Keeping track of time

Back in September, I posted about starting to use a time-tracking app (Gleeo). I used it very consistently and conscientiously for four months, right up until I reset my cell phone a few days ago and lost the app. I re-installed it fairly quickly, but haven’t properly configured it yet, so I’ve spent the past six days off the record. (Feels pretty weird not to pick up my phone and tap a button every time I switch activities.)

When I started using it, one of the first things I noticed was that it pushed me to make decisions faster – instead of wondering what I should be doing and eventually starting to browse aimlessly to entertain myself while I procrastinated on deciding, I had to pick a new activity immediately once I had finished the previous one in order to log it correctly. While I have no way to find out whether or how this affected what I actually ended up doing, it definitely had a positive effect: the amount of time I spent feeling aimless, indecisive, and vaguely lost decreased significantly. (Which I didn’t even notice so much at the time, I just noticed I felt pushed towards deciding, but right now my days are unpleasantly full of these feelings.)

I also got into the habit of checking how I’d spent my time each day right before I went to bed – not in detail, just a quick look over how the various activities stacked up to get a rough idea. On some days, I’d find a pleasantly long bar of productivity and take a moment to feel happy and proud of myself. On other days, I had only short (or even no) productive bars at all, and sometimes this made me go “ugh”, and sometimes it just made me go “oh well, tomorrow is another day”.

Somewhat surprisingly, I never beat myself up about those “bad” days. I just acknowledged them and went to bed anyway. It was a sharp (and very welcome) contrast to before, when I frequently fretted about what I had accomplished that day and wracked my brain trying to reconstruct what I had done in order to assess whether it had been enough and/or gone wrong somewhere. Having an actual, physical log of every hour of every day was very comforting and helped curb these tendencies. (Also, there’s something very satisfying about being able to pull up an account of what I was doing at any random time point during the past few months. Not that I think I’ll ever really need it, but having the option makes me feel prepared just in case.)

Initially, I also hoped I’d be able to increase my productive hours over time, which (sadly) didn’t happen. Getting to log some pretty green productivity (I picked the colors myself) was certainly a motivating factor, and I do think it helped me to start doing productive work, but sticking with it was another matter. I frequently found myself feeling like I really really needed to take a (short) break after only about 15 minutes of work at a time, and given that many study recommendations talk of taking breaks every two hours, this was quite discouraging. (Was I able to work for longer periods of time when I was younger? I can’t remember.)
On the other hand, logging my 15-minute-sessions provided me with a rational counterpoint to thoughts like “I have to leave in half an hour anyway, so there’s no point in starting now”, and watching multiple short sessions add up to more respectable times further helped to combat my all-or-nothing mindset and my (related) tendency to minimize all accomplishments falling short of perfection. So what if I only study for short periods at a time – I still get a green bar at the end of the day!

All things considered, I definitely want to continue using the time-tracker, which means I get to set up my data structure (domains, projects within those domains, and tasks within those projects) all over again. I could re-use the old one (I saved all the data before resetting, including the structure), but this might be a good opportunity to fiddle with the categories and optimize a bit. Most of the structure I had worked quite well, but I think I can do better about recording recreational activities, and I might need a way to log unplanned interactions with roommates.

Prior to the reset, the projects and tasks in my domain “Recreational” looked like this:

  • Solitary
    • browsing
    • watching movies/series
    • reading
    • jerking off (yes, this is something I record. Can’t leave blank spots in the data or mislabel it, can I?)
  • Social
    • chatting & e-mails
    • meetings

As for roommate interactions, I could log them as “meetings”. This sounds reasonable for some situations, but sometimes they’re about something concerning the household (which should be logged under the domain “Maintenance”), sometimes they’re a mix of both, and sometimes they’re frankly unwelcome and unpleasant interactions that I’d really rather not have but cannot discontinue without risking negative consequences.

And logging them is a problem in and of itself – it’s not exactly polite to fiddle with my phone when someone’s talking to me, and I can’t tell in advance whether they will be long enough to even get logged (time entries are at least a minute long, and though I could configure it to log shorter ones as well, it would just mess up the data) or what kind of task it will be closest to. I don’t have an idea how to solve either issue yet.

As for recreational activities, I’d ideally like for all the time I spend with recreational activities to be time well spent and none of it to be “let’s refresh this feed for the millionth time because I’m bored and have nothing better to do/don’t want to do any of the things I actually should be doing”. The current setup does not reflect to what extent that is the case: especially “browsing” and “watching series/movies” are rather broad categories here.

It’s also a bit too inflexible regarding new/other activities – when I started playing The Talos Principle, I was torn on whether to create a new task specifically for playing video games even though it’s something I rarely do, and eventually recorded it as browsing instead. (Which would have bothered me more if it had not already become my default category for unproductive activities not fitting any other task, like pacing and thinking or looking out of the window and watching birds or sunsets or whatever.)

An idea for improvement might be to create tasks for the Why instead of the What: split solitary recreational activities into e.g. entertainment and relaxation, and then figure out which I’m going for (or likely to get) each time I engage in an activity.

The problem with this approach is that sometimes, especially during browsing, I switch fluently between watching cute animal vines (which would be entertainment) and reading in-depth analyses of current sociopolitical events (which would be neither entertainment nor relaxation, but a recreational activity nonetheless – I’ll need to set up a task for that as well). And I don’t exactly know in advance which one I’m going to be doing when I check my newsfeeds in the morning.

I might be able to address this issue by changing some of my browsing/watching habits. For example, rather than reading articles as I come across them, I could open them in tabs, finish my casual, animal video-laced stroll down my newsfeed, and only afterwards delve into the more serious reading.

It’s probably not a perfect strategy – sometimes I don’t know whether a post will end up being casually entertaining or deep when I start reading it – , but it sounds like a reasonable starting point, so I’ll use it as such and see where I end up. From now on, my tentative tasks for solitary recreation are “casual” (for newsfeeds and idle browsing), “entertainment/relaxation” (for things I already know in advance will be entertaining or relaxing, e.g. books or episodes of series I already know I like), “interest” (for sociopolitical blogs and the like, but also researching things I came across during idle browsing and got curious about), and of course jerking off. (I suppose that could be entertaining and/or relaxing, but I think I’ll keep it a separate category anyway. Nothing quite like knowing I spent 39 hours of the last four months diddling my junk. [Is this TMI? It might be. Sorry.])

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