then they attempt to manage their time and to cut back unproductive demands on their time. Finally they consolidate their "discretionary" time into the largest possible continuing units. This three-step process:
• recording time,
• managing time, and
• consolidating time
is the foundation of executive effectiveness."
"The foundation of executive effectiveness" — a pretty big claim!
But I think it's true. At the end of the day, time is the most strict and final limit on everything we're going to do when we're alive.
Here's the thing — most people have no why where their time really goes.
"I sometimes ask executives who pride themselves on their memory to put down their guess as to how they spend their own time. Then I lock these guesses away for a few weeks or months. In the meantime, the executives run an actual time record on themselves. There is never much resemblance between the way these men thought they used their time and their actual records.
"One company chairman was absolutely certain that he divided his time roughly into three parts. One third he thought he was spending with his senior men. One third he thought he spent with his important customers. And one third he thought was devoted to community activities. The actual record of his activities over six weeks brought out clearly that he spent almost no time in any of these areas. These were the tasks on which he knew he should spend time—and therefore memory, obliging asusual, told him that these were the tasks on which he actually had spent his time. The record showed, however, that he spent most of his hours as a kind of dispatcher, keeping track of orders from customers he personally knew, and bothering the plant with telephone calls about them. Most of these orders were going through all right anyhow and his intervention could only delay them. But when his secretary first came in with the time record, he did not believe her. It took two or three more time logs to convince him that record, rather than memory, has to be trusted when it comes to the use of time."
That last bolded sentence, I hope, is somewhat staggering to you — if you realize the implications.
"The actual record of his activities over six weeks brought out clearly that he spent almost no time in any of these areas [that he thought most important]."
It was my experience, too. When I actually started tracking my time, I realized that I spent very little time on developing operations and workflows, pure R&D, product development, and new forms of marketing. I also spent much less time explicitly studying and learning than I thought. In fact, I did less of everything really important than I thought I did.
When I first started tracking explicitly, I realized that I was averaging under 30 minutes per day of really important work. And, umm, I'm not a lazy guy. I was busy. I just wasn't doing what matters. Often I'd do a burst of improvement one or two days per week for a couple hours, but there'd be entire days when I didn't make progress on whatever I deemed was most important and valuable.
I knew I needed to improve in this area, and I eventually realized I couldn't improve here without explicitly tracking and studying what I was already doing.
II. How I do time tracking.
First — don't try this at home.
No, seriously, I've been refining something along these lines for seven years, and doing it strictly like this for a couple years. This is the culmination of lots of practice and gradual refinement. If you jump in at a high complexity level, it'll feel like a chore and will fail. I'll give you guidelines on how to get started in just a moment, but first, I want to show you what I do.
I follow three steps:
1. I write down manually, in Evernote, the start and end time of all my activities and what I was doing.
2. I add the total of those times, again by hand, into a spreadsheet at roughly the middle and end of each day.
3. I study those weekly, and some nifty spreadsheet logic shows me the percent of my time I spend on each type of activity.
Here's what the first half of today actually looks like on paper. I do this on Evernote:
Leisure 5:30AM to 7:10AM
Chores 7:10AM to 7:30AM
S-CC #1, Marketing, 7:30AM to 7:50AM: Social media.
Chores 7:50AM to 7:55AM
Cycles #2/3, Writing, 7:55AM to 9:15AM: TSR, good.
Leisure 9:15AM to 9:25AM
Cycle #4, Writing, 9:25AM to 9:55AM: TSR, ok.
Leisure 9:55PM to 12:30PM: Reading, 20min nap
Cycle #5-12, Writing, 12:30PM to 4:35PM: TSR BO#4, done, great.
Chores 4:35PM to 4:40PM
Here's a screenshot of this week so far, I bolded today —
By the way, normally I'd put those numbers in a little earlier in the day — I got into flow state with an essay I was finishing, otherwise I'd have entered the numbers earlier.
Anyway, you can see I did 20 minutes of marketing, 355 minutes of writing, 30 minutes of chores, and 265 minutes of leisure (the leisure was reading, cooking, eating, and napping).
That's a very solid day right there; this is actually a very solid week so far.
Don't worry about the particulars — this is too complicated and you shouldn't start here.
But since you're no doubt curious, let me explain. You'll notice that all times are entered twice: this actually a carryover from when I had a more complicated life. "AFFCOORD" was my acronym for meetings. "N-Flow" is the dreaded "Neurotic Flow" activities — basically, internet surfing, spectator sports, and games. I'm pleased to report that N-Flow is at zero and AFFCOORD is on pace to be reasonably low for this week (though I've got 6 hours of phonecalls tomorrow, and scattered meetings the rest of the week — so it goes).
"Distraction" means something specific to me. That's not procrastination, but rather, something I never should have agreed to do in the first place. You ever get rooked into doing useless stuff? I used to, a lot. I got a little epiphany from Noah Kagan a couple years ago, he was kind enough to have me as a guest at his home in Austin for a while. Man, seeing Noah work live in person is a thing of beauty, sort of like watching an Olympic athlete train. Noah really aggressively cancels dumb things he agreed to at the start of every week. I was like, "You can do that?" And Noah looks at me like I asked the dumbest question in the world. "Uhh, yeah dude." I've gotten better at triaging my calendar of my dumb stuff after that. I'm always there to help my close friends and inner circle, I do a lot of activities to give back and share knowledge, and I'm always jazzed to dialog with our customers, I spend a ton of time talking to our customers. But outside of those things, I just say no to just about everything now that's not in my plans.
(Helping a close friend with something that has nothing to do with my core stuff in the world would go in the "Bonus" category, which I also try to keep low but which I'm happy to do. A lot of people have helped me a lot in the world, and I try to never forget it and really take care of them.)
All the numbers at the bottom automatically calculate. Learning and leisure get summed automatically into the "Leisure" category. Building new ops, marketing, and writing are all "Excellent" activities. Chores, admin, and meetings are "Okay."
[For spreadsheet geeks — don't worry if you don't understand it, it's irrelevant, but if you're super curious —
Excellent is: =AR4+AR5+AR7+AR9
Okay is: =AR6+AR8+AR10+AR11+AR12
Bad is: =AR15+AR16
Leisure is: =AR13+AR14 ]
The ratios at the bottom are super useful and quite cool. I look at what percent of my work is excellent, what percent of my entire day is excellent work, what percent of my day is excellent and leisure, and what percent of my day is not bad:
[Spreadsheet geekery, feel free to ignore —
E as % of Work: =AR34/(AR34+AR35)
E as % of Day: =AR34/(AR34+AR35+AR36+AR37)
E+L as % of Day: =(AR34+AR37)/(AR34+AR35+AR36+AR37)
E+O+L as % of Day: =(AR34+AR35+AR37)/(AR34+AR35+AR36+AR37) ]
Lastly, if you've followed my work at all, you already know what Work Cycles are. They're 30-minute deliberate blocks of work. You can use our Work Cycles Generator if you want. We also do free live Work Cycles periodically; join The Pursuit if you want to know when our next free training is . (We don't send you dumb stuff. Just great tech and free trainings. We email once or twice a month and always useful.) Anyway, I take a measure of "Cycles" each day too. Some of them are more like pseudo-Cycles, they're not all strict, it's just another rough way to look at how much deliberate work I do.
Again: please don't start anywhere near this level of complexity. I just want to show you what my stuff looks like after seven years of refinement and maybe you can get some inspiration from it of what's possible.
III. How you should start time tracking.
First, you need to know what you're up against.
(1) Complex things always fail,
(2) Everything that's a hassle is prone to fail,
(3) So you need to keep things simple and hassle-free.
The "meta-work" of time-tracking should start, I think, at no more than 15 seconds — yes, under 15 seconds — to record, and under 5 minutes to analyze. Until you build the habit firmly.
All you need to do to start time-tracking — and this is really, really easy — is write down the start times and end times of doing actually valuable work, with a few short words at the end of what you accomplished.
That's it. If you do that, you'll be successful. You don't need to do a spreadsheet or any math to start — you can figure out the math later if you want to.
I recommend against tracking everything to start. Just start by writing down only your most important work sessions, including (1) the start time, (2) the end time, and (3) a few words to note what you got done.
That's all you need to do. It takes, no exaggeration, only 30-90 seconds per day to do that. Analysis can come later.
To succeed at this type of habit, you either need to (1) make it the only habit you're working on and take it very seriously, or, (2) have a fully operational Keystone to reference.
A keystone is a place you look at daily that points at everything else you're doing. I wrote about the theory of an Ops Keystone on Medium recently. I think it's a good read.
I use a Lights Spreadsheet. If you want a template and best practices guide for setting up a Lights Spreadsheet, we created one here for you.
Here's what my Lights look like —
Again, don't start that complicated. I've been doing Lights since 2013. Start simpler. Read our best practices guide to setting up if you want to learn more on Lights.
But the thing is, you need to either (1) take time-tracking really seriously as your #1 thing for a while if you don't have a keystone, or (2) have a keystone and simply input "record time-tracking numbers" on your keystone. (A keystone doesn't have to be a Lights Spreadsheet. You could use your calendar, Omnifocus, or even pen and paper. But it needs to point at what you want to keep current; people without them fall off on their habits repeatedly.)
So — to start, you simply note down about your most important work (1) the start time, (2) the end time, and (3) a few short words on what you did. That's enough to figure out how much of it you're doing in the week.
I'd recommend you just do that for a week or two. It's so stupidly easy that you can't fail at it if you do it. And it's not a hassle at all, it takes only seconds. You don't need all the fancy stuff I have, just writing start time / end time / a few words on Most Important Work goes a long ways.
There's a few branching paths to level up after that. Calculating the minutes you spend on your most important work weekly can be good, and then looking to add more — that's a good place.
I believe it's much more important to do good activities than to remove bad activities. Don't sweat the dumb stuff you do that much to start. We all do dumb stuff, it takes years of training to merely minimize dumb stuff and it never fully goes away. I recommend you start by trying to increase good time first and foremost.
After that, it's up to you — the question is, what would adding to your tracking be most beneficial? If you take a ton of meetings, you might start noting the start time, end time, and what you covered in those meetings — then assessing which meetings were actually valuable.
Sooner or later, you'll want to start tracking the time you spend on procrastination and "neurotic flow" type activities, but don't start there. It's demoralizing and also hard to remember to do. Much easier to note down the wins as a starting place.
Eventually, you might level up into tracking the whole day with start and end times for everything. That's much harder and I don't recommend you go to that level until you've tracked wins and a couple other simple categories a month or two. Look, there's no hurry — people fail because they make things too complex or too much of a hassle. Start slowly, build the habit, get some wins from it and then add on more complexity gradually once you know it's worthwhile and have the core habit underway.
Eventually, you might want a system like mine — I know exactly where literally 100% of my time goes. But I think it takes a year or two to get there in a sane way. Because the point isn't to know where your time goes; it's to spend it well. Just tracking your most important time and looking to increase that gradually is a fine starting place.
A big thanks to Nat Eliason again for having me on his show — I'll put out another announcement when the show is live, it was tons of fun and I think some gems on there.
If you want more resources on building Lights — also a very good fundamental behavior — you can find them here. I'll announce if we ever run a training on doing time-tracking specifically, but I'm not sure we ever will do that because honestly, I think people should start simply by writing down the following about their Most Important Work — (1) the start time, (2) the end time, and (3) a few words about what you did.
I do that in Evernote, but you could use anything — a text file, Google docs, Microsoft word, whatever. You don't even need a spreadsheet. Just start writing those times down and a few words, and you'll see it start to transform your live.
Questions? Comments? Actually taking the system up? Leave a comment here or shoot me an email to sebastian at ultraworking . com — always happy to hear from other people taking more control of their lives.
Hi Sebastian! I hope this will stick to me, good stuff! I wonder if there is a sheet with steps to gradually increase the amount of tracked time. You gave some good examples, but is there a list you would recommend someone to add during say a year in an interval of one-two months?
I am habitual of creating new subreddits for each new resolution of my life, LOL. Haven't worked perfectly yet, but I am determined for my future.
Thank you for the applicable steps. I use Trello currently, it's my keystone, but dont have an adequate way to see my time track within it. I use a pomello timer to keep focused but haven't found a way to easily see my time in one spot. I am going to try LIghts. Thanks again.
Thanks, Sebastian! It's great to see how you're taking care of your time — I always find it inspiring to see and learn from other people's processes.
As a recommendation for time tracking, I'm using Eternity, a free app for iOS which has nice reports and exports.
As always great stuff!
Probably the easiest way to get started when you‘re on iOS is to get Drafts, a text app. Drafts is great because you _always_ enter the app on a new, blank sheet where you can immediately start to type.
In there you can set up a „append to textfile“ recipe for dropbox and together with TextExpander you‘re off to the races with an absolute minimum of typing.
1. Define a dynamic shortcut in Textexpander that creates the filename: xfn could expand to „YYYY-MM-DD - tracking“ for example
2. create shortcuts for the time entry: xcte could expand to the current time, xmiw could expand to the activity that is your most important work and so on
3. You're done! Now you have a way to enter your time in less than 20 key presses, which for most people is literrally 3 seconds, which means you can track 10 cycles or 5 hours of time in half a minute of effort, even when on the go away from your main machine (this obviously makes things even faster on your computer, since most people type faster on areal keyboard compared to their phone)
"A complex system that works is invariably found to have evolved from a simple system that worked. A complex system designed from scratch never works and cannot be patched up to make it work. You have to start over, beginning with a working simple system." -John Gall
I built a pretty good daily tracking template, and I evolved it over time. It's serving me pretty well now. I'd like to show you the evolution.
Version 0 - I realized that tracking my time would be a good thing. I started writing down just one or two things per day.
Here's what my first day of tracking looked like:
26 May - Success
1. How'd I do?
Morning Routine: Pretty good. Spouse was out of town, so things took a hit because I couldn't go out for a run while kids were sleeping. So things didn't always get done in the morning, but I made everything up. Over the break, I have not been getting up at a consistent time, but I'd like to work on that.
Evening Routine: I am now officially tracking this -- sleep clothes, plug in phone, water by bed, sleep tracker -- just the basics, but it's a start.
Friday Review: missed until Thurs.
2. What got in the way?