Keeping track of your time (at work) is essential. If you work remotely, it might become even more important. I’ll give you the reasons why I think so and then I will share the tools I use as well as the struggles I have in this.
I’m not saying that my time management system is the silver bullet, this is my best approach based on my current level of knowledge and experience. If you have approaches you think that are better, please share them.
Why is it important to track your time
I think you need no better reason to track your time than to understand what you do at work. But probably many wouldn’t find it too compelling and would consider doing so just a waste of time. So let’s enumerate some more reasons.
You don’t only have one task at work! There are different initiatives, different projects running in parallel, not to mention that you have to do code reviews, maybe you’re doing some mentoring, knowledge sharing, etc. It’s easy to say that you should always work on the top priority project. That will also mean that you neglect everything else which is probably not even what your project manager would want. But if you don’t track your time, it’s easy to get swallowed by only a fraction of the activities and spend way too much time on just a few of them. With the right time management system, you won’t only know how much time you spend on an activity, but you’ll plan in advance how much you want to spend on it.
When you’re in the office, you probably have better routines about when to arrive and when to leave - framing your working hours. On the other hand, many complain that when you’re working from home, you tend to work more, and you respect less your boundaries - timewise. If you track your time, it’s easier to set your boundaries and call it a day.
In a remote, distributed setup there is also an additional reason to track your time which is strongly related to the previous argument. Let’s say that some of your colleagues work in the UK, but you work in France. It can easily be the case that in France, you’re paid for 35 hours a week, while in the UK your colleagues are paid to work 40 hours. It’s easy to get sucked up in the longer hours. On the other hand, if you track your hours, it’ll be easier to “leave” work once your time is up. By the way, if you have shorter working hours than your colleagues in other countries, it’s worth reminding them - including your manager - every now and then about this fact.
Above all, if you don’t track your time, you cannot get better in time management. You must track something to get better at it. If you’re reading this article, most probably you want to get better in time management.
The tools I use
My toolbox is rather simple. I use a timer and a spreadsheet.
A Pomodoro timer
I try to keep work in blocks of 25 minutes also known as a Pomodoro. You can use whatever that works for you. I use KanbanFlow to do that because I track some of my personal activities there.
The Pomodoro Technique is a time management method that involves breaking your work into intervals, traditionally 25 minutes in length, separated by short breaks. These intervals are known as “Pomodoros.” After completing four Pomodoros, take a longer break of around 15-30 minutes. The technique is named after the Italian word for tomato, as the inventor, Francesco Cirillo, initially used a tomato-shaped kitchen timer. The approach aims to enhance focus, productivity, and time management by fostering a balance between concentrated work and regular breaks.
A well-structured time-tracking spreadsheet
And then, there is a spreadsheet I use. That’s more in the focus today than the timer. First of all, I record how much I plan to work in a week in terms of hours. To facilitate my comprehension, I enter the number of hours per half a day.
|Hours in days
With such a little table, I can plan my week so that I work enough even if the days are different. Due to family logistics, on some days, I have to start later, sometimes I can start earlier. All tracked.
Then at the main part of the spreadsheet, I have bunch a of categories. They have evolved over time and they follow the structure of my work. Nowadays, it contains these categories:
- Primary project
- Fun list
- Helping out / pairing
Let’s go through them quickly.
Meetings contain all the non-ceremonial meetings. One-on-ones, all hands, fireside chats, inter-team syncs… Ceremonies contain the daily standups, backlog groomings, and retrospectives.
Research is important! It is dedicated time to research topics that are work-related but not mandatory for the immediate project(s) I work on. This includes learning about engineering practices, or new ways of using C++.
For planning and review, I put aside a little bit of time, usually one Pomodoro for each. So that at the beginning of the week, I plan what I want to do achieve and at the end, I have the time to reflect. Truth be told, I often omit the planning pomodoro because I regularly think about next week’s work during my Sunday evening walk.
The primary project does not necessarily contain one project, it groups the work on all the tasks that are on our Kanban board. If I have to work on several projects at the same time and I also have to pay attention to how much I spend on each, I might split this category into two (or more) subcategories.
Fun list was added to my time management system recently. It originates from Tidy First by Kent Back. We don’t always feel like that we can start working on some bigger feature immediately. The day has almost ended, you have a big meeting in half an hour, you’re too tired. You know you won’t make it. This feeling is probably familiar to you. At the same time, you can’t just flush that time down the toilet looking at cat videos. So you open up your fun list and pick a small item. This fun list might be composed of small tidying, refactorings, and some smaller things you want to try at one point, but you have little time for them.
Last but not least, there is a category for helping out / pairing. While in primary work you have activities that help you achieve your own goals (which are hopefully somewhat aligned with team goals), in this category there is the work you put in to help others achieve their goals. You might not think that this category or a time management system is necessary at all. But this category is a great reminder for me, that I should not only work in isolation on my assigned tasks, but that I should spend time with others and help them out. This also means that if I pair with someone to work on my assigned tasks, it doesn’t go here, it goes into the primary work category.
Two ways to use the spreadsheet
There are essentially two ways to move forward.
The first way is that you don’t plan anything from this point, you simply follow what you do, you increment the counters for each category after you spend a Pomodoro on one and in a few weeks you’ll have a clearer picture of what you spend time your time on.
Maybe in the beginning, if you lack some understanding it’s worth doing this.
In my opinion, it’s definitely worth moving forward a bit. Plan your week, and know how much time you want to ideally spend on one category. For example, you might say that you want to spend an hour a day on research, write it down! You know how much you’ll have to spend at ceremonies, you have a good idea - depending on your role - how many meetings you’ll have, etc. Pretty soon, you’ll have a good idea of how much you can spend on your primary project work. You’ll also see from where you can get more time if you need to work more on something.
Then during your days, you record how much time you spend on certain activities. By having daily counters, it’s easier for you to record, even if you don’t update the spreadsheet after every half an hour. And by having the fields tracking the sums, you also see where you stand on a weekly basis. You’ll easily see if you lag behind on your primary project, but also if you spend too little time on other activities.
Here is a picture of what it might look like after a busy week.
In this post, I shared with you how I manage my working hours. I still use the Pomodoro technique to set and manage my focus for short steps.
I also shared a spreadsheet with you that I use, that I funetuned over the last years to match my needs in terms of time tracking. I use it both to plan my week and also to keep track of what I’m doing on a day-to-day basis.
I don’t state that this is any kind of silver bullet. It just works for me quite well and maybe it will inspire you to manage your time better.
Feel free to share the techniques you use to manage your time!
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