Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Tempus edax rerum

Keeping track of how one spends one time at work can be a very useful tool if one wants to get a somewhat objective look at what one is doing and how one's tasks are spread out throughout the day. This was first recommended to me by my mentor at IBM and one of his observations was that my day was "scattered", i.e. I was doing a large number of different types of tasks at seemingly random times during the day rather than doing similar tasks all at once. While structuring one's day into groups of similar tasks, such as confining the reading of e-mail to certain periods of the day, one may be more efficient, but it's not always practical in a support role. One of the observations that I found even more useful was to see just how much of my day was spent in informal meetings and helping others.

In order to make such observations, his recommendation was for me to record was I was doing during fifteen minute intervals throughout the day. These intervals could be color-coded in a spreadsheet. In the last few months, I've been doing this again to determine how much of my time is spent doing technical support and how much is spent doing other things, such as writing code or attending meetings. I've found that using Google Spreadsheets is an excellent and much easier way to track this than by using a full-blown spreadsheet package. When I was doing this before, I had a single spreadsheet for the entire year, but now I have a separate file for each week, which is more manageable. The problem with this approach is that it's difficult to get quantifiable data. While it's easy to visualize what I did in a week, it's difficult to observe long term trends. I'm guessing I could code them with an alphanumeric character and do some sort of count, but I'll have to play with that.

By reading a few days ago, I discovered an Ajax based tool called Time Tracker, by the Form Assembly. I'm told that Fred Brooks used chess clocks to keep track of his time and that is effectively what this tool provides. In many ways, it's simply marvelous. You start one timer for a particular task and when you start another one, the previous one stops. You can export to various file formats, such as XML, csv and OPML. You can adjust times with a cute little clock widget. It's far easier to keep track of time than with the spreadsheet method described above.

The problem is that the reporting isn't very readable, so for visualization purposes I still felt that I needed to color-code the spreadsheet. Another problem is if you forget to switch timers then you have to manually fix it with the widget, which I find happens a lot. I think it has enormous potential as the tool continues to get new features and some people may already find it useful for keeping track of billable time, but I've found there is surprisingly too much overhead compared to the spreadsheet method alone.

If any of my readers do try this at home and jump into the depths of time tracking, I have to recommend that you are make sure you are aware of the observer effect and also remember that explaining what you don't track can be as challenging as the categories that you do track.

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