Hate working weekends? Try tracking time

Woman using calendar application on computer in office

Credit: grinvalds/iStock/Getty

If I’ve learned anything after 18 years in research, it’s that most scientists don’t know how many hours they actually work, let alone how long it takes them to complete specific tasks.

Without that data, you can’t make realistic plans to get things done. The inevitable result is that work permeates every part of your life, including the weekends. Life becomes like an episode of US psychological TV drama Terminationwhere you never, ever take out the clock.

Once, a principal called me into a meeting with human resources and asked me why I wasn’t spending more time in the classroom. Because I use software to track my time, I could count every minute of the year. The data revealed that I spent much more than half my time in the classroom. We ended up having a very different conversation than my manager expected how to reduce my teaching load Winning!

Collecting data about how and when you work can not only help resolve occasional workplace conflicts, but can also prevent overwork. After five years of time tracking, for example, I know that it takes at least 40 minutes each day to manage my email, and that I need to spend an additional 30% of my “invisible work” time managing any project. (Invisible work includes meetings, paperwork, and other tasks that are unexpected but still part of my time budget.) However, when I show other people my time tracking system, their usual reaction is polite horror. Some people can’t believe that I spend 15 minutes or more checking system data for accuracy and generating reports, or that I don’t see the point of spending time measuring time. But I would say that these 15 minutes are well spent if I can avoid working on weekends.

Time is in my head

I’ve learned the hard way that overwork leads to burnout. But I also looked at academics’ work practices. In a 2019 analysis, my colleagues and I reported that academics were submitting manuscripts to two medical journals over the weekend.1. That’s not surprising: writing is one of the most easily removed tasks from the regular work schedule. When multiple people are involved in a writing project, the problem of slipping deadlines is compounded. Other people’s poor planning affects your schedule, and instead of relaxing, your summer vacation is spent writing, causing a vicious cycle of overwork.

The solution is obvious: track your time.

My favorite time tracking tool is the Timing app for macOS users, which runs in the background and “sees” how I’m working. (RescueTime performs a similar function for Windows users.) These programs cost up to $10 per month (tax-deductible in Australia here), and allow you to capture time spent using the computer and away from the keyboard. for example, in meetings.

Portrait of inger mewburn

Inger Mewburn uses software to track the time she spends on tasks at work.Credit: Boring Headshots (

The Timing application can be trained to categorize your timings based on the type of program you are using and the keywords within a document. A dashboard summarizes how you spend your time and the rhythms of your work, and you can decide what is “productive” time at the keyboard to create a score. You might rate social networking sites, for example, as a poor use of time compared to the time spent using Microsoft Word. I can add notes to these time logs; this is important because tasks such as writing can change depending on the context; Writing a journal article takes more time than writing an email, and it’s important to know the difference in order to plan accordingly.

Looking at your productivity score can help you stay true to your goals and organize your days. My analysis tells me that I’m most productive before lunch, so I make sure to schedule challenging tasks in the morning. You can also create reports to report on your planning processes and share them with your colleagues.

My typical work week is just over 44 hours. About half of that time is spent teaching, the rest split between service work, research, passion projects, and FAT (my fancy term for invisible work – no prizes for figuring out what FAT is, but you can find it here. my blog). Passionate work is the work I do for myself. I don’t believe in paying my employer overtime, so I make sure that all my university duties fit into the 37.5 hours per week stated in my contract. I also like to record podcasts and write articles like this, which are not part of my job. When I left when a previous employer made noise about wanting to take my blog name and content, my Timing data helped show that I owned the intellectual property. I went with my ‘Thesis Whisperer‘ baby in my arms, but the experience made me realize that my career is more than the job I have at any given time and that I need to protect my assets.

Pre-match analysis

When planning a large project, I like to conduct an analysis using the US Army’s Program Evaluation and Review Technique (PERT).

PERT takes into account three variables, probably (Tm), optimistic (Toh) and pessimistic (Tp) time to complete a task — you can calculate it using your timesheet data. I do this manually, but Time can also create spreadsheets that show how many hours I’ve spent on specific projects, allowing me to collect and compare data week to week. You can then plug your numbers into the following formulas to calculate how much time you should allow to complete the task:

PERT time estimate = (Toh + 4Tm + Tp) / 6

Standard Deviation = (TpToh) / 6

You’ll be amazed at how quickly your calendar fills up when you plan with PERT! However, for many academics keeping time sheets is a non-starter. Perhaps they feel it undermines the autonomy and flexibility we all value about academia. But really, it’s the other way around: if you know how long routine tasks take, then you can fit them into your week instead of using the weekend as a work buffer.

And it is better to do this than our employers. To be clear, I am opposed to the idea of ​​universities tracking our time; in the hands of management, accurate task time data can be used as a performance-encouraging stick. But for researchers, time tracking software can bring greater productivity and insight into your work practices and habits.

As the saying goes, what gets measured gets managed, and you just might get your weekends back.

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