How to Track Time and Boost Your Productivity

One day in April I downloaded an app to track my time each day, hoping that it would boost productivity. Upon opening the app, I quickly became overwhelmed with the system, put my phone down, and continued along my merry Netflix binge watching way.

The next day I sat down with a colleague and friend, Jess Kuemerlin, so that he could walk me through a much more palatable approach to time tracking, noting early in the meeting, “the time audit fallacy is that you need an app for this.” 

What is a time audit and why should you take part in one? 

Since “you can’t change what you don’t track,” as Jess noted in our meeting, it is important to take 3-4 days and write down how you spend your time. Jess suggests that you record your activities in 30-minute increments, including both week and weekend days. A time audit is essentially knowing your body composition before beginning a new fitness program, or recording what you are eating for a week before deciding how a shift in diet can support a healthier lifestyle. 

I am currently on a summer holiday, away from my literature classroom in Shenzhen, China, home in Minnesota spending time with family and friends in the Midwest. I was interested in this idea of time tracking, though, because even during the summer I have professional and personal goals, and it is easy to allow a lot of vegging (also important, but everything in moderation) get in the way of pushing myself to grow through the summer months. Unsurprisingly, my time audit put right in front of me the liberties I was taking with pampering myself — mani, pedi, shopping … oh, the life of leisure for an international school teacher. Even making that China money, the bank account runs dry when you don’t stop to take a breath from the spas and malls. 

track your time in 30 minute increments

Enter: my academic summer goals. 

What happens after the time audit? 

It’s time to reflect on your purpose. “The power comes from subtraction, not addition,” Jess said as we continued to talk. “Twenty-four hours never changes and if you don’t have a clear purpose, then you don’t know what to take out of the schedule in order to make space for what really matters.” 

In truth, I did not reflect on these words before setting up my first day of time tracking. After I finished planning out my day, I looked over what I had and realized that I had just made a to-do list. I called up Jess and asked for further guidance.

“Hey, I am looking at my day, and I’m not getting what the difference between time-tracking and a to-do list is, I feel like I’m a bit astray here,” I told him.

“It really comes down to one word: priority,” Jess responded. “A to-do list, often times you put a lot of things on it. It’s not prioritized for what is most important … in this plan you are mapping out in advance what is the priority of what you want to achieve and what steps you need to take to get there.” 

What does it feel like to engage in the process?

After Jess sent me a photo of what his time mapping journal looked like, I got it. I saw that the night before, Jess answered three questions before writing down what his day would look like: 1. What do I want? 2. What is the cost and reward for getting it? 3. What are three action steps to get what I want? 

Once I had answered these questions, I realized my true purpose was really established in reflecting upon them. Without addressing them, I was not owning my day entirely; I could see how I might easily stray away from my plan if I skipped this step. 

track time by focusing on priorities

I found that I was pretty jazzed about what I had planned for my first day of time tracking, especially as I was craving the satisfaction of accomplishing an authentic goal. While I did not get to cross off all of my steps as I had mapped out, I made great progress, which has spurred me on to continue to engage in tracking my time to some extent. 

For me, while this does not feel like a lifetime approach to my days, it certainly allowed me to see how to get back on track with goals and get honest about how I am spending my time. 

For Jess, and I believe many others, this is a brilliant way to achieve goals. Jess used to be a Post-It man, but he has found that by spending an hour each Sunday to reflect on what he wants from the month, the week, and then the next day, he has set himself on a path to further define and accomplish his life’s purpose.

Perhaps the greatest evidence for how time tracking can work in one’s favor is that in the midst of being a husband, father, and technology coach, Jess has also published a book entitled The Leap Process. He highly recommends the book Psycho-cybernetics by Maxwell Waltz to anyone who is looking to make a change, with time or otherwise. 

We would love to hear your time-tracking hacks, too. Respond in the comments below!

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About Jamie Bacigalupo

Having first traveled from her hometown of Minneapolis, Minnesota, to live in Quito, Ecuador, she decided to give the East a run and is now a resident of Shenzhen, China. She earned her degree in Communication Arts/Literature and Communication and Secondary Education from Gustavus Adolphus College and is enthusiastically exploring Asia by teaching abroad. She digs hanging out with her students by weekday, and relishes finding new restaurants to eat authentic Chinese food and finding new hiking paths on the weekends. In addition to sticking her nose in a book to recover from an intense workday, Jamie also loves exploring all manner of flavors in the kitchen, especially when she is whipping up some recipes for her friends and family.