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Tim Cynova Post by Tim Cynova

By Tim Cynova on January 3rd, 2019

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4 Task & Time Tracking Approaches

Mindfulness | People Operations | Work

Several colorful old-fashioned alarm clocks, arranged diagonally

How many minutes each day do you spend drafting emails? How about attending meetings? Chatting on Slack? Water cooler conversing with coworkers? Do you measure it in any way? Or, when you think about it do you merely quantify the time simply as a “lot/little” or “more/less than I used to?”

So much of our day just rolls by in the blink of an eye. We arrive, we’re busy, we rarely get to — let alone finish — the things on our “Important List,” and then we log off for the day and go home. (A phenomena I’ve previously explored here with tips to address it here.) We seldom take time to measure the specific activities that fill our day, in what configuration they fill it, and how this is multiplied across our team and organization.

“Effective executives do not start with their tasks, they start with their time. 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.“ — Peter Drucker, The Effective Executive

Outta Sight, Outta Mind

It certainly *feels* like I’m spending all day composing and responding to emails, but am I? Is it because every five minutes I’m switching back and forth between different types of tasks in different domains? Running financial management reports; processing payroll; fixing the office WiFi that just crashed; writing a blog post; attending a team meeting. Maybe. Is it because I’m being interrupted every five minutes or so? [Ping. Slack alert!] Possibly.

For the record, I’m not assigning a good or bad, too little or too much to activities. It all depends on what you’re trying to accomplish, over what period of time, and with what resources. But, if we aren’t mindful of how these things show up in our day, it can easily slide towards the too much and negative side of the scale.

We often hear about working “smarter” not “harder.” For many of us, that prompt can evoke the response, “Well, I would try to find a way to do that if I wasn’t working so hard right now.” We find ourselves playing the Scarcity Paradox’s juggling game. And when that occurs, it often prevents us from accomplishing the things that positively impact our organizations and the world. And, *that’s* when we end up thinking if we only worked harder we could actually get it all done.

How to approach working smarter?

A time and task assessment might be a helpful way to get started and gather useful data for you and your team. Below are four approaches you can experiment with to lay the ground work for smarter working.

A sample of a spreadsheet designed to track time
A pared down version of the one we used at Fractured Atlas

Approach # 1: Low Tech

Ingredients: Spreadsheet, piece of paper, and writing utensil

Several years ago, we had a system at Fractured Atlas where we’d take a week every six months or so to plot how each of us spent our time during the day. The system used a grid on a piece of paper and manual entry (and looked similar to the condensed version above).

Each person would jot the number of minutes they spent emailing members, each time they did it. Then the amount of time spent processing donation checks. Then how long it took them to review a grant proposal. Then how long they were on the phone with that foundation program officer. Imperfect yes, but it gave us a rough sense for the amount of time we were all spending on various activities throughout the day.

We could use this information to see roughly how much of our week was spent on email, phone, in meetings, etc. We could see the program areas and activities where staff spent the most time working. We could see if people bounced from activity to activity, or worked in long stretches on specific tasks. We could then use it as the basis for inquiry and self-reflection about what approaches might yield the most productive results, and areas where we could make wholesale adjustments to improve things across the organization (i.e., No Meetings Friday).

If you have a tool like Excel or Google Sheets, it’s a fairly simple template to create. You can even take our format above and tweak it to suit your domain areas and tasks. Then, use it for a week. The data won’t be exact, but if you’ve never done this before, you might end up with some interesting information.

A white, plastic, diamond-like shaped device atop a black circular mount with "Thinking" "Meeting" and "HR" written on itOne of those days when you’re between Thinking, Meeting, and HR.

Approach #2: High Tech

Ingredients: A Timeular; iOS or Android device, and/or Mac or PC

Those looking for a more accurate tool to slice and dice a time and task assessment might want to use a Timeular. It’s a physical device that syncs with an app on your phone or computer to provide you with fine-grain activity data.

The first step after pulling the Timeular out of the box is to assign each of its eight sides with a specific type of work to track (i.e.., Email, Phone, Slack, Writing, Meeting, Thinking, etc.). The idea is that these task types should be universal to your work and independent of the content (e.g., “Email” versus “Emailing About Accounting”). Timeular allows you to create tags in the app to further slice and dice activities to gain more insight into various projects (like the amount of time spent on all activities related to receiving that grant). Now, you’re ready to go.

Physically flip the Timeular so “Email” is facing up, and start reading the email from that program officer. Move it to “Meeting” when you head into the team’s daily stand-up to discuss the proposal. Then flip it to “Writing” when you start drafting that grant proposal. At the end of your day, you have a colorful depiction of how you spent your time, in the exact order, and on which projects. Then, you can dig into the flow.

Do you see large chunks of specific work in the morning and then bouncing back and forth in the afternoon? Do you tend to focus on grant proposals in the morning and accounting tasks in the afternoon? Why? Maybe you want to put a block on your schedule in the morning to protect your time for writing, and then slide that grab bag of quick, relatively mindless items to the afternoon.

A woman left of frame having coffee at a small wooden table with a bearded man right of frame

Approach #3: Human-to-Human

Ingredients: Another human being, preferably someone who doesn’t know the exact contours of your work. An inquisitive mind seeking to understand. The questions below, and a bit of self-reflection.

I recently had a conversation with someone who was stressed about the lack of time to get their work completed during the workday. Sensing a disconnect with what *they* meant when they said “work” and what *I* assumed they meant, I asked them to specifically define it all for me.

We started with questions like: What kind of work do you do during your day? Do you do any “work” before arriving at the office? What does that look like? Walk me through your day from one thing to the next and how you approach it. When you arrive at the office, what’s the first (second, third, etc.) thing you do? Is that what you did last week? Last month? Do you ever feel like you’re in “flow,” when you effortlessly make progress and the time flies by? When do you feel that way? When do you feel like you get your best work done? First thing in the morning, late in the day, on the weekend? How do you define “best work?” When you say you’re “writing a proposal,” what specifically does that process look like?

After everything was on the table, we dove into the reasons, value, and approaches of doing each thing. Why do you do that? How do you approach writing emails? How do you prepare for meetings? Why do you do it that way? Habit? If you *couldn’t* do it that way, how might you approach achieving the intended impact? Do you rate [that activity] relatively more or less important than [the next activity on your list]? What would happen if you flipped that activity to the afternoon, or Tuesday, or once a month?

An illustration of a person in meditative pose with all of their tasks hovering overhead

Approach #4: Mindful Process

Ingredients: Thought & intention

You don’t need to buy a fancy gadget to track your time, or stop and write the minutes on a piece of paper next to you. You can simply start by being more mindful of how you’re working. “I’m switching from Email to Slack.” “I’m stopping writing to go meet with someone about hiring a new staff member.”

I recently ran across this study in the Journal of the Association of Consumer Research that found “the mere presence of our phone — even if it’s powered off, and even if you’re actively and successfully ignoring it — reduces available cognitive capacity.” (The New York Times published an article about the specific phenomenon.) I’ve been trying to keep my phone hidden in my bag so at least there’s additional friction of me mindlessly reaching into my bag to check tracking on my delivery from Amazon, or Twitter, oh, Weather. Is it going to snow? The simple act of thinking about reaching over helps me cut down on that activity. “It’s sooooo far away, I don’t have the energy.”

In a similar way with my phone, the motion it takes to flip the Timeular, or to pick up the pen to write the minutes I just spent doing a task, serves as a similar reminder. Just thinking about reaching over to pick it up and hunt for the next activity, cuts down on quick switches and helps me stay focused on the task at hand. And when I do reach for it, I’m more mindful of what I’m switching to because I literally need to find the word “Email” on the Timeular before popping open Gmail and diving in.

You don’t need a tracker to use this approach, and you don’t need to wait until you’re in the office to try this. When you wake up each morning and reach for your phone to bounce through apps — Facebook, Instagram, Weather, Email, News — mindfully note which ones you click on, which you feel like you get the most value from checking, and approximately how long the entire process takes. Reflect on how that whole morning routine makes you feel? More stressed out about the coming day, or more centered about how you’ll approach your day and at ease?

Maybe try skipping the morning app routine for a week. Just roll out of bed and go. Or, start with a waking up meditation like this one by Alexis Santos before you pick up the phone.

Making Sense of It All

You probably only need a week or two of data to start seeing useful patterns. Once we start to mindfully observe the activities of our day, and unpack our approaches, light bulbs begin going off around “smarter”solutions. What kinds of work do I do that I should do at home before going into the office? What kinds of work can I only do when I’m *in* the office? Where and how can I slot my proactive work (writing grant proposals) in the day to separate it from the reactive work (donors needing me to answer their gala inquires) that always seems to encroach on it? Can I block off 8:00–10:00AM each morning to just write. Can we all agree to “No Meeting Friday?”

The beauty of doing this kind of assessment with your team is that you can all help and hold each other accountable for the solutions you pick. Ugh, I know if I get up and do that, Pallavi is going to call me out for not sticking with the thing I’m supposed to be doing. It’s a peer pressure form of accountability.

Give an activities assessment a try and please let me know how it goes for you.

Learn more best practices by tapping into resources at Work. Shouldn’t. Suck.

More posts by Tim Cynova

About Tim Cynova

Tim wears a multitude of hats, all in service of creating anti-racist workplaces where people can thrive. He currently is co-CEO of Fractured Atlas (an entirely virtual organization with staff spread across multiple states and countries) and a Principal of the consulting group Work. Shouldn't. Suck. He serves on the faculty of Banff Centre for Arts & Creativity and The New School teaching courses in People-Centric Organizational Design; he's a trained mediator, and a certified Senior Professional in Human Resources (SPHR). Earlier in his career, Tim was the Executive Director of The Parsons Dance Company and of High 5 Tickets to the Arts in New York City, had a memorable stint with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, was a one-time classical trombonist, musicologist, and for five years in his youth he delivered newspapers for the Evansville, Indiana Courier-Press. Also, during a particularly slow summer, he bicycled 3,902 miles across the United States.