Sorry, today’s app isn’t particularly exciting.
But it is one of the most important I install on any new device.
This isn’t a review of a fancy new project management app, iPad-based video editing suite or the next iteration of Lightroom. It’s a love letter to an app that I start and stop at the end of every task.
That’s right – today’s advice is all about time tracking. Say hello to Toggl Track – the time tracking app I couldn’t live without.
Why track your time? Sounds dull.
There are two reasons you might want to track your time.
The first is the most traditional: client billing. If you’re a freelancer or agency whose time is billable by the hour, you’ll need a way to keep on top of the time you spend on each project.
The second is less traditional. Tracking the time you work is a brilliant way to motivate yourself and identify where you’re taking liberties with something to which you have limited access.
I track my own time for both of these reasons, but mainly the latter.
Since I left the world of ‘normal work’ to run my own business, I’ve become a little bit obsessed with how I spend every minute of the working day. It’s why I’m sat here at 06:26 on a Monday morning writing this blog post; I know I need to get a bunch of stuff done before most people crawl out of bed.
I’ve identified that this is one of my most productive times of the day and it means that I can happily jump onto my bike at 9am, cycle to my local coffee shop and not worry about any time lost during that journey.
The reason I know this is because I track every minute I work with an app called Toggl. That might sound like a one-way ticket to Irritatingville, but it’s quite the opposite.
How I track my time with Toggl Track
Granted, at first, tracking the time you spend on every task sounds a bit odd, and it feels like it’ll be a minor burden that you’ll inevitably abandon or forget about.
That’s exactly how I felt when I started using Toggl (now known as Toggl Track), but I’m so glad I stuck with it.
Toggl Track is available on the Mac, iPhone, iPad, Android, Windows, the web and even Linux (I know – nice, right?). It syncs perfectly across every device on which it’s installed, so you always have your timer to hand (this is more useful than you might think – particularly if you work in multiple locations throughout the day).
It’s free, too, unless you want to use it as part of a team. And, a little bit like the wonderful Notion, the team at Toggl are very generous with what’s included in the free tier (certainly, I’ve not felt the need to upgrade thus far).
Operating Toggl is as simple as entering a description of the thing you’re working on and hitting the start button. Once you’re done, you hit ’stop’, and move onto your next task. It takes seconds.
That alone will give you great insight into what you do each day. But you can go a lot further.
Toggl enables you to add clients and tags to each of your tasks to better group the reporting of your daily effort. You can set your billable rate against specific clients and view how your day is progressing either in a simple list format or via a calendar view. Toggl Track can also be set up to remind you to start the timer if you’ve forgotten to do so and will email you if you’ve accidentally left a timer running.
Like so many of the apps I use, I barely scratch the surface of Toggl Track, but its brilliance lies in the ability to be pared down to exactly what you require, without wading through the stuff you don’t. So, I simply add a task name, select the relevant client and hit start – that’s it.
Toggl Track sits neatly within the Mac’s menu bar, and I’m always glancing upwards to check how long I’ve worked on a particular task. It’s a bit like a rudimentary Pomodoro timer in that respect; I know instantly if it’s safe to take a break or if I need to crack on for a little while longer.
The most reassuring thing about Toggl Track, however, is that it’s building a comprehensive dataset of how I spend my time. And you might be surprised by how I use that data.
What I do with all that tracking data
At the start of each week, Toggl sends me an email to inform me of how many hours I worked the week previous, grouped by project. It’s a nice little update on how busy I’ve been and relatively interesting to see how I’m dividing my time. But I don’t obsess over it.
Occasionally, I’ll need to bill a client based on how many hours I’ve worked for them. Thanks to Toggl’s ridiculously simple reporting suite, two or three clicks gives me everything I need to prove my worth.
But that’s it. I don’t dig deeply into where I’m spending my time or conduct a weekly review of daily productivity patterns. To me, Toggl is a productivity tool; it keeps me motivated.
Without a timestamp against your time, it’s easy to overlook how busy (or otherwise) you’ve been. For instance, if I reach lunchtime and spot that I’ve only done three hours of work that morning, I know it hasn’t been a particularly productive start to the day.
Distractions are everywhere; nipping out to grab a takeaway coffee when you should have finished that important report takes longer than you think. Toggl reveals where you’re misspending your time, simply by showing you an up-to-date tally of hours worked.
Breaks are important, but since I’ve started using Toggl, mine have become far more structured and reward-based. If I have a stonking morning of productivity, I’ll reward myself with a longer gym visit. If I’ve clearly been faffing about all afternoon, I’ll commit to working that evening.
I can’t think of another app in my toolkit that helps me in this way.