Why tracking your time as an academic is useful: Review of the app ATracker

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There is a healthy amount of evidence starting to build up that indicates that tracking how you spend your time, analyzing those data, and making well informed changes can lead to large gains in productivity. I first heard about time tracking through the work of Laura Vanderkam and I’m starting to see it pop up quite frequently in my Twitter feed. I’m all about increasing my productivity and effectiveness, so I decided to give it a go.

The first couple of times that I tried time tracking I lasted a day. The problem was that finding a system for the time tracking was difficult and turned out to be clunky and onerous. I initially tried doing it using a small notebook, which had the advantage of being portable, but that didn’t work out because it took too much time to put in an entry and I stopped doing it. Next, I tried an Excel spreadsheet blocked into 30 minute increments, but that didn’t work because it took a lot of time to fill out and it wasn’t portable. It was clear that I needed an easy to use and portable solution. Shortly thereafter, @Acclimatrix had posted about tracking her time on Twitter and I Tweeted her back asking what she was using to track her time. She was using an app called ATracker.

A quick search of the Apple app store pulled it up. If you want to try it out, there is a free version that allows you to play around with the app to determine if it will work for you. That’s what I ended up doing and I very quickly upgraded to the Pro version for ~$6 Canadian.

Most days at work I feel fairly productive, but I do have those days where I wonder where my time went. This app is a solution to that problem. How long am I taking to prep for class or mark those essays? Am I meeting my research writing goals? Spending enough time mentoring my trainees? I can now also identify how much time I am spending on time vampires (I’m looking at you email, Twitter, and web surfing!) I’m a scientist and I love data and now I have data that I can analyze to make informed changes to my schedule and time use.

So, what has the app done for me? Is it worth tracking your time? My answer is a resounding yes! Here are a few examples.

This semester I am teaching two undergraduate courses. I made the conscious decision that I would only deal with teaching related activities on the same days that I lecture (Mon., Wed., and Fri.). I did this in an attempt to bundle like tasks together to be efficient. Since I’ve been using the program for 2 ½ weeks, I can go back in my history and look at the data for 8 teaching days and see how I spent my time. I’ve colour coded my teaching tasks as green, so I can quickly see that many of the tasks on these days are teaching related which is great. I can also look at my Tuesdays and Thursdays to see if teaching tasks have crept into those days. I was able to quickly see that some marking, mentoring, and administrative tasks associated with teaching snuck into a few Tuesdays and Thursdays. I can then determine if this is something that I need to address and come up with a plan to avoid it from happening again.

A second example pertains to research writing. My major research grant is up for renewal this fall and I’ve designated Tuesdays and Thursdays to do this work. Time tracking has allowed me to see that I am effectively focused and on task in the mornings, but that this tapers off in the afternoons. This is likely because I am running out of the brainpower and energy needed to complete this highly intellectual project. Things that might take me 30 minutes to complete in the morning take much longer to finish if I attempt to do them in the afternoon. I think that this is valuable information about my personal work flow and I’ve now decided to schedule tasks that require a great deal of mental “heavy-lifting” for my morning hours and to leave less mentally challenging tasks for the afternoon.

The ATracker app is very easy to use and intuitive. I’d tried a few other time tracking apps prior to this one and it is the winner hands-down in my opinion.

In the top left corner of the app is a filing drawer icon and if you touch it you go to the screen where you can enter your categories. The free version allows you only a few categories and one of the reasons that I upgraded to Pro is that you can create as many catergories for tracking your time as you would like. I initially started with the categories Teaching, Research, and Service, but quickly realized that those were too simplistic for my situation, so I broke these down into activities that I do frequently. My categories include: lab work, grant writing, student advising, teaching marking, service activities, teaching preparation, email, Twitter, finances, seminars, etc.; you get the idea. You can colour code each category, so as I mentioned above I’ve colour coded all of my teaching categories various shades of green and this allows me to get a good snap shot of the activities I’ve performed on any given day.

You have two options for tracking your time. You can either tap on a particular activity and a timer starts counting up; when you finish that activity you tap it again and the timer stops and the tracking of your time appears on the small daily calendar on the right side of the display. Your second option is to tap the pen and paper icon at the top of the display and that takes you to a page where to can enter an activity using start and end times. This is a great option if you forget to start tracking your time when you start an activity.

The default display is set to today, but you can tap the History icon on the bottom of the screen to look at the time tracking data for any previous date. Another cool feature is the Report. If you tap this icon on the bottom of the display it takes you to a screen where you get a pie chart or bar graph that displays how you spend your time. The charts can be generated for a single day, for 7 days, for 30 days, or you can specify your own time range. This is really useful because it tells you how you really spend your time and can call your attention to problem areas where you are wasting time or spending too much time that you might want to address moving forward.

I’ve already seen the value in time tracking and encourage others to try it. I find that this particular app works for me and I’m very happy with my purchase.

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