Every good blog has to have a time management article at some stage – this can be mine. Whether that makes it a good blog is up to you, gentle reader.

All right – time management.

I’ve always struggled with procrastination. It’s not quite as bad “My name is Matt and I’m an alcoholic” but I’m pretty sure “My name is Matt and I procrastinate on work” is not too far behind. I’ve done it as long as I can’t remember.

You know those people who like to burn through their homework so they can play outside? I’m the guy stuck inside doing it up to dinner time and beyond because I just can’t get myself to concentrate on my work . . .

I struggled with it through five years at my first full-time job, and I’ve struggled at my current one. I’ve tried different things.

I loved the Getting Things Done system. In fact, I read it in the week before I moved to Sydney to start my first full-time job. And it has certainly been a system I’ve come to rely on for how to get organised and keep your mind clear. However, for me, the GTD system didn’t help with the crucial problem I faced – procrastination.

See, by the time I’ve emptied my head, made all my lists, and done all that great GTD stuff, there’s the issue that that work has to be done. I read a variety of books that talked about different things like how to prioritise tasks, how to work out psychologically why you’re procrastinating (e.g. fear of failure). And I’d get some short-term changes out of these systems.

But for the most part, I’d keep falling off the wagon. And sometimes the advice you’d get from time management books would cancel each other out. Some books tell you that just actually doing the jobs that are there (rather than thinking about them) is a good way to go. Well, this is true, and there is something to be gained by just doing something now rather than endlessly scheduling it around. However, if you do everything that’s in front of you now, you’ll find that you answer a lot of emails, run a lot of errands for people who drop things on your desk – but the big picture jobs (most likely the ones you’re actually being paid to do) aren’t getting done.

I never knew how to get myself out of this dilemma. The other problem is, I’ve worked out that I’m a dreadful people-pleaser. It can be almost anyone in the company, but if they ask me to do something for them – whether it be shifting boxes or proofreading things or whatever – I’ll drop anything to help out.

And if I go to team meetings – aarggh!! – it gets even worse, because I’ll say “yes” to everything I’m asked to do, even if I’m not sure how on earth I can manage it all. Even though I inevitably get myself in trouble later on for not delivering everything I said I’d do, I still can’t help myself.

Oddly enough, it was this tendency of myself that led to an interesting breakthrough that I made.

The background was that at the beginning of this year, I had three roles at work. I was supposed to spend 2 1/2 days a week on one, and 1 1/2 days on the second and 1 day on the third.

On paper.

In reality, I’d just work on whichever one screamed the loudest. And I was having trouble doing any of them well.

And I was starting to get asked these questions, “How much time are you spending on each job area?” And you know what? I had no idea.

So I decided to start tracking my time. I know there are time management books out there that talk about doing a time log for a few days – some of you may even have tried that. However, that kind of thing is more about working out how many times you get phone calls during the day, how many times you distract yourself, etc.

But this time – what I wanted to do was actually track my time as if I was a consultant. So I signed up for a free internet-based timesheet called actiTIME. The main attraction with actiTIME was that it’s completely free if you just want a timesheet to log times into. (You can buy versions if you want to have more than 10 people using it and you want to access more complex management and accounting processes – but the free version suited me fine because I just wanted a sheet that I could log times in.)

The major tweak I made to it was that actiTIME comes with three main categories – Customers (it’s assuming you’re a contractor), then Projects which filter under Customers and then particular Tasks under that.

I changed Customers to Job Roles (one for each of my three roles) and kept the Projects and Tasks. (Actually, it was a nice feature that I could rename these levels to be in keeping with what I wanted.)

The other key that I decided to do was record my time in 15 minute increments, which seemed like a standard way of tracking these things. I’m not sure how contractors keep track of these things, or whether they guess at the end of the day, but I decided that I’d use a little countdown timer program that I had downloaded a long time ago (the sadly no-longer-available AleJanJes Timer, which I can’t link to because the page is no longer there). I’d set the timer for 15 minutes, and I’d run it pretty much every 1/4 of an hour (unless I wasn’t at my desk). I’d try to keep it as close I could to the hour, quarter past, half past and quarter to (e.g. 9.00, 9.15, 9.30, 9.45) so that it had a certain regularity to it.

Every time the Timer stopped, I’d flick over to my actiTIME sheet, which was sitting open in a browser on my computer all day.  I’d then add 15 minutes to the total of whatever task I was working on.

At this stage, I wasn’t attempting to prioritise my work or anything like that – and I still tended to work on whatever was screaming the loudest – but the idea was just to track it to give me an idea of what was taking up my time.

But what I didn’t expect was the amazing secondary benefit of this tracking – I finally discovered the anti-procrastination holy grail I’d been looking for!

Quite simply, knowing that every15 minutes I had to account for what I’d been doing made me work more solidly. Originally, this might have been because I had some thought that I was going to show the timesheet to my managers. That never eventuated – and I don’t think I’ll ever show anyone those reports – but after three weeks of tracking every 15 minutes, the habit was well and truly entrenched.

I’m not saying I didn’t waste time sometimes. There were times when I was tired, when I didn’t want to start a particular job. When I’d go make a cup of tea or coffee just to avoid starting the next time. (For the record, I’d count cups of tea as part of whatever job I was working on for 15 minutes, but if I had a real waste-of-time 15 minutes doing something like surfing the net or a long conversation with someone, I wouldn’t claim the time.) The idea was that I was trying to make sure I could account for all the 7 1/2 hours during the day that I’m paid for. And for the most part, I’ve been able to. There have been some days where I hit the end of the day and realise that I’ve only done about 7 hours work (despite the fact that I was in the office for a full day), but those days are becoming rarer.

I never would have picked it as being a winning system – running a timer and logging my work in a timesheet – but it has me able to do a full day’s worth of work, knowing that I didn’t spend a third or more of it mucking around and doing stuff I shouldn’t have been doing.

This system worked rather well for quite a while. Until I discovered the Pomodoro Technique, and decided to try that instead of my existing system.

That led to interesting results. . . and a new generation of time management for me. But I’ll save that for another blog.

In the meantime, I would challenge any of you die-hard procrastinators out there to give actiTIME a whirl, with a timer. (Hmm . . . maybe actiTIME could add a timer to the page?) Seeing as it’s no longer available, I thought I’d set the AleJanJes Time up on Media Fire for you to download. It was always intended to be freeware, so I don’t think I’m doing any wrong here. The guy who originally made it put it there so his kids wouldn’t fight over the computer.

I like this particular timer because it’s small and you can put it in the top right-hand corner of your screen where it will remind you quite obviously that your time is soon up. You right click on it to change the settings.

Have fun! I’ll talk more about Pomodoros another time.

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7 thoughts on “How I Became Ruthlessly Productive At Work (After Years Of Struggling With Procrastination & Distraction)

  1. What a great read, thank you!

    We’re just starting down the path of detailed time reporting for a lot of staff members at the Arsht Center. actiTIME looks like a great starting point.

  2. Since I’ve been freelancing i’ve had to deliberately track my time, for the sake of billing clients.

    It’s been both good and bad – it forces productivity, but the need to do x number of hours can sometimes hang over your head a little.

  3. We’ve been tracking time at work for a while – 15 minute increments seems to be the norm in most places, though I know some lawyers who track in 6 minute blocks (makes sense actually – 10 blocks per hour, and that’s enough time to make a phone call or write a letter).

    PS it’s always been a great blog 😉

  4. Matt

    I know what you mean. Since I started working from home and had to document my consulting hours, I started logging the time spent on every task I do. I don’t do it in 15 minute increments. I just start a timer when I start working on something and stop it when I’m done, then paste the result into a spreadsheet.

    (As you’d probably guess, Matt, knowing me, this spreadsheet has since evolved into a behemoth auto-analysing entity, which tells me how long recurring tasks tend to take on average and how much of my day is split between recurring and non-recurring tasks. I find I work a lot better if I can break a task down into a series of recurring tasks – “Write novel” is a tad intimidating. Heck, “Write a chapter of the novel” is still intimidating. “Write 600 words”, recurring each and every day? That’s do-able.)

    But since not everything can be turned into a neat recurring task, I have a daily recurring task of ‘Do one non-recurring task’.

    It works for me.

    1. Hi Roger,

      Thanks for the links. I think that’s a very cool timer, and I really like the task timer. That’s a nice visual way to fill out a time sheet and a good alternative for people who don’t want to muck around with setting up an actiTIME account.

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