Time logging: the first step to efficient time management

Have you ever been asked how much time you spend on a specific task for example on grant writing? Then realized you don’t know? If you start logging your time, you can easily answer these questions. You simply look it up and answer something like: “on average over a year, I work X number of hours. I spend X percent of my time on grant writing and X number of hours per grant”. You might even have the grants split into categories depending on page limit or type of fund.

When you have time logs, it makes planning easier. And good planning helps you avoid last-minute panic, sleepless nights, and unhappy colleagues. When starting a task, you look in your log and plan according to how long it took last time—including all the unforeseen things that delayed you. This strategy is better than using your memory, as we are generally too optimistic when we predict how much time we need to complete a task. This is a well-studied phenomenon known as the “Planning Fallacy”.1 When I plan an experiment, for example, I always forget how long time it takes to add and remove liquids from tubes. A mind-numbingly simple but time-consuming task. And when I worked in a cell laboratory, we had a saying that you should multiply the predicted time by three to get a realistic plan. Even when we have done a task many times before, we underestimate how much time it takes.

I got inspired to start logging my time when I read a post by Meghan Duffy, an ecologist at the University of Michigan, titled: “You do not need to work 80 hours a week to succeed in academia”. She wanted to fight the myth of an 80h work week and writes that she is in the office 9-17 and works 40-50 hours a week. She was later interviewed for a Nature blog post (“Workplace habits: Full time is full enough”), where she admitted she was nervous about her post, as she was up for tenure when it came out. But it didn’t harm Meghan Duffy’s career to admit she was a skilled time manager. She got tenured. One of the things she recommends is time logging. To use your time efficiently, start by knowing where it goes.

Next step for me was finding a tool for time logging. There are many tools for this, but most are for people who log their time to bill clients. I wanted something suitable for an academic, so I found this blog post by a social scientist who reviews software for scholars. I decided to try TimeCamp, a commercial product with a free version for single users. I recommend reading the review post before deciding if you are on the lookout yourself.

You start your time logging by creating categories and subcategories, and then you record the time you spend on each. In TimeCamp you get some pretty nice graphics and tables over how you spend your time. In addition to graphics like the image below, you also get a table with the number of hours you spend on each category and on the subcategories (called projects and tasks in TimeCamp).

GraphicsThis is how one of my weeks looked like (39h and 21min logged time)

I also log breaks and procrastination such as browsing the web without a real purpose. I do this to see where I am losing time. As an added benefit, I already found that I am less likely to procrastinate when I log my time; when I look at my log at the end of the day, I don’t want hours of wasted time to meet me. The first thing I discovered, when I started logging my time, was that I check emails as a means of procrastination. One day I wrote three emails, which took about 15 minutes, but I logged over one hour in my “checking and replying to emails” category. So now, I hold back whenever my focus wavers, and I get an urge to quickly check my emails.

I have logged my time for about a month. It takes discipline to log everything, and I still frequently forget to log when I switch between tasks. But I expect that it’s a matter of establishing a habit. I do already have logs that I can use for planning though. I recently performed an experiment two times. In line with the Planning Fallacy, it took longer than I had predicted the first time despite careful planning. The second time, however, I planned according to my time log and finished right on schedule.

In addition to logging your time, there are more methods you can use to work efficiently. One method is to split a time-consuming task into smaller bites. For this, you can use the Pomodoro technique. This technique helps me stay focused when I read scientific articles. The readability of scientific articles and the details of the Pomodoro technique will be the topics of my next posts.


1Kahneman, D., & Tversky, A. (1979). Intuitive prediction: Biases and corrective procedures. Management Science, 12, 313-327

Header: www.xkcd.com


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