Want to reach all of your goals? Track your time.

We all have lots of goals, both short-term and long-term, and usually not enough time to pursue them all. So, the only way to reach at least some of those goals is to prioritize relentlessly. This has been a challenge for me, as I suppose it is for many people. Recently I have adapted a method that I learned from a great entrepreneur, Poornima Vijayashanker (founder at Femgineer), and even though it's been a while since she told me about it, finally this year I have started taking it more seriously and adapting to my own needs. In this post, I will explain the method that I built based on her tips, with a little customization and some additions I made.

1. Inventory

As the saying goes, what is measured improves. So the initial step towards improving how we use our time is to estimate how we currently use our time, to set a baseline against which we can start measuring. First, make a list of all of the larger categories of work that you currently do during the week. Then estimate how many hours you spend on each of those things in a typical week. You may find it difficult to estimate how long you spend on things. This is very normal because often we don't pay much attention. It's not a problem, though, as we will have the opportunity to adjust as we move along with the method.

Weekly work breakdown Example of what your spreadsheet should look like

Notice that the focus here is on larger buckets, and not individual tasks. So we should see things like "Personal branding" rather than "Research cute cat image for blog post about the internet". Also, I have both work ("Client Work") and non-work things ("Guitar") in there. Some of these non-work things are important to me, and I want to make sure I carve out the time to pursue them. The most glaring omission from my spreadsheet is family time, but I assume that is what happens on all of the blank spaces in there.

If you want to work towards some goal, you need to make sure it fits into your life. And the only way to do that is to be very aware of where it is your time is going.

2. Distribute

Now that you know how you currently spend your time, figure out how much time you want to spend on each of the major categories you have identified from now on, including the projects that will lead you towards your personal goals. Be honest with yourself - will you really consistently manage the to do all of this?

There's a trick I use to make this easier to remember during my days. I have a separate calendar in Google Calendar called "Time Planning". In this calendar, I create events that represent chunks of time at least one hour that I plan to spend on each project. This way I can clearly see on my calendar what I'm supposed to be spending time on during each day, and I also get notifications when I'm supposed to change to the next project. Here's what that looks like (the gray blocks are my "Time Planning" calendar):

Time Planning calendar

The gray blocks indicate what I am supposed to work on.

3. Track

Now you're ready to start executing. This is the simplest part of the method, but also the hardest to do right consistently. Essentially, all you have to do is to track diligently all of the time you spend. Get hold of your favorite time tracking tool (I like Toggl), and use it from the moment you start working to the moment you go to bed. Measure everything that you do.
At first, you'll likely forget to turn on the time tracker. Toggl Desktop helps with that, as it pops up a warning when you're not tracking anything. It is annoying at first but helps you form the habit of using the tool. Plus, you see it less and less as you get used to following the method.

Toggl Desktop

Yes, that's what I am doing.

If you use a productivity technique such as the Pomodoro Technique, you will see it fits this method perfectly. You simply determine how many pomodoros you will do for each project. And if you use pomodoros regularly, you may even be able to do away with time tracking and simply count how many pomodoros you use for each project.

4. Adapt

Once you start running this method, you will see that the work you really do differs quite considerably from what you thought you did. Don't worry about it, that's fine. Keep tracking your time. After about a week, go back to the Time Planning spreadsheet, and armed with a report from your time tracking tool (again, Toggl has some nice, and easy reports) check where the differences are.

Toggl Report Toggl's lovely reports

For instance, let's suppose you initially thought you spent two hours per week on your personal branding activities, and you check your weekly report and find that you actually spend a lot more than this. What should that teach you? Either that you need to optimize those activities so you can do them in less time (automate!) or that you need to take time away from other activities to account for this. Either way, you now have data that you can use to prioritize your time based on your priorities.

I recommend reviewing your time tracking reports once a week and comparing to your time planning spreadsheet. Then you can continuously adjust, based on the way you're currently using your time and making room as new projects come in and old ones end.

Try it, and let me know how it goes!