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Using time tracking to improve your remote working habits

Antoine Meunier's profile picture Antoine Meunier on

Back in November, we conducted a time tracking experiment collectively. We tracked the results in this post.

The post laid out what the experiment brought to the company. What wasn't laid out however, is how time tracking allowed some of us to better understand ourselves and to improve both our work output and our lives.

Amelia and I were the most into it, although Simone also uses it but wanted to aggregate more data before providing feedback in this post.

Amelia's waking hours

Amelia, who represents 33% of our DevOps department and 100% of our collective usage of verbal ellipsis, is no rookie when it comes to time tracking. Brought up in a military environment, she provides the time in the military format and tracks everything. To put it in her own words:

💩, 🚿 and shave… then track everything".

By everything, she really means evvvveerrryyyttthing and that's the point. To her, if you're going to track your work effort, you might as well track everything else you do during your waking hours if you want to measure your work-life balance.

I was particularly impressed by the structure she employed to track everything (in toggl).

I've set up a few clients to create broad buckets that lets me create broad buckets that I can use when building reports to compare where I spent my time. Sometimes I think being able to switch betwen painting broad strokes saying "I spent 30 hours at DNSimple" last week which is ok… but also, by creating different categories, I'm able to dig down and be like "the last two days I spent four hours a day in entertainment split between shows and reading and I could be amortizing that better with easy tasks from other parts of my life instead to break this up instead of block timing large amounts of faffing off"

Here's her complete list of clients and categories:

  • DNSimple
  • Support
  • Administration
  • Operations
  • Meeting
  • Blog
  • Incident Response
  • Chef/Code
  • Photography
  • Taking photos
  • processing photos
  • Training
  • Self
  • Life Management
  • Social
  • Eating
  • Errands
  • News
  • Books/Learning
  • Entertainment
  • Anime/TV
  • Games
  • Fiction
  • Staring at the ceiling

Amelia's notes:

Also while it only helps for at-computer time, I also use Rescue Time which is an auto-time tracker that tracks what windows I have up. It helps keep me honest a LOT about what I am doing. With IFTT I can have summaries mailed every morning and I have it send me a really amazing looking weekly chart too. It has goals and a "focus helper" built into it that disables access to webpages.

Beyond being honest with yourself about your time—as brutally honest as possible—the two next important things are sticking with it even when it's getting hard, and taking the time out of your week to sit down with the numbers and go over them. You really do have to digest the information or you aren't really using it, just making it.

It may seem a bit intense at first, but over time the data gathered provides insights and answers to almost anything. I found it really neat that she's able to see undesirable trends from looking at reports.

Antoine's negative space

As for myself, I didn't grow up in a military household, but I spent most of my adult life as an elite athlete. After a decade of tracking performances, progress, sleeping cycles, heart rate at rest and a myriad of other data points, tracking working time shouldn't have felt like a big deal.

However, I'm not sure why, but tracking my time felt like a huge—and scary—task. I perceived it as incredibly invasive and felt like Orwell's 1984.

After a couple of days, I completely changed my point of view. It turns out that tracking my every move has proved itself to be a successful experiment for at least one thing: being able to identify and understand negative space to improve my work-life balance.

For me, at least initially, tracking my time was meant to answer two questions.

The first one being:

What the hell was I doing last Tuesday?

Pretty basic, right? But somehow, I could not recall with any accuracy what I had done the day before. I don't know if it's a Millenial thing, a form of ADHD or whatnot, but before the experiment I was feeling all over the place whenever I'd try to report to Anthony on what I'd been working on with any kind of accuracy.

Unlike the developers on the team, most of my work can't be tracked inside a pull request so being able to dig in my time backlog and see when something had been done has provided itself of great value to be able to show my work output.

More so was the ability to answer "question two" and find the negative space in my "all day" working schedule to optimize it:

How can I pull off working around 4 or 5 hours off of a van in the middle of nowhere and get more done than when I was starring at my screen all day long in my apartment in Montreal?

When we began the experiment, I was back in a "normal" life in an apartment and was back into my workaholic schedule of spending almost every waking hours with my laptop popped open, always working on something (or so I thought).

By time tracking every task, I realized that no matter how I'm doing it, I'm usually pulling four, sometimes five, solid work hours out of a work day. Which means that I was also staring at a screen for at least four or five hours a day without getting anything done! 😳

Being able to know what my average output was in a controlled environment such as my old apartment, I was able to become aware of all this negative space intertwined between productive tasks. It became clear that I could better manage my time to get the same output while spending less time starting at a computer screen. If it took me 10 hours to get 5 hours of work done, why not timebox a 5 hour workday and use the remaining time to do other stuff, right?

I've iterated on that idea and it has allowed me to increase my output while I'm living on the road. I've come to realize that for most of the days on the road I'll be able to get a solid four hour work session from 6am-10am. Then, I'll sign off and enjoy the rest of the day doing anything I want.

Over time, I've realized that most days I'll sign off around 10:00 or 11:00, go on with life but keep pondering in the back of my head about deeper more complex problems and eventually get an evening work session to complete it.

Tracking my time also helped me to become mindful of my "productive" time which I now use to accomplish the daily tasks at hand. By finishing those tasks I can set my mind free to think about the more complex and long term ideas.

Personally, I don't care too much about the details, I look at the big picture to make sure that I haven't missed a beat. This whole experiment has allowed me to overcome the feeling of guilt about the negative space—that time during the regular 9 to 5 that I'm spending outside of work while on the #vanlife.

P.S.: We used Harvest to track time as a team. I personally chose to stick with Harvest after the expriment as I feel that the widget on MacOS is more intuitive for miscellaneous tasks. Amelia and Simone opted to switch to Toggl for it's ability to quickly track time with Github.

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Antoine Meunier

cruising through #vanlife in a '72 VW bus.

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