Out of Whack: Five Reasons Tracking Work Time Wastes Time

by Laura Stack, MBA, CSP, CPAE

“Here’s my timesheet, filled out in increments of 15 minutes. As usual, I coded the useless hours spent in meetings as “work,” whereas the time I spent in the shower designing circuits in my mind as “non-work.” Interestingly, even the time I spent complaining about my lack of productivity is considered “work.””—Dilbert to an HR colleague, in the comic strip Dilbert by Scott Adams, September 15, 1995

Anyone who’s ever labored in a corporate environment has been required, at one time or another, to track their work time. You’ve probably been there, scrambling to figure out what the heck you did from 1:15 to 1:30 last Thursday afternoon. Were you working on Project A, B, or C? Were you cleaning your cube or organizing files to enhance your long-term productivity? Was that the day you spent a long lunch-hour with the VP of Marketing? Or were you taking a bio-break or getting some coffee… and if so, what project do you assign it to?

More pressing, perhaps, is how you allot the time you spent filling out your timesheet instead of working. There probably isn’t a special code just for it.

If you’re most fastidious than most, how often should you update your timesheet? Every day, every hour, or heaven forbid, even more often? One of my colleagues once had a co-worker who would carefully track each tenth-hour, even to the point of writing down when you walked into his office to speak with him (and what’s the code for consultation with your colleagues?)

The Justification

Administrators and management justify time-tracking because they claim it helps them plan for the future, gives them accurate estimates on time spent and productivity for each project, helps them bill separately for internal and external clients, provides a means to focus on high-value activity, and sometimes, because they’re required to by the government. However…

The Reality

Tightly tracking your work time may in fact help with some metrics, at least insofar as they’re based on your and your co-workers’ guesses after the fact. But there are problems that overturn most, if not all, of the above excuses. If you’re saddled by government regulations, that’s one thing; but if not, you might want to keep track of the facts that time-tracking:

  1. Comes laden with baggage. It expresses the sentiment that management doesn’t trust you, even that they’re spying on you and want you to justify every minute. It also smacks of micromanagement, and can be demoralizing and distracting, to the point of affecting morale.
  1. Wastes valuable work time. How much depends on the person, but several time-tracking app sites (which I won’t link here) claim up to 13%. That’s 5+ hours per 40-hour week. I personally thank this is a little high, but even an hour a week is too much. If you’re paid $25 an hour, that’s costing the company at least $1,250 annually for you alone. Wouldn’t you rather have a new computer instead?
  1. Typically gets done all at once. Workers who do this (i.e., most of us), may not remember everything accurately. Therefore, tracking doesn’t necessarily contribute to more accurate future estimates; nor does it help HR calculate labor costs, or contribute to future planning. “Guesstimating” moots all those points.
  1. Is useless if you work on one project at a time. Many white-collar workers focus on monolithic projects, such as coding for a new app, program, or game. Often these are broken down into subtasks, but even then, you may end up working on one thing all day for weeks, months, even years. If you’re only working one project, why bother breaking it down daily into solid blocks of single tasks, and then adding another line item for the time you wasted filling out your timesheet?
  2. Can be an arbitrary measure of your productivity (see the Dilbert quote above), especially if it doesn’t really reflect what you do in terms of performance. Just because you spent a certain amount of time on Project A vs. a lesser amount on Project C doesn’t mean you accomplished less on Project C. You could have run into problems on Project A that slowed your progress. It happens. And yes, epiphanies do occur in the shower.

Time in a Bottle

Closely tracking your work time can be a good thing if trying to determine where your time goes, and you’re diligent about it. As I pointed out in a Fast Company article in 2015, it’s also fine for those who charge clients by the hour and for payroll professionals. Otherwise, it’s just another hassle, and if you’re like most of us, you (a) are trying to remember what you did after the fact, inaccurately; (b) are confused about whether to include non-work like coffee and breaks; or (c) really don’t need it. In the end, there may be no reasonable point in tracking your time at all.

© 2020 Laura Stack. Laura Stack, MBA, CSP, CPAE is an award-winning keynote speaker, bestselling author, and noted authority on employee and team productivity. She is the president of The Productivity Pro, Inc., a company dedicated to helping leaders increase workplace performance in high-stress environments. Stack has authored eight books, including FASTER TOGETHER: Accelerating Your Team’s Productivity (Berrett-Koehler 2018). She is a past president of the National Speakers Association, and a member of its exclusive Speaker Hall of Fame (with fewer than 175 members worldwide). Stack’s clients include Cisco Systems, Wal-Mart, and Bank of America, and she has been featured on the CBS Early Show and CNN, and in the New York Times. To have Laura Stack speak at an upcoming meeting or event, call 303-471-7401 or contact us online.