May 24, 2020

An in-depth look at exactly how I spend my time at work

Design

For the past few months I’ve been tracking my work time. I want to get better at estimating how long a project will take me to complete, and I figured the only way to do it would be to measure the time I’m spending on them.

I’ve dabbled in time tracking before, but mostly for freelance projects or a “clock in/clock out” type of tracking when the company required it (which I was not a fan of). My goal with this current habit of time tracking is a little different to past experiences with it though: I’m tracking purely to record and learn. Not to prove anything to anyone. The data I’m gathering is purely for myself.

But, I’ve decided I want to share some of it with you too.

As is often the reason for any particular article I write or video I make, this is the kind of thing I’d find incredibly interesting to see from a fellow designer: a detailed breakdown of exactly how they spent their week. So I’ve decided to take a weeks worth of data and show you how I’ve been spending my work time.  

This idea has been on my mind for a while, and I kept waiting for the “perfect” week to document for you. One where I got up early every day and worked a super impressive number of hours. One with clear focus blocks and no context switching... But this is real life. And that week never came. So screw it, I’m just going to show you all the data from last week (May 11-15).

How I track my time

I use an app called Toggl to track my time. It’s available on the web and as a mobile app, but I use the Mac app. The window lives in the bottom right corner of my screen, and every time I start a task I click the play button and record what I’m doing.

Toggl app screenshot

I track the task I’m doing, making sure to use the same generic terminology eg: “meetings” for whenever I’m in a meeting, “communication” for blocks of time I’m spending replying to people on Slack or “visual design” for when I’m in the high-fidelity mockup stage of a project. Going more detailed than this a) isn’t necessary for me and b) makes it harder to filter the data in the Toggl web app to see how much time was spent doing a certain task across multiple projects.

I add a project name alongside the task for every individual main project I’m working on. This way I can look back at my time entries later and see how much time I spent in total on a project, but also break it down by task.

I try to be diligent about only tracking the time I’m literally at my desk working. I’ll delete or adjust blocks of time if I hit record but ended up getting majorly distracted. Of course we all know that as creative professionals we’re often “working” when we’re not officially working (mulling over an idea or idly sketching when inspiration strikes) and that the downtime for your mind to process and make connections is vital to the creative process. But I’m going for rough estimates here. I'm not a lawyer needing to bill every relevant minute to a client after all!

This method of time tracking may not be perfect, but I’m not being held accountable to this data by anyone and it hits the right balance of being detailed enough to learn from, but quick and easy enough that it’s not a hinderance to actually doing the task itself.


How I spent my week

Last week I tracked 34 hours of work time.

I’ll be honest, I feel a little guilty about that number. While I’m a firm believer in output being more important than hours worked. The 40 hour work week is such a standard in our society that it’s hard to shake the immediate disappointment at my number being less than that.

I know I work hard. I know I’m getting way more done in this remote job than I ever did when working in an office. I know that breaks are important too. So I’m working on not judging myself for not reaching a magical 40 hours of time spent at my desk. And if I can share an unpopular opinion for a second: I bet a lot of people who think they’re working 40 hours a week would find they’re under that number too if they actually tracked their time. Okay okay, I'm done justifying myself. On to the detailed breakdown.

My work time can be split into three main areas:

Communicating

As a remote company, communication is vital. We try to do a lot of things asynchronously, so a good chunk of my day is always spent reading and responding to project updates from my team mates, or writing up my own communication about projects I’m working on. And of course there’s always questions in Slack to answer too.

This accounted for 36% of my week.

Connecting

While we try to keep meetings to a minimum, there’s no denying the value of getting a bunch of smart people in a room together to problem solve and brainstorm (even if it is a virtual room on Zoom). At ConvertKit we also really value building relationships with our team mates, and talking on a video call helps us build and maintain trust with each other as humans.

I spent 28.5% of my week in meetings.


Creating

The actual design time. Time spent designing and making things. I also spent a little bit of my work time learning and doing some career development this week and I counted that in this category too (mostly because the alliteration of the category names was pleasing)

I spent 35.5% of my week creating (26.5% of that was hands-on design time).

Here’s a breakdown of these tasks per day:


I tend to start my day between 7:30 & 10am, and my day always starts with catching up on what happened in Slack & Basecamp after I signed off the night before (most of my team mates are based in the US, whereas I’m in Spain). Usually I’ll check up on things, responding to what I need to and forming a to do list for the day, and then head off to do some exercise.

Most of my design time happens before lunch. I try to get at least one solid focus block of designing in in the first half of the day.

My afternoons involve much more task-switching than my mornings. This is somewhat by design, because I try to make myself available to my team mates in the afternoon (when it’s their morning) so that I can respond to anything they need from me and make sure I’m not a blocker for any of their projects.

I spend way less time designing than I thought I did. This week that I’m reporting on here was a particularly communication-heavy week due to the state many of my current projects were in, but even in weeks where I’m right in the middle of the design phase of a project it’s usually a maximum of 45% of the week spent actually designing. I think this is due to the nature of remote work, as well as where I’m at in my career.


The pros and cons of time tracking

Overall, time tracking is helping me to be more aware of how I’m spending my time during my work day and it’s even helped me to find more focus. I’m less likely to distractedly multi-task because if I start one thing, then find myself wanting to switch to another I’d have to switch the timer too. So because the timer is running, I finish the task and then move on to the next thing.

Setting the timer is also setting an intention. You’re writing in exactly what you’re about to spend the next block of time doing. The timer is holding you accountable to doing the thing you said you needed to do next. No one will know if you end up not doing that thing and switching to something else (unless of course, you write a blog post about it...) but it’s a promise you’re making to yourself.

While having the timer running can be motivating on a good day, on a bad day it can have the complete opposite effect.

During the past few months the pandemic understandably left me feeling very unsettled and there were weeks where my motivation and mood was incredibly low. Take a look at the week of March 23rd for example:

work time week of March 23rd showing only 2 hours 16 minutes worked on Monday

Yep, you’re reading that right, I did a whole 2 hours 16 minutes of work that Monday. And the rest of the week wasn’t much better.

On these days seeing the timer in such low numbers by the afternoon was incredibly demotivating. I felt like a failure. I felt guilty (even though the leadership team at ConvertKit had communicated with such care that even if we only got a few hours of focus in per day at this time we should feel that was enough, and to take mental health days whenever we needed). But when it’s 4pm and my timer is saying I’ve only completed 2 hours of work for the day so far, I feel helpless. Like I’ve wasted the day. And like there’s no way for me to possibly “catch up”. What was the point in trying for one more hour of focus when that would still only leave me on a dismal 3 hours for the day?

Like I said earlier, the 40 hour work week and 8 hour work day is so entrenched in me that I have a hard time not judging myself by the numbers sometimes. I’m working on that, and trying to hold myself accountable to my level of focus and output rather than the number of hours on a timer.

And honestly, that Monday when I only tracked about 2 hours of work? Instead of looking at that low number and feeling guilty, I should have used it as a reminder to take the day off. I clearly wasn’t coping well with work that day and needed a mental health day.

As I continue with this habit of time tracking I’m hoping I’ll get more insights like that. More learnings on when I do my best work and how to spot when my brain needs a break, as well as my original goal of a better understanding on how long a project takes me.

The positives of time tracking far outweigh the negatives for me, and it’s something I’d recommend everyone try. Just for yourself. But of course, if you wanted to do a write up on how you spend your day... I would love to read it! I’m super curious to know how the structure and tasks in my day might compare to yours. Reach out to me on Twitter if you’ve spotted any similarities or differences that you’d like to share with me.

Got any thoughts on what I wrote? Tweet them to me!
Tweet me

Want design stuff in your inbox?

Sign up to be notified when I post about design