Want to be more productive? Don’t time your tasks

Time tracking apps have become increasingly common for a number of reasons. Some people need to time how long a task takes in order to create timesheets and invoices, others are curious to see just how long a particular task takes. But a recent trend in these apps being marketed as a way to boost productivity is concerning, and not just because I prefer notebooks over iPads. The idea that only giving yourself 20 minutes to do a task will mean that you only need 20 minutes to do it seems counterintuitive to me. Personally, I abide by the simple philosophy that timing your tasks doesn’t make them go faster, as an activity will take as long as it takes to complete.

There’s also the issue of being overly monitored. In a world where we track everything from our food to our sleep to our exercise, do we really need to add a fourth dimension on top of that? And even if you are currently screaming “Yes, yes I do!” at your screen right now, consider this question: do we really need an app for everything?

Apps as cure-alls?

In our increasingly digital age, there seems to be a general belief that if something can be done by app, then it’s better. But just because something is more convenient, doesn’t mean it’s necessarily better. 

Many time tracking apps boast that they can help you kick social media or mindless web-browsing habits. But a study of HabitLab - a browser extension and app that uses interventions to curb your time wasted online - showed that while time spent on targeted apps (such as Youtube and Facebook) reduced, phone users often ended up going to a different site not monitored by the app. This suggests that the effects of these apps are limited to what they can see - if you can redistribute wasted time elsewhere, even if that’s offline, you probably will.

Further, some habit management apps have been shown to increase feelings of stress and anxiety. Studies of sleep-tracking apps have shown that people end up obsessing over their sleep so much that they develop insomnia. The purposes of a sleep tracking app are as useful as a time tracking app in my view - all it can do is tell you where you’re failing, but it can’t necessarily tell you how to improve. 

Even those apps that try and help you overcome your supposed problems may not be as reliable as you think. A study of 40,000 health apps by IMS Health showed that the majority provided “information that in no way improves patient health or well-being.” The most popular weight-loss apps had barely any evidence-based strategies, and were usually only effective when users were supplementing their use with other programmes such as exercise regimes or proven nutritional education.

The truth is that with many of these app-only companies, you often aren’t able to put a face to the name. It’s easy to forget that there’s a person behind whatever programme you’re using to track your habits, and they may not always have your best interests at heart. Online counselling app BetterHelp suffered scandal in 2018 when it was discovered that their advertising didn’t match their actual services. While their ads touted their bank of licensed therapists and mental health experts, their T&Cs stated that they “do not determine whether any Counselor is qualified to provide any specific service,” and that users themselves were supposed to verify the qualifications of their expert. Though the company disputed complaints that it was a scam, several bad reviews and distrust over YouTube sponsorships have left a bad taste in people’s mouths.

Though there are no conclusive studies on time tracking apps specifically, as they fall into the ‘habit tracking’ category, it seems likely that they have the potential to exhibit the same kinds of side-effects. To me, many of these apps just seem like another distraction in and of themselves. If being timed wasn’t enough pressure, apps like Pomodoro aim to gamify the experience by planting a tree whenever you start a new task. If you try to switch to a different app while the tree is growing, it will die. God forbid you ever feel the urge to respond to a text from a friend in between answering emails.

If the prospect of destroying the ecosystem wasn’t nerve-wrecking enough, some time management apps certainly have the potential to cause employees sleepless nights knowing that every second is being monitored for efficiency. Some of them border on the Orwellian, such as Desktime which looks at employee URL visits and sorts them into ‘productive’ and ‘unproductive’ according to company targets.

The Truth about Time

If there’s one thing you should take away from this article, it’s that time cannot be controlled, but it can be managed.

Parkinsons’ Law states that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”

In other words, if you have a week to do something, it’s going to take a week, even if you can technically do it in 3 days. But is taking your time to do something really the worst thing in the world? While focusing single-mindedly on the task at hand helps you get it done, it may not be the best or most creative solution to a problem. Some studies show that multitaskers not only produce more ideas, but also more creative ideas. The theory is that letting your mind drop the task at hand to concentrate on something else, and then switching back and forth between the two, allows your mind to get more creative. It’s like when you walk into a room and suddenly forget why you’re there, or when you try to remember a celebrity’s name but can’t quite get it off the tip of your tongue. Sometimes letting go - and letting your mind wander on to other tasks - is the best way to find the answer.

Our perception of time also affects our attitude towards a task, which can have a knock on effect on other areas of performance, such as quality of work. The important thing to note here is the difference between actual time and perceived time. If two people are given the same amount of time to do a task, the one that’s aware of the ticking clock is more likely to do worse than the one who’s confident in the amount of time they have. Time-tracking apps only add to this sense of internalised pressure: instead of taking the time to make sure a task is done properly and to a high standard, you put all your effort into getting it done within a certain time frame.

Alternatives to Time Tracking Apps

Time is a precious resource, and we all wish we could have more of it. But obsessively monitoring how you spend every second is unlikely to transform you into the Usain Bolt of productivity. If you really struggle with time management and need an effective solution that doesn’t require you to constantly look at your phone, then I have a couple of suggestions.

The first is to use the “-10% Rule” to artificially change the amount of time you have to do a task, and redistribute the individual to-dos accordingly. You can read the article explaining the rule in detail, but the basic premise is to calculate how long you have to do a certain task, and then subtract 10% from the total time to give yourself more room to breathe. For example, if you have 2 weeks to write an essay, you can take 1.4 days (we’ll call it a day and a half) off the total time, leaving yourself a little over 12 days to do everything you need to get it done. This is my personal go to whenever I’ve got a lot on, as it also allows me to leave room for any force majeure that may get in the way of my goals.

Also take a look at another article on the “Three Tasks Per Day” system to see some suggestions on making your to-do list more manageable and balanced. Remember, you can’t make time bend to your will. Instead, avoid overextending yourself, and save yourself the trouble of downloading yet another app.

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