Academic Hour Tracking: Why, When, How

One tool I find indispensible in managing my time is keeping track of how I spend my working hours. During the past years, I have tracked my time at the hour level, split across around 20 tasks, grouped into three high level categories corresponding to my main responsibilities (management, research, teaching).

Keeping track of hours has helped me as follows:

  1. Formulating a strategy: Thinking in terms of hours spent per week, forces me to formulate a bigger strategy on how I wish to spend my time: I want to work around 40h per week, divided evenly over management, research, and teaching.

  2. Identifying time sinks: Activities that take more time than expected become visible. This need not be a problem per se, but making time sinks explicit helps me to adjust the planning of my other activities.

  3. Keeping commitments: Seeing my time spent helps me understand if I keep my commitments. For example, my hour sheets will tell me when I spent substantially less time on one PhD student compared to another, so that I can take action.

  4. Rewarding myself: When I’m in a week with, e.g., clearly too much management, I have a good reason to cut down organizational duties the next week, and engage in some research instead (without feeling “guilty” about this).

  5. Planning my work: My sheets of the previous year help me in planning the current year.

  6. Organizational change: Knowing how much time activities take gives me a great starting point for an informed debate about organizational change — within the department, university, with my boss, or in my research community.

  7. Slowing down: My sheets tell me when there is a busy period, and that I need to slow down.

  8. Regaining control: Stress is a factor in (academic) life, and I’m not immune to it. Regaining control over my time by seeing what I do is a stress management tool I can’t live without.

My approach to keeping hours is simple and low tech: I just use a spreadsheet:

  • It has columns for my activity types (around 20) grouped together into three high level categories.

  • It has one row for each day

  • A cell contains the number of hours spent on an activity on a given day. I always use round numbers (full hours), but I know others who track at the level of 15 minutes.

  • The top row aggregates the time and percentages of the activities: I can, e.g., see that I spent 10% of my time on course X, and 5% of my time reviewing for conference Y.

  • I have aggregating columns giving the time spent that day, the total time spent the last week, and the average time spent per week over the full measuring period.

I typically use a spreadsheet for half a year, and then start a fresh one with adjusted columns. Whenever activities take more than 10%, I try to split them into different smaller ones, to better see what is taking so much time.

The bigger categories can sometimes raise interesting questions: Is reviewing research? Is project acquisition and proposal writing research? Is supervising a master student research? But whatever the categories, these activities take time, and monitoring them makes explicit how much.

I usually fill in my spreadsheet at the end of the day or the end of the week. I use my memory, calendar, and sometimes my email archives to remember what I did. For my purposes, this is sufficiently precise. Filling in the sheet takes me less than 15 minutes — and while filling it in I am forced to reflect on how I spend my time.

If you’re interested in following a similar approach, I’ve created a template empty spreadsheet for download. An alternative is to use the BubbleTimer app and service (which Jonathan Aldrich uses).

If you’re struggling with your time try out tracking it: it has helped me, and hopefully it will help you too!


(c) Arie van Deursen, April 2018. CC-BY-SA-4.0.


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Image: Astronomical clock, Strasbourg. Credit: Pascal Subtil, Flickr, CC-BY-2.0