Time tracking is something that yields really useful results, but it can be a pain to do accurately. I tried to do it manually for a long time, but after spending three consecutive days “reading” due to a stopped timer, and realizing how much of the rest of my data was completely inaccurate, I could see I needed a better approach.
The first thing I had to decide was which data would actually make a difference — there’s no point tracking how much time you spend showering unless you actually plan to do something with that data! I started with a brain dump, and ended up creating a table with the results (e.g. I wanted to track the time spent on Nested Folders, but Podcasting is an overarching category that I also want to know about!). Once I figured out the data points I wanted, I took a good look at the apps I use every day and tried to match them up.
Some apps were easy. I only open the Kindle or Books app when I’m reading (something I wanted to track, so I could see I was actually hitting my goal of reading regularly!). Other apps though, like Drafts and Obsidian are used for multiple purposes. With Shortcuts on iOS, I can use the automations to run a Shortcut when I open or close an app (and I use separate automations, so one starts a timer, and one stops it). So it was easy to start my reading time when I open Books or the Kindle app, and stop it when I close either. But that left the interesting conundrum of what to do when I open one of my many multipurpose apps. For example, when I open my task manager, I could be working on personal tasks or on tasks related to a specific project. Creating an automation that gives me multiple options when I open it can help me solve this problem.
For each app, I created a menu that lets me choose what I’m doing. For example, with Drafts I have The Sweet Setup, ScreenCastsOnline, Automation, and a few other little projects I’m working on. Each menu item has a “Start Timer” action, and when I open the app I have to choose what I’m working on. This isn’t perfect — if I change context while I’m in the app, then Shortcuts doesn’t know (so I created a Drafts action to run the same shortcut again), but it’s a very good start. It means at least I know I was writing or planning.
I also made the decision to add two tags to each of these trackers I automatically start. One is “automatic” so I know that I didn’t manually start it, and the second is the name of the app. This helps if I see a three-hour stretch of time because I know that this was an automatic tracker and that it was related to a particular app. With things like the date of creation for individual notes or drafts and modification dates, I can check to make sure I really was working on that for the whole time, or update my tracker if necessary!
There is no such thing as a perfect automated solution to time tracking, but this approach has allowed me to significantly improve the quality of the data I have — and more importantly has captured things even on the days where I don’t feel I have time to be messing around starting and stopping timers. This means I have data I can to evaluate my progress on goals and tasks, as well as my habits.
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