Productivity journal vs time tracking: what’s more useful?

Last updated on 
July 8, 2020

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We all want to be more productive, but sometimes, no matter how good our intentions, we don’t seem to get much done. Most of us have got to the end of the day and wondered where on earth the time’s gone – but without a record of where, and how, we’re spending our day, we’re none the wiser. In the case of productivity, knowledge is power, and the more information you have about the ways you work, the more you can improve. This is where productivity journals and time tracking come in – but how do you use them? How can they benefit you? And in the struggle for greater self-knowledge and clarity of purpose, which is more useful?

The purpose of journaling and tracking productivity

While productivity journals and time trackers are used in different ways, they both have the same aim: to shine a light on the way you work to help you become more productive. Both create a record of the progress you’ve made, allowing you to reflect on your productive performance and see where you can improve. Both methods can help you:

  • Create space for introspecting on your productive performance
  • Produce a record of your progress – and in turn, some measure of productivity
  • Analyze and improve your efficiency – revealing insights on unconscious habits, sluggish processes, distracting apps, low-value tasks and skewed priorities
  • Clarify  goals and the necessary actions to achieve them
  • Learn about the ways you work – including when your focus peaks and flags

Essentially, productivity journals and time trackers help you break down the way you work, allowing you to tweak and measure your productive efforts to get the most from your performance. But which tool, exactly, is best for the job?

The case for productivity journals

How do  you use it?

Productivity journals are, as the name suggests, journals that document how productive you are. You write out your goals and activities, reflecting on your performance, successes and failures, and then use this info to improve. A good way to start is by writing down everything you want to achieve that week – e.g. write a 2,000 word article, finalize a project and fill out your tax form. As you work on these tasks, you document anything important – how you felt after completing a task, what you found difficult, what you’d change next time, what was wasted time. At the end of the week, read through the journal and use these insights to improve.

OneNote is a good digital option for productivity journaling, allowing you to easily include handwritten notes and images.

Pros

If you’re a wordsmith or enjoy writing, productivity journals might be right for you. As a long-form way of processing achievements and clarifying goals and actions, the information recorded is rich and descriptive. The benefits can run much deeper than just improving your productivity, too; writing down how you feel can be therapeutic – like giving a cluttered, noisy mind a clean-out, so it’s quieter and able to think more clearly.

Many psychologists and scientists also believe that journaling helps us find new meaning. Students who write down what their teachers say verbatim don’t learn as much as students who actually process the information themselves and write it down in their own words, after self-analysis. It’s the same for journaling: one study found that students who reflect on their experiences by writing them down did better than peers who didn’t; another study found that students who kept introspective journals over the holidays reported higher energy and a more positive attitude on their return.

Cons

On the flipside, productivity journals can be time consuming and stodgy. Because they’re usually hand-written and contain cumbersome paragraphs, they’re not easy to analyze and don’t provide a user-friendly overview of your productivity. They also don’t provide the most objectively precise account of your performance. Often they’re led by emotions, which leads to selective representation that misses details and overlooks unconscious behaviors. If you aren’t aware of how much you use a certain app throughout the day – or only ever consider interaction with it to be productive – you might miss some pretty big inefficiencies and time wasting activities.

The case for time trackers

How do you  use it?

Time tracking apps allow you to capture all your daily activity to produce an infallible record of your productivity. When done automatically, this effectively holds up a mirror up to everything you do while you’re working – the time you spend on different tasks, how much time you spend across projects, specific apps and tasks that consume your time, where you get distracted, when you are most focused, and how much you switch context when working. They are especially useful for making “background” internal work visible, so you can address it – showing how long you spend on things like daily communication, project management and essential admin.

Automatic time tracker Timely captures everything you work on for you, creating a flawless account of your daily productive performance.

Pros

Many people still mistakenly believe time tracking requires a lot of overhead, but you can actually automate the entire thing. Apps like Timely run in the background, automatically recording all your activity to a private timeline. It means you don’t have to remember to start and stop timers, or actively write anything down. Aside from saving you the time of documenting your own productivity, these time trackers also do the job with extreme accuracy and objectivity, since every detail about your work is made visible for analysis.  

Time tracking data can also be transformed into different formats to aid consumption and analysis. Whether using in-built time tracking reporting tools or exporting data to structure yourself, in just a few clicks you review your productivity in graphs and charts. Data can then be fed into other apps that analyze your performance patterns for you; tools like Dewo, for example, can use your time tracking data to show you how to improve the way you work.

Cons

Of course, being such an empirical approach to productivity, time tracking doesn’t capture the emotional context of work. Some people get around this by adding contextual notes to specific time entries. Automatic time tracking also produces a productive record for you – it skips the manual recording step, which some people value and find aids their introspection.

The verdict

Both time trackers and productivity journals have their advantages and limitations, and ultimately there’s no “right” or “wrong” answer. It all depends on what you want to get out of it: are you looking to simply eliminate distractions and inefficiencies from your working day, or are you hoping to gain a deeper understanding of how you work and the way it makes you feel? The best solution may even be a blend of the two: add manual notes to your time tracking entries to record emotional insights and contextual details to your work. Both trackers and journals have their uses, but using them together might return the most value for you.

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