Time tracking

An offhand remark in one of the comments posted by one of the participants in the Linked-In group “Getting Things Done – Network of GTD enthusiasts” triggered this post.

In his comment, the reader refers to a tool called “Toggl” which allows you to measure and track your time usage. I’ve used quite a few different time tracking tools myself. I’m currently using a tool called OfficeTime, but there are quite a few good options out there, some more costly than others. What I liked about OfficeTime is that there was a one time fee which gave me access to all the features in the application.

As stated before, I’m an internal auditor. So basically, keeping track of my time and ensuring that my time usage is the most optimal possible is pretty much second nature to me. Yet, and this is slightly disconcerting, I find myself losing focus when I am not tracking my time. Which is why, professionally speaking at least, I track my time usage pretty much all the time. It may be I’m in a meeting, at which point I will log my time using a dedicated iPhone application. And when I’m at my computer, I have a number of visual cues offered to me by the time tracking application I currently use, which remind me that I need to make sure and log my time appropriately.

Let me quickly take you through my setup and how I go about tracking my time. I’m going to try to do this as application agnostic as possible, but it may be referring to function specific to the OfficeTime application. I’m quite certain that while certain aspects of the application may not explicitly exist in other applications, the functionalities of the good time tracking applications are comparable.

Setting up the time tracking application

One of the first things I did was to make sure that I had a place to put the relevant information about my actual task execution. In short, I had to be able to log my time to specific projects as defined in my GTD project list. And there’s a very simple way to go about that, you just copy your GTD project list into the time tracking application. Which is exactly what I did.

As to maintenance, I go through my project list once a week during the weekly review. If projects need to be added, I will add them to the application at that time.

After gathering data for a couple of days, I noticed that this approach did not allow me to accumulate data specific to my areas of responsibility. I knew what I was working on, but failed to see how it related to my higher sets of objectives. There was no link to the higher GTD horizons of focus.

Let’s be very concrete. It’s important that I know how much time we dedicate to compliance auditing and how much time to forensic work and the management of our integrity desk. I need to know how much time we spend doing pure administration, such as answering email, and how much time we invested in training development and delivery as well as following training to ensure we fulfill our Continued Professional Education requirements.

None of these dimensions fit the bill of what we would consider projects in GTD parlance, usually found at the 10.000 ft level. These are rather clusters of projects which are labeled as areas of responsibility, and which we find at the 20.000 ft level in GTD’s Horizons of Focus. The application allows me to use and name an additional level which is “categories” and I use those categories to integrate these areas of responsibility. I’m quite probably losing a reporting dimension using the tool in such a way but the approach provides me with a lot of clarity on where I’m actually spending my time at a level higher than projects.

So, I have all my professional projects coded into my system, and I have a 20.000 ft area of responsibilities dimension coded as well.

Tracking the time

Now time tracking becomes easy. Whenever I’m working on a specific project, which is automatically associated with an area of responsibility, I just click on the application, select the project and it starts tracking my time on that project.

If I get interrupted, which does happen on occasion, I just pause the timer, put away the documents I was working on and dedicate my time to the people visiting my office. Believe it or not, I actually have a project just for that type of interruptions. My initial reticence to activate this project in the presence of other people has disappeared a lot quicker than I actually imagined it would. Whenever they leave, I return to the task at hand, I stop their timer, take out or open my documents again and start tracking my ongoing project.

This of course does not solve the issue on how to track individual next actions. The point is, I really don’t. What I do is once I finish working on a certain project, I will log a reference to the next actions executed in the comments. During actual execution it is too cumbersome to hop into the application, making comments, and back out. That would require just too many tool switches, rendering the whole exercise too labor intensive and hence likely to be abandoned. And I actually have a detailed good track of which next actions I have handled by ticking off my next actions in OmniFocus. Providing too much detail in my time tracking software would create redundant information with an additional challenge of reconciling this information between OfficeTime and OmniFocus. And that’s just not worth it. There is no direct added value of coding that information twice.


I keep a daily, weekly and monthly track of where we spend time in our projects. As internal auditors, we do have a requirement to be accountable. Accountable for the quality of our work, but also accountable for the time we spent. And in my case, heading the internal audit of a publicly funded organization, the Belgian Development Agency, this becomes even more important.

The data gathered by means of time tracking allows us to analyze in a lot more detail what we are doing and how we are doing it. That goes beyond the mere requirements of reporting to our stakeholders. It allows us to analyze with a fine tooth comb where we put our attention and our effort given our limited resources. Does it align with our yearly planning? Does it make sense? Are we, in other words, doing the right things? And are we doing those right things in the best possible, read most efficient manner?

And if not, what is the purpose? Did we fail to adequately prepare? Are the resources dedicated to the audit the right ones? Has the auditee properly prepared for the audit? And most importantly, we go and dig deep into the reaons to ensure better performance in the future.

GTD as a measure of performance

By combining basic GTD principles with the principles of time tracking, and by being consistent in their application, we can now with reasonable certainty say that we are working on what we should be working on, that we are not distracted by other things. And whenever we get distracted, by people coming to visit us, discussing things, offering ideas, we know how much time we spend on that. And whenever I feel that that gets too much we just close the door. And we focus on what matters most.