Quantified Self time-tracking: Choosing your buckets

This post missed its publishing schedule. I’m posting it today so that it doesn’t get lost.

Kate asked me how I chose the categories I use for tracking my time, and if I had any tips for someone who’s starting out.

I track my time at a medium level of detail – not so high-level that I can’t ask interesting questions, but not so low-level that it’s hard to summarize. To select an activity category (the non-bolded text in the table below), I type in parts of it. For example, “un subway” becomes “Unpaid work – Subway” and “quantified” becomes “Business – Quantified Awesome.” If something is ambiguous, the system shows me all the matches and lets me pick one. I can make some activity categories inactive so that they don’t get matched by the search. If the text doesn’t match anything, I’m shown the category creation screen, and the timestamped record is automatically created once I create the category for it. For “Other”-type activities and other activities that I’ve added a note field to, I can add a pipe character followed by a note (ex: “disc other | Yada yada yada”) for more details.

Here’s the general structure. I based the top-level categories on the OECD time studies so that I can compare my numbers with averages from other developed countries. The top-level categories I use are:

  • Business: Anything related to entrepreneurship or professional development
  • Discretionary: Hobbies, socializing, and other ways I choose to spend time
  • Personal: Personal care, daily routines, exercise, and things you can’t outsource because the point of the activity is personal benefit
  • Unpaid work: Chores, commuting, and other things you could theoretically outsource or eliminate
  • Work: Working as an employee; also, the occasional work lunch
  • Sleep: Sleep and naps!

The second-level group (Business – Build, Business – Connect, etc.) are the ones I recently created for reporting purposes. They look useful, so I might figure out how to build them into my database for more reporting goodness.

Within those major groups, I have one or two levels of record categories that I really use to track time. The higher groups are just for reporting. I create more activity types as needed.

Business
Business – Build
Business – Android
Business – Book review
Business – Business development
Business – Coding
Business – Delegation
Business – Drawing
Business – Learn
Business – Marketing
Business – Other
Business – Paperwork
Business – Plan
Business – Quantified Awesome
Business – Research
Business – Sales
Business – Connect
Business – Connect
Business – Correspondence
Business – Presentation
Business – Pro bono
Business – Earn
Business – Consulting – E1 – Conf
Business – Consulting – E1 – General
Business – Consulting – R1
Business – E-book
Business – Illustration – I1
Business – Illustration – I2 – UPV
Business – Illustration – I3 – M
Business – Illustration – I4 – SR
Business – Illustration – I5 – MT / G
Business – Sketchnoting
Discretionary
Discretionary – Other
Discretionary – Other
Discretionary – Play
Discretionary – Harry Potter (… because I forgot I already had “Discretionary – Play – LEGO Harry Potter”)
Discretionary – Play – Final Fantasy
Discretionary – Play – Katamari Forever
Discretionary – Play – LEGO Batman
Discretionary – Play – LEGO Harry Potter
Discretionary – Play – LEGO Heroica
Discretionary – Play – LEGO Indiana Jones
Discretionary – Play – LEGO Lord of the Rings
Discretionary – Play – LEGO Pirates
Discretionary – Play – LEGO Star Wars
Discretionary – Play – Nethack
Discretionary – Play – Other
Discretionary – Read – Nonfiction
Discretionary – Relax
Discretionary – Productive
Discretionary – Emacs
Discretionary – Gardening
Discretionary – Latin
Discretionary – Read – Blogs
Discretionary – Read – Fiction
Discretionary – Sewing
Discretionary – Tracking
Discretionary – Travel
Discretionary – Writing
Discretionary – Social
Discretionary – Family
Discretionary – Social
Personal
Personal – Exercise
Personal – Bike
Personal – Exercise
Personal – Scoot
Personal – Walk – Home
Personal – Walk – Other
Personal – Walk – Subway
Personal – Walk – Work
Personal – Life
Personal – Eat – Breakfast (… sometimes I track meals separately, but usually they’re just part of Personal – Routines)
Personal – Eat – Dinner
Personal – Eat – Lunch
Personal – Plan
Personal – Planning (… because I forgot I already have Personal – Plan)
Personal – Routines
Sleep
Sleep
Sleep
Unpaid work
Unpaid work – Commute
Unpaid work – Subway
Unpaid work – Wait
Unpaid work – Errands
Unpaid work – Errands
Unpaid work – Groceries
Unpaid work – Home
Unpaid work – Clean the kitchen
Unpaid work – Cook
Unpaid work – Laundry
Unpaid work – Tidy up
Unpaid work – Other
Unpaid work – Other
Unpaid work – Other travel
Work
Work
Work – C
Work – Lunch
Work – O
Work – Other
Work – T

I track business projects as their own categories so that I can bill for my time or figure out if something was worth doing. I track games separately so that I can figure out what I spend more time on.

I usually create a tracking record at the beginning of the activity so that quantifiedawesome.com can timestamp it. If I forget, I can say things like “-15m relax” to note that I started relaxing 15 minutes ago, or say things like “13:30 writ” to note that I started writing at 1:30 PM. If I’m seriously late, I can specify the date like this: “3/24 19:05 social”, or use the batch entry form. When I record an entry, the system shows me the edit form, so if I was wrong (I thought I was going to start Personal – Routines, but really, I went back to sleep), I can change the category using a dropdown and save it. I can also adjust start and end times, and the previous or next record is automatically adjusted too.

I track my time based on the primary activity so that I don’t double-count the time. For example, if I’m taking the subway, I file it as “Unpaid work – Subway” instead of “Discretionary – Read – Nonfiction” even if I read a book during the trip.

I have to build some kind of split/merge/refactor activity category tool someday, but so far, this is fine. And more reports! Reports are fun.

Tips and lessons learned:

If you’re starting out, a simple thing that lets you capture some text with a timestamp will work just fine. Jot down a few keywords that explain what you’re doing – enough to remember. Do this for a few days to a week in order to get a sense of what categories you may want to file things under.

Once you’ve figured out what general categories you want, use a button-based tracker like Tap Log or a list-based tracker like Time Recording (both Android). They’re great for selecting something from a defined list or structure. The downside is that it takes a liiittle more time to add a new category.

When you have lots of categories, going back to text input makes a lot more sense. No scrolling, no clicking around, and you can add new things fairly quickly. The substring search I put into quantifiedawesome.com works really well for me because I know which shortcuts map to which categories, and the structure is better than freeform text because reporting is easier.

Reporting is a lot more fun if you’re comfortable with spreadsheet pivot tables and other nifty features. I should do a screencast of how I use Excel to slice and dice my data. =)

Next step for me: Time estimates

I’ve started recording time estimates for more detailed tasks/activities so that I can a) figure out if I routinely overestimate or underestimate certain things, and b) get finer-grained time data. I know that it takes me roughly an hour from the time I get up to the time I get out of the house with my usual morning routine and maybe half an hour for the rush version, but it would be great to break that down into components and perhaps experiment with it. I’m also curious about how much time it takes me to get to places so that I can adjust Google Maps estimates for walking, biking, or public transit.

I write predictions down in Evernote (“Predict home by 7:05”). Evernote automatically timestamps the creation date, and I update the note with the actual time and any other notes I want to include (“home at 7:03; bike”). When I have several estimates and measurements, I’ll make a spreadsheet. When the spreadsheet structure settles down, I might build the functionality into Quantified Awesome. Successive prototyping helps me figure out how the data feels before I spend time building a structure for it. =)

So that’s how I track my time! See Where the Time Went for a recent presentation sharing my results.