Time management systems: what do you use?

How to make sure your time doesn't go down the drain

Managing time is one of the most important quality to learn in order to live a happy and productive life. As children, there is a lot of free time and the issue of being "productive" doesn't even come to play: you don't really need to manage something when you have nearly endless amounts of it! When school starts, the amount of free time suddenly gets slashed and becomes more precious. As we get on with life, even the concept of "free time" becomes fleeting. By the time people start working in a regular job, they are faced with 8-hour-long days in front of you, with a bonus: a client, or a boss, who is expecting to see results from those 8 hours.

The importance of "your" time

Much of the stress people experience comes from the feeling that time, one of the most precious things they have, just seems to disappear in front of their eyes. Entire working days go by, and very little gets achieved. This is especially true for people -- or company -- who don't have proper time management systems in place. The problem is that instinctively humans are terrible at managing time. Maybe it's just one of those things that, as monkeys, we are not even meant to be doing. When you place this problem in a business contest, it goes from being a nuisance to being a potentially fatal problem. So, what systems can you use in your company to minimize the amount of wasted time? In this article I will talk about time in terms of a company working for contractors. However, the same can be applied to sole traders with several customers.

Logging time

Logging time is the most obvious thing to do; unfortunately, it's also the hardest thing to do. The main problem is that logging time takes... time. This is ironical, because no time management system can accurately measure how much time was spent actually using the system, and effectively manage the time that is being spent... managing time. It's a catch-22 -- in fact, one of the worst types. Since logging time should be nearly-transparent, the crucial question is: when should you log time? There are two ways to do this:

Using timesheets.

Everybody's seen time sheets (and in fact everybody's lied on one at some point in their lives!). Time sheets are great because they make it easier to track how much time was spent tracking time: it could simply be an entry in the timesheet itself ("Time taken filling out this timesheet"). This great pro comes with a con just as great: timesheets are unreliable. This could be for two reasons: the person filling it out is lying, or -- more commonly -- he or she simply cannot remember exactly what happened over the last eight hours (which is an awfully long time, to keep track of by heart). Having more frequent time sheets solves both the "memory" problem and the "cheating" problem at once: having to file a time sheet every two hours will make it harder to arrange hours in specific ways (although it's always possible), and it will make it easier for the person filling it out to remember. However, you can easily see that the entry "Time taken filling out this time sheet" will grow longer and longer for each timesheet (surprisingly, a 2 hour timesheet will not take 1/4 of the time taken by an 8 hour timesheet.

Using interactive timers.

Interactive timers are a possible solution to the problems that plague time sheets; in fact, at least in theory they are "the" solution to any time-logging problem you could possibly have.

An interactive timer is a timer you start in order to log how long you spend on a task. More advanced systems have the ability to have several timers going on at the same time, with only one timer ticking at one time. This means that if you switch what you are doing, you are meant to start a different timer (the original timer that was going will automatically pause). In this case, the time required to actually manage time is reduced to one click every time you change context (that is, you start doing something different). Note that I wrote "In theory": practice is indeed very different; timers are plagued by several problems: 1) People forget to cick on the right timer when they switch what they are doing; when this happens, they end up with two errors (one on the task that had extra time logged, and one on the task with not enough time logged); 2) It's hard to mend a timer that's gone too far; if users forgets to pause a timer, they will have the option to stop the timer, log that time, and then edit the time logged. Most interactive timers don't allow you to pause a timer and then "change it"; 3) People forget to use them, and often leave a timer on for days and days and days 4) Timers assume an ideal situation that very rarely happens (where you can work on a specific task uninterrupted for a period of time); as soon as something pops up, unless you pause the timer, things will be inaccurate.

Practice makes perfect

It's hard to tell you, in a short article, which time management system you should use. However, what is undeniably true is that practice makes perfect. You might end up using just time sheets, or maybe just interactive timers, or maybe a mixture of the two: in the end, the most important thing is finish your day knowing what tasks you have been working on.

It's important to remember that work conditions are never 100% ideal: people will send you emails, will ring your phone, will walk past you and tell you a joke, will send you an SMS or contact you with Messenger. Distractions are not always bad, especially if they not forced upon you (see: you chose to listen to that joke or take that call) and if you are not obsessively pausing your timers as they happen.

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