Research hacks #19: Three benefits of time logging for academics, and one easy-to-use time logging app

For students who want to work faster, smarter and more effectively

Time logging is for executives, not academics, right? It’s for lawyers with billable hours, not for researchers with theses and books that take years to complete. Wrong. I have found that tracking the time I spend on different tasks has brought me three distinct benefits, and in this post I want to share some reflections on how time logging can help academics, along with a recommendation for a free and easy-to-use app that does the hard work for you.

First benefit: a one-off audit of where your time REALLY goes

If you’re anything like me then you know that sinking feeling that can descend on you at the end of the working day: “Where on earth did all my time go today? What have I actually achieved in all the running around and typing I’ve done?”

A good first step to getting more control over the sands of time running through your fingers is to know just where your precious hours are going. So once a year or so I log everything I do for a couple of weeks. Sleep. Travel. Eating. Research. Emails. Exercise. Family time. Everything. The benefit of this exercise is that I get to see precisely how each of the 168 hours in the week are being spent. I can see where my intuitive sense of how much time I’m putting into certain tasks is correct, and where my instinct is mistaken. I can also compare it to my “ideal week” (about which I’ll write in a future post), and see where the largest discrepancies are.

“Effective executives, in my observation, do not start with their tasks. They start with their time. And they do not start out with planning. They start by finding out where their time actually goes.” Peter Drucker, The Effective Executive

It’s a good audit exercise, and liable to yield unexpected results. Seeing the hours you spend on all your weekly activities as cumulative totals gives you a sharpened sense of time (and of time wasting!). Try it and see.

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Second benefit: focusing your mind on research or thesis time

Finding out how you really spend your time is not the only benefit of time logging. You can log specific tasks more regularly to get an accurate sense of how much time you are really spending on them, as opposed to how much time you’d like to be spending. For academics, one obvious task to log is research work. We all know that research is one of the first things to get squeezed when the jackboot of admin and bureaucracy descends on our tender neck, and having an accurate log of how much research we are actually doing is the first step towards bringing our actual time expenditure in line with our theoretical time allocation.

A pleasant side-benefit I have experienced from logging research time is that I am less likely needlessly to check email or distract myself in other ways if I know that the research clock is ticking.

Third benefit: proving to yourself, and to your employer, how much time things really take

We’ve all been there. We are told that the new admin job we’ve just been given will only take an hour a week. Three weeks in, we find that it is taking half a day. In order to address this mission creep it can be useful to log all the time we spend on certain tasks over a period of time (say a semester). That way we can report back to the boss with more than a vague “this took longer than you said”, and give her dates, times and total hours. I haven’t used time logging for this purpose myself yet, but a colleague employed it to achieve a fair acknowledgement of, and recompense for, the time she was giving to a particularly onerous admin responsibility.

Toggl: a great free time-logging app

So those are the main benefits I have gained, or seen others gain, from time logging. But how should you do it? There’s the good old pen and paper way, but that leaves you having to add up hours manually. You could use an Excel spreadsheet, but then for the logging to be accurate you need to have access to that spreadsheet wherever you go, and you need to work out all the formulas and calculations for yourself.

The easiest solution I have found, and the one I currently use, is Toggl. It’s a free web-based time logger also available as an app for iPhone and Android, so you can quickly log your time wherever you are, regardless of whether you are in front of a computer screen or not.

Rather than explaining the app myself, here are a couple of Toggl’s introductory videos:



Do you log your hours spent on different tasks constantly, sporadically, or never? What benefits have you found in doing so?

CC Image courtesy of cea+ on Flickr.

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