“Until we can manage time, we can manage nothing else.” – Peter Drucker
Time tracking is a key habit for goal achievement. This is because it’s the first step in time management and boosting your productivity.
To do it I suggest passive time tracking apps for beginners because it requires no effort and offers useful insights.
But although they produce a lot of useful information, there are many reasons to use active time tracking apps instead.
These apps rely upon manually marking whenever an activity starts/finishes. Which requires the habit of recording whenever you start a new activity.
Now why would you want this? It seems like a lot of hassle when you’ve got time tracking apps already which automatically do the same thing.
For one, when you use passive time tracking apps, you just go about your life normally. You just hope that when you review your life a month later that it’ll show you’ve been productive.
With active time tracking apps, self-control is supercharged because you’re far more conscious of what activity you’re going to start/stop. When you know you should be doing ‘Work’ and you instead want to switch to ‘Leisure’, you think twice about doing that.
Not saying that overnight your self-control will become unstoppable. But these windows of awareness add up and you will quickly begin making better choices. Now that I’ve logged over 10,000 hours with these apps, almost every day I get my most important tasks done.
But before I started not even an hour in my daily routine was aligned with my goals. You get better because it gives you a moment to pause and reflect before acting.
You’ll feel that pang of guilt because you’re not living life in the way that your Best Self would. This helps you put the right amount of time into each activity.
It especially makes sure that you focus longer on productive tasks. It exploits the fact that humans are cognitive misers and look to save energy wherever possible.
Although it takes less than 10 seconds to create a new time entry, I’m not bothered to create new entries constantly. This means I now spend a minimum 10 minutes on every activity. So now all I do have to is get started and the momentum will keep me going.
It also forces you to single-task, which is necessary because our brains cannot handle multi-tasking. Trying to multi-task or even frequent task switching increases stress, reduces performance and may even decrease IQ by 10 points.
With active time tracking you’d have to categorise making a phone call and driving as separate activities for example. Single-tasking here not only will improves the conversation quality since you’re giving it your full attention, but it also may save your life.
This also improves your ability to concentrate and likelihood of going into the ever-elusive flow state. In this state hours feel like minutes, which also multiplies how much work you get done.
Furthermore passive time tracking apps lack customisation. For example you can only put an activity (e.g. Skype) in one of RescueTime’s categories like Business, Utilities or Networking. But what if you make both personal and business calls with it?
I don’t think of my activities using these categories and I shouldn’t be forced to. All I care about is making sure I spend the right amount of time on the life domains I value, not how much time I spend using ‘Utilities’.
For that reason I like active time tracking apps because you can create whatever categories you like e.g. I use four main categories of Action, Analysis, Downtime and Social.
The real problem with passive time tracking apps is that they are limited in what they physically can track. They can’t record quality of time i.e. how you’re interacting with a website or program, just quantity.
For example I spend a lot of time on my website. But these apps have no way of knowing if I’m doing producing valuable content or just fiddling with plugins. This limits those who want to optimise what they’re mentally doing, not just what websites or apps you go on.
However there are two main obstacles to using active time tracking apps: the first is creating the habit for recording each activity.
This is fine for determined people because it’s so quick and easy to do. Plus there’s always the option to add in missed activities later if you forget.
The second is what tool to use? Let’s review our best options:
This is a beautiful looking app is available for both iOS and Android devices. All you have to do is click the ‘Play’ button to start tracking an activity. These activities can be named whatever you like, plus you can give it it’s own icon. Time tracking is nothing if you can’t review the data, and this app creates great reports. However you like to analyse your time, you can see it represented in a pie chart, table or calendar view.
With this information you can analyse your habits in-depth e.g. am I spending enough time on the things most important to me? What do I waste time on and when do I do it? If I could improve my daily routine in any way, how would I change it? Another brilliant feature aTimeLogger has is custom goals and alerts. These can be time limits to avoid or targets to reach, so you can both discourage bad habits and encourage good habits. aTimeLogger looks great, is simple to use and offers lots of options for customisation. The insights you can gain through the various reports and custom goals are especially useful. For this reason it’s one of the best time tracking apps available.
However this app is not without it’s limitations. It’s only available on mobile devices and there is no automated backup of your data.
This was a deal breaker for me but they’re not essential features for most people. Fortunately for me this next app has those problems covered:
Toggl is another good looking time tracking app available on iOS, Android, as a desktop and web app. Start tracking instantly by clicking the big green button, or if you forget you can enter in the time manually later. You can tag and categorise all entries by Project, Client and Task which can all be viewed later in your reports. See what you were doing across a day, month or any time period with graphs, pie charts or tables. Toggl has a intuitive feel which makes time tracking simple. Because of it has one-click recording and is available on any device, it’s easy to make using Toggl a habit fast.
Nevertheless I have had some (small) problems using this app. For instance it sometimes created duplicate entries when syncing between my iPhone and the web app.
This was when I was using it in 2013 so it’s probably be solved now, but it did make me move onto this final app:
My personal favourite time tracking app is Google calendar for a variety of reasons. For one, whilst I found reports from other apps interesting, it didn’t influence my behaviour in the moment.
With Google calendar, my self-control is boosted because I can always see how I’ve spent my time this past week. This is especially made easier with different coloured calendars for each category.
I know exactly what I was doing at any point and for how long. Being more conscious of how you spend your time pushes you to make sure you’re spending your time in the right way. Like the others, this is just one-click to create a time entry. I also use a text expander with it so I only have to type in 6 letters for any activity. This means creating entries for a whole day takes less than 3 minutes.
Being a calendar, it has a number of features which make time tracking easier. For one, you don’t have to keep re-entering recurring events like work or sleep. Just set the event to repeat and adjust it if it takes longer or shorter.
You can also share your calendar with others easily e.g. for accountability or if you have shared activities. Plus you can put in events ahead of time (meeting friends, appointments etc) which makes keep tracking of them easier.
The only problem here is that there are no auto-generated reports. This means I have to export my data monthly to see it in a table, but fortunately this only takes a few minutes. I’ll detail the instructions for how to export and analyse the data in another post.
A final reason why I prefer Google calendar is because I see it as being future-proof. Google calendar will likely survive the longest out of the 3 and I intend to time track with it indefinitely.
Choose one active time tracking app today
Time tracking is a powerful habit for ensuring that you live your life in the way you desire. The time management tool you use is therefore intrinsically linked to your success.
But don’t get too caught up on choosing the ‘best’ one. I’ve narrowed it down so that these are all great choices. Just go with whatever one you feel meets your needs best.
The most powerful tool is the one you will use. So quickly decide on the app, then go back to focusing on doing your best work.