Stephan Schiffels

Population Genetics – Computational Methods - Human History

Tracking your time helps you stay mentally sane.

Posted on August 29, 2019 Categories: blog

Working in academia comes with unique freedoms and challenges. I would argue that in no other job we have so much freedom to define our own work. At least at the Post-doctoral level and beyond, you mostly can choose what problems you want to work on, how to solve them, and in what pace. Even as a PhD student, in many cases there is a lot of freedom to choose projects and set your own goals and deadlines (this may not be the case for everybody, but it was for me).

This is both a blessing and curse. While this kind of freedom may seem like paradise to people working in shifts or being frustrated by being told by their bosses what to do, it also bears a high risk to induce stress. One particular habit that many academics foster, is an overwhelming focus on what they did not yet get done, as opposed to celebrating what they did get done. At least for me, this was the case while being a Postdoc and at the beginning of my time as a group leader. There is always more to do and you’re constantly behind your (self-imposed over-ambitious) schedule. For me the feeling worsened, expectedly, after having had my second child, which made working after hours and on weekends practically impossible.

I feel that general awareness about this has grown recently. Discussions about how to maintain work-life balance and mental health are all over twitter. And that’s a good thing. In hoping to contribute some experience to the topic, here is the single most effective habit that improved my own attitude towards my work.

About a year ago, I started tracking my time. I simply wanted to collect some data about how much and what I actually work. The original incentive to do it came from being annoyed that every decision about how much vacation to take, or whether I should work after hours or on the weekend was dominated by the feeling that I didn’t work enough, because — as described above — there is always more to be done.

I installed a software called toggl* *on my Desktop and phone, which is a tool that lets you start a timer and record what you’re working on. It’s free to use, but you can pay for premium, which I haven’t done so far. The free version already allows you to set up projects and “clients” (the latter is useless in my case but could be used for tracking time spent on particular grants I guess), and produce simple reports on how much time you’ve spent in any period of time on each project. You can also use tags to separate different types of work, for example email, supervision, travelling, and so on. I should say that I’ve not always been super-disciplined on recording all these aspects (like projects and tags), but even at a relatively simple level, tracking my time had some unexpected positive consequences for me.

1. I am feeling more positive about my work

One thing that most time-tracking software encourages you to do is to log what you worked on at what time. That may sound tedious at first, but it’s fairly easy and quick, and the software even reminds you to start logging if you’re returning to your computer in the morning, or after a break.

Well, it turns out that I do a lot of different things over the day. Some of these things I would count as “important for my career” or “things I really care about”, let’s call them category A tasks. This mainly includes working on publications, data analyses, writing papers, preparing grant applications, applying for conferences, public talks, networking, blog posts, and so on.

Many other things I do during the day belong to category B, which are things that don’t really help my career that much and/or things I don’t get much recognition for. This includes peer review (reviewing papers from other people as a request from journal editors), replying to emails from clueless users of my software, improving documentation for my software, serving in committees X, Y and Z, filling out reimbursement forms, writing support letters, reading CVs, some aspects of project management…

Before I started tracking, time spent on things in category A felt like real work, and which gave me fulfillment and satisfaction. In contrast, all the things in category B felt as if they don’t really count, and that I have to do them on top of my actual work. And this is exactly the problem that in my view causes a good chunk of stress that academics impose on themselves. After a day spent on doing category B things, you feel like “I should really work in the evening to actually get anything done.”

This changed when starting time-tracking and more importantly -logging. It turns out that reviewing that log gives me a sense of achievement, even for days that I would have formerly described as “wasted time”. Whenever I’m now doing something from category B, and I see the timer running, I somehow get the feeling as if it counts. As a result, I’m getting more honest with myself about my job, which improves my attitude towards it.

2. I have become a more realistic project manager

Logging how much time you’ve spent on each project is a very useful source of data. For example, I’ve written a large grant last fall, and I know exactly that the amount of time spent on it was 112 hours. This is a lot more (perhaps by a factor 2) than what I would have estimated. The reason was that I’ve spent so much time on email to get all the project partners on board, and I previously didn’t count that in.

I’ve also spent way* *more time that I would have thought on simply finalising and submitting a paper earlier this summer. Over 90 hours I’ve spent with emailing all co-authors, asking for supplementary material, getting edits integrated, meeting with authors and discussing restructurings… I’m not even talking about doing the actual analysis or the core writing (which wasn’t done by me). These things were real time spent, and that’s useful to know for future projects.

3. I feel better about times where I don’t work

Coming in the morning and hitting the start button of my toggl timer helps focusing and gives a sense of achievement, as argued above. On the other side of the medal is switching the timer off in the evening. I feel that I enjoy times where I’m not working more since tracking time. This perhaps has — again — to do with the fact that instead of constantly reminding myself what didn’t get done, you know that you’ve worked already for 9 hours today, so you deserve a cold beer on the couch with Netflix now.

I was never good at switching off after work, and I still suck at it. But it has improved. By developing a habit of making work-time really count, at the same time you develop a habit of better switching off after work. Somehow, knowing that a timer is running in the background while working, means that if the timer is not running, I’m more relaxed.

4. I can better balance out work-time, family-time, and hobbies

Finally, in negotiating work vs. family vs. personal vs. hobby time with yourself, your partner, your kids, your friends, time-tracking has given me a solid data source to rely on. This may sound silly at first, but it makes a real difference.

For example, there is a tendency to over-estimate the total time you’re working per week. That’s actually a bit strange, since at the same time you’re feeling you haven’t worked enough. It turns out that the average amount of time spent per week — for me — isn’t too much off my self-imposed “standard”. Knowing this gives some calm moment into any discussion about this, and it goes in both directions. Neither can you walk around complaining not having worked enough anymore (the numbers say that’s not true), nor can anyone else in your life claim that you’ve been working too much (again, the numbers are pretty OK).

Tracking time in academia is not something that comes very natural. We have chosen this job because we love to think about problems while we’re doing the dishes, while we’re going for a run, while we’re (not) falling asleep. And to some extent that’s wonderful and healthy. But the lack of external control on how much of your energy you’re putting into your work is dangerous. Tracking time puts an external metric in control that lets you reflect more actively about your work, and more importantly your non-work time.

Now, I’m not going to reveal here how much I define as my “standard” working time per week, since that’s super-subjective and depends on many things: Age, energy available, family situation, health, and many other things. But I can say that my standard doesn’t force me to work late at night or on the weekend. Paradoxically, that choice is true freedom, and sometimes makes me actually work on the weekends, and it feels OK because I’m logging it and it counts.