If you can’t bring yourself to leave the office when the clock hits 6 PM each day, you know what it’s like to always have just one more thing left to do. Of course, that totally beats twiddling your thumbs until you can rush out in a puff of smoke (cartoon-style, of course). But, it could also be a sign that somewhere, somehow, your time could’ve been better managed during the day.
Hardworking, ambitious people are generally concerned with how they spend their days. That’s something freelancers, full-time employees, artists, entrepreneurs—anyone, really—can agree with.
What if I told you there’s a handy little tool called Toggl that can help you be even more conscientious and efficient? This free program’s designed to give you more clarity and insight into the breakdown of your day. Its main purpose is simple: to record exactly how many minutes go into every task you do. And doing so is as easy as pressing “Start” and “Stop” as you’re working or inputting the actual hour range during which you perform a given task.
The basic features are free, which means you can record time for tasks as you do them, view how various projects stack up against one another, and how much time they take combined. You can also receive a weekly overview of your workflow. Available in-browser, via desktop, or on your mobile device, the program allows you to work on your own or in a team of up to five for free. It works just as well for a group as it does for individuals—different members can all track the breakdown of their individual pieces of a project.
Extra features, such as adding more team members, will cost you, but for my purposes, the free version was just fine.
Speaking of my purposes, here’s how and why I decided to use it. Maybe it’ll help you determine if it’s worth checking out yourself.
What I Knew Before I Started Using Toggl
On a basic level, I had a sense of how my time was being spent, and that I could break my responsibilities down into small, medium, or large in terms of energy and time consumption. I make my to-do lists accordingly, taking into account whether I know something should take roughly 15 minutes or two hours.
I also know what habits enable me to be more productive. Beginning early in the day, setting time aside each week to make a detailed to-do list, and affording myself the flexibility for breaks helps me stay energized and on-task. But because I have a remote position that allows me to, more or less, set my own schedule, I also have the flexibility to take longer breaks and work (or not work) during odd hours.
So, I was interested in using Toggl to understand how my distribution of on-the-clock time added up, and to see if I could get even more out of the day. These are important distinctions to recognize: I started using the platform with a good estimation of my motivators and goals for improvement already in mind.
What I Learned After Using Toggl
Exactly How Long Every Project Takes
Having a concrete amount of time to reference felt like I had suddenly put a price tag on each projects. And putting that tangible number in perspective made me more intentional about not only how I spend my time, but also what projects I agree to and want to spend effort on.
Here's an example of a what a to-do list might look like broken down:
A Time-Tracking Project Is a Project in Itself
I’m willing to bet you’re not used to pressing a button every time you begin and finish a task. Neither was I. Since I wasn’t accustomed to the program, unless I gave myself reminders, I would forget to start tracking. Toggl tries to make this as easy on you as it possibly can—the website is straightforward and it provides a reminder-to-track function.
Making distinct project items (like outlining, drafting, editing, and uploading as separate pieces of the creation of an article, for example) also allowed me to mentally create barriers between tasks—which meant I was no longer flowing from one to the next like a zombie on autopilot.
It’s an easy thing to forget about or let go, so if you’re serious about understanding your productivity habits, you also have to be serious about alerting the timer whenever you begin a new task.
Slow Days Make a Huge Difference
You know those mornings when you wake up feeling completely rested? You’re not going to hit all the green lights every single day, but Toggl helps you understand just how much of an impact your energy levels can have on your efficiency. When I format and upload The Muse’s Sunday Inspiration newsletter, for example, two shots of espresso can mean the difference between 30 minutes and an hour building it.
There’s More Time in the Day Than I Thought
Especially as a remote worker, I’m definitely in the camp that if my mind’s not fully focused on the task at hand, I should take a break or redirect my energy until I can bring my full attention to the project. But this also meant my days would start early and draw out longer than a normal working day because I have the flexibility to take leisurely lunches, go on meandering walks for inspiration, or sleep in late depending on my mood.
With Toggl, I could visualize the big picture breakdown of my time usage in a given week. And looking at how things square up made me get in tune with when I performed best and most quickly, and when my mind was stuck pondering all the possibilities for next season’s Grey’s Anatomy (yes, it’s still airing). Here’s how knowing the numbers made me all the better at strategically planning for the week ahead:
Looking at the time consumption of the same task at different times of the day helped me realize when I have more energy for certain activities. Remember when I told you that building the weekly newsletter took less time after I had my morning coffee than after I had scarfed down lunch? Knowing that has saved a couple hours each week by leaving more straight-forward tasks for when my mind is still refocusing.
Likewise, looking at the time consumption of different tasks at the same time of day allowed me to figure out when in the day I felt best working on something. If I got to the heavy-hitting tasks early, I felt more relaxed (and less guilty) than the days when I rushed through my emails first thing in the morning in order to get to everything else.
Before I found Toggl, I thought that work-related stress was a given—that working to your full potential necessarily meant going over your hours on some days or opting for a working lunch on others. Anyone who’s dedicated to his or her job knows what I mean: Putting in the hours has to be concrete evidence of meaningful effort and commitment to the position.
But what I learned from this experiment is that saving yourself some time doesn’t make you any less invested in the work. If anything, it shows that you’re committed to driving home results as efficiently as possible.
Keeping track of your time usage could completely open your eyes to what does and doesn’t work for you. And if being a stronger asset for your company doesn’t help your blood pressure settle, then having a few more hours of leeway each week certainly will.
Photo of group meeting courtesy of Hinterhaus Productions/Getty Images.
Caroline Liu is a freelance writer, graphic designer, and computer programmer studying at Wesleyan University. She is pursuing majors in Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies and Computer Science in order to bridge her passions for tech, design, and social justice. Learn more about Caroline on her website or follow her on Twitter.More from this Author