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The customer-service email that made me appreciate the art of time tracking

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  • Corinne Purtill
By Corinne Purtill

Reporter

Published This article is more than 2 years old.

Last month, the Quartz at Work team decided to try an experiment to help us understand how we use our time at work. Each member of the team was instructed to download the time-tracking app Toggl and spend one week tracking how much time we devoted to our most common workplace tasks: reporting and information gathering, writing and editing, meetings, social media, email, Slack, and miscellaneous activities.

It was not a universal success. Some members of the team found that time-tracking boosted productivity; others found the app’s counter intrusive and distracting.

Quartz at Work senior reporter Corinne Purtill was in the latter camp, and was feeling particularly frustrated with the app when a routine email from Toggl’s support team arrived in her inbox. She responded to the email, beginning a correspondence with Toggl that helped her understand the argument for time-tracking (though she won’t be doing it again anytime soon.) Here, with Toggl’s permission, is that exchange.

From: Veljko (Toggl)
To: Corinne Purtill (Quartz)
Thursday, Sep. 27 at 5:34 PM

Hi Corinne, My name is Veljko—I am the person at the other end of Toggl support, the one reading and replying to your messages when you get in touch with us. Feel free to write to me with questions, suggestions, or just general feedback at any time. I am here for you :)

For now, I just wanted to check in and ask how your Toggl experience has been so far?
I also wanted to let you know that we are starting the Toggl Master consulting program. If you need any help with setting up Toggl for your team, then please leave your information here.

Talk soon,

Veljko

From: Corinne Purtill (Quartz)
To: Veljko (Toggl)
Friday, Sep. 28 at 2:08 PM

Hello Veljko,

Thank you for your email! You have reached me at the perfect time. Because things are not going well with Toggl, Veljko. Things are not going well at all.

Some background. I work on a small team of journalists that covers work and management for a news site called Quartz. Recently it was decided that, as a group exercise, we would all download Toggl and spend a week assiduously tracking how every second—literally, every second!—of our work day was spent.

I was skeptical of this exercise, as I often am of our group ventures. I have not yet recovered from the sting of the week in which the group decided to take a coffee break together every afternoon in the New York office, a bonding event they suggested I join via video link from my remote desk in Los Angeles. But I’m a team player, Veljko, and I downloaded Toggl on Monday. After a few false starts, I set up the categories that we mutually agreed encapsulate the bulk of our work—reporting and information gathering, writing and editing, meetings, social media, email, Slack (do you use Slack at Toggl? If not, don’t start) and a final, catch-all category called “misc.”

The app works exactly as it’s supposed to. I have no technical complaints. But you made what I believe was a sincere request for general feedback, and so I will tell you: I don’t like Toggl. To be more accurate: I loathe Toggl.

This is not Toggl’s fault. You and your team have built a clean and intuitive product that works exactly as advertised. In the future, if I encounter a person who expresses a desire to document their time use, I will recommend your app to that person. It is a fine time-tracking app. What I have learned from using it is how little I enjoy tracking my time.

It was time-consuming, for one. My first action upon launching Toggl was to clean out my email inbox—an activity that, I assumed, would fall tidily into the “email” category. A minute into deleting, and in came a Slack alert from a colleague with a time-sensitive question. I delayed my reply for a second in order to open Toggl and change my activity from “email” to “Slack,” since that’s what I was now doing, and then toggled (Toggld?) back to “email” when Slack time was done. Another minute went by, another Slack message arrived, and the cycle started anew. Eventually the first colleague wrote back and I ignored her, to avoid having to Toggl again.

I returned to my inbox. At the top was an email with a story tip. I started to email the people involved to get more information, which left me with a quandary: was I emailing, or was I reporting/information gathering? Could a moment in time be both one thing and also another? Does recording the time as “reporting” look more productive than “emailing,” and should such self-interested biases be influencing my categorization choices?

Then someone else Slacked me and I responded without remembering to enter the time in Toggl. The day was an hour old, and already my record of Slack use (and social media, if I’m being honest) was full of lies by omission.

I was supposed to Toggl for five consecutive workdays, from Monday to Friday this week. I Toggld exactly three hours, 38 minutes and 33 seconds. Then I put the app down and did not pick it up again until now.

I didn’t like how much time time-tracking took. One of my suspicions of the cult of productivity is that time spent obsessively tracking, charting, and analyzing how one works could be more effectively spent actually working. I also found it disruptive to the flow of the workday. I like to hide my phone from myself as I work, lest I squander precious minutes scrolling through Instagram photos of long-haired women pretending to smile at something out of the frame. Using Toggl demanded that I constantly return to this thing that I know for sure is stealing my time, and is probably stealing my joy.

Which brings me to my biggest problem. I like my job, as I hope that you like yours. I like the concept of what I do for a living, which is try to tell stories that haven’t been told before. I like the feeling of winding up a day when I’ve learned or written something new. But when I break the day down into the mundane tasks that lead to that feeling, all the magic seeps out. Tracking my time felt soulless, and it made me dwell unhappily on how much day-to-day grunt work goes into doing even the things we love.

As an alternative example: I have kids. I love them, and I love that we are a family. But a minute-by-minute record of our interactions—which this morning would have read something like “Pour cornflakes and milk, 0:02; reject request for Cheerios and explain why it’s wasteful to change your mind once milk is poured, 0:01; reject request for 6:13 a.m showing of Paw Patrol, 0:01; observe toddler tantrum, 0:08”—would be grim reading indeed.

This is a really long email to write to the support technician of an app with no discernible technical problems. Thank you for hanging in there with me. I’m going to have to tell my boss when she asks that I did not actually do the thing we were supposed to do, and before I do, I want to check my own blind spots. It is entirely possible that I let myself get overly frustrated by the hurdle of adjusting to a new habit. I’m willing to be convinced. What I’d like to ask is: What am I missing? Has time tracking improved your life, and if so, how?

Sincerely,

Corinne

From: Rico (Toggl)
To: Corinne Purtill (Quartz)
Monday, Oct. 1 at 5:34 PM

Hi Corinne,

Veljko is offline at the moment, but I just wanted to say whoa. Thanks so much for reaching out and sharing your experiencer with us. Regardless of what I share here, I do hope you continue telling stories!

I truly understand where you’re coming from. We have an entire Product Team working around the clock (we come from all over the world) to make Toggl as easy and straightforward as possible.

No matter how much we make ourselves easy to use, no matter how automated we get, time-tracking will always require a conscious effort. Both the individual and the team have to be on board for it to have any success.

Of course, in some industries time-tracking literally puts food on the table. Many lawyers and ad industry veterans I’ve serviced swear by us. I used to work in an ad agency, and I wished I had known about Toggl then. I even remember that our clunky, proprietary agency time-tracking tool even let you specify the time you spent on… inputting time! (How meta I guess?)

The fact remains however that time-tracking isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. This is more true if how you organize time isn’t a natural evolution of how you actually work, but a regime imposed top-down.

Maybe you didn’t have to be so exact with your time-tracking. Maybe you could’ve just kept that quick call as part of your email category. Maybe you could’ve used our Tags to further categorize your emailing, if that floated your boat.]] I’m speaking for myself when I say that the best time-tracking is only something you can decide, by yourself or with others, based on actual work habits.

I can’t comment on the cult of productivity you’ve described, but let me share with you how time-tracking worked for me. I was super-excited when I started working for Toggl last year. As an Asian with a “your work is your life” outlook, I’d put in nine-hour-plus days (I think?) during my first month. My European officemates always found that weird, and my team lead would always shoo me away via Slack (yes, we use it!) whenever he thought I was spending too much time on work.

As a support agent who’s expected to know everything about the service, I decided to start time-tracking with Toggl. I’m not a reporter, and I have less things to balance at any given time. For example, I don’t need to answer a phone at a moment’s notice, and just concentrate on the cases on our support system.

So the scheme I came up with was pretty simple. Am I answering emails? I log “Answer emails.” Am I catching up on yesterday’s updates on Slack? “Read Slack.” Any meetings via video call or in-person is marked as “Meet with X.” I never bothered measuring my breaks, instead I’d just stop the timer.

I think the key was coming up with a list of commonly tracked activities, which meant I didn’t have to spend so much time on how to decide to track what I was doing. I could rename my entries later on anyway through our detailed report’s bulk edit feature, if my team lead ever wanted to see a report on how I spent my time.

What happened was a surprise. I thought I was spending nine hours a day on work, when actually it was more like six or seven. My tracked time was full of gaps, the largest one being my lunch break. The other small gaps littered throughout represent my playing bullet chess, and watching YouTube videos.

A question was clear: Could I get the same things done faster, with less interruptions? As a Manila resident, avoiding our terrible traffic and working at home had already cut my day down by 3+ hours. Yet my “home office”—just a desk plopped down in our common area—is a distraction magnet.

I won’t go into detail about what I did to cut my work day down. Let’s just say I took a look at several approaches promising improved productivity, and just found what worked for me. I also believe that there’s no one-size-fits-all approach towards being more productive.

You just have to find what works. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have bothered. I even created a Spotify playlist full of songs that would help my zone in on my computer, but without overly enthralling beats that would make me bob my head like an idiot.

If I wasn’t tracking my time during my experiments, I wouldn’t have clear data that I was progressing. I was able to see the time I spent during the day go down bit by bit, and that inspired me to go even further. In the end, I decided that it was worth the conscious effort to track my time—which I already minimized through a tracking scheme that matched my personality and habits—to see if I was actually becoming more efficient.

Right now, I’m at around six to seven hours a day, with breaks included. This means I have more time to fall victim to Grob’s attack, watching Tekken 7 highlights, reading stories to my son, and even trying my hand at recreational boxing.

I hope my own story was worth the read, as much as yours was to me. I’ll be going offline now as it’s the end of my day. Feel free to reach out however if you have any more questions!

All the best,

Rico

From: Corinne Purtill (Quartz)
To: Rico (Toggl)
Tuesday, Oct, 9 at 6:40 PM 

Hello Rico,

Thank you so much for this thoughtful reply. I also occasionally receive emails from crazy people at work; I hope that I always reply with as much patience and good humor as you have shown here.

I can definitely see how Toggl would be a useful tool for people required to bill and track their time, and I’m glad to hear that you found it personally motivating as well.

This stuck with me: ”The fact remains however the time-tracking isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. This is more true if how you organize time isn’t a natural evolution of how you actually work, but a regime imposed top-down.” My experience with Toggl this time around was definitely a top-down imposition. If there comes a time in the future when I feel personally motivated to make changes to my productivity, I will give it another try.

More than anything, I want to thank you for your patience in listening to my rant, and for responding with such care. I may never be a big fan of time-tracking, but I am definitely now a fan of the people at Toggl.

Thanks again,

Corinne

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