You can be forgiven for thinking your time is under assault. A lot of companies that shed employees during the recession have opted not to staff up again, leaving work teams indefinitely stretched. On top of a longer list of duties you’re expected to perform, you may also be asked to bone up on constantly changing technology. Then there are the distractions: text messages, file sharing, Twitter, LinkedIn—some employers even condone Facebooking at work. It’s a wonder you get home at night at all.
But before you complain to your boss about the long hours, let alone quit in baggy-eyed exasperation, it’s worth getting to know how you’re whiling away the day, and perform a time audit. In the past, this was a difficult thing to do, short of hiring a time coach to monitor your every move, but today there are a number of cheap or free apps that will track computer usage. They’ll not only tell you how much time you spend with each computer application, but also how much time you spend within each—conducting research on the web, filling out forms, making transactions, or social networking.
The results might surprise you. “It turns out I can get distracted on what I would consider ‘productive’ websites, making them very unproductive very quickly,” says Tod Maffin, a Vancouver-based digital communications consultant and commentator. Maffin’s tool of choice is an app called RescueTime (rescuetime.com) that runs continuously, keeping track of the topmost open tabs. A free version will monitor time spent with particular applications and websites for up to two months, while an upgraded version, starting at US$6 a month, drills down into time spent on specific documents, such as a proposal you’ve been drafting. It also allows you to track time spent away from the computer; you just click on “meeting” or “phone call” or even “none of your business” when you return to the keyboard. A competing app, Time Doctor (timedoctor.com), sends out reminders to start or finish tasks and confirms when goals have been reached; originally developed for employers to keep tabs on employees, Time Doctor is now available in a cheaper “solo” edition.
For most people, though, simply monitoring what you’re doing, or not doing, isn’t the key problem; pinpointing a strategy to become more productive is. To that end, Maffin favours the Pomodoro Technique (see below), which involves setting aside a block of time for one activity, then taking a break before starting on another task. Others swear by the Information Diet proposed by tech entrepreneur Clay Johnson in his book of the same name. Johnson advocates strict monitoring and control of what websites and other communications we take in, not just to save hours in the day, but our sanity too.
Samantha Biron, who teaches time management workshops for Performance Management Consultants in Ottawa, describes time-auditing apps as just the latest in a line of tools designed to help people get organized, going back to personal digital assistants and scheduling software. Though she doesn’t use these apps herself, she gives them a qualified thumbs-up. “It’s only a good thing if you feel 100% comfortable with it. If you don’t, you won’t stick with it,” says Biron, noting that she sees a lot of repeat customers in her classes who somehow fell off the time-management wagon. “The only way any of these things works is if people feel compelled to change.”
Change, though, isn’t always necessary. A 2011 study by researchers at the National University of Singapore indicated that the occasional electronic distraction actually increased workers’ engagement and productivity. So don’t punish yourself for every cute kitten video you watch. Just make sure you get your work done too.
THE POMODORO TECHNIQUE
Not a person who lives by the app? Management consultant Francesco Cirillo came up a lower-tech method of managing your time, the Pomodoro Technique, as a student in the 1980s. He used his kitchen timer (which, as it happened, resembled a tomato, or pomodoro, in Italian) to time the periods when he would work on one paper or study for one exam. When the alarm rang, he would take a 20-minute break before beginning the next task. “This is pretty well bang on with what brain science says is most productive,” says communications strategist Tod Maffin, who organizes his own day on Pomodoro principles. Cirillo’s book explaining the technique can be downloaded free of charge at pomodorotechnique.com.