NATURE

what I learnt from using a time-tracking spreadsheet

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Close-up a woman looking at her wrist watch while working at a laptop

By monitoring where she spent her time, Megan Rogers could improve her working hours and track her achievements.Credit: Getty

Starting a tenure-track faculty position can be daunting, with several seemingly equally important responsibilities competing for time. These include establishing a laboratory, launching research studies, writing grant applications, publishing papers and preparing and teaching courses. You also have to mentor students, perform service activities and engage in professional-development opportunities. And all of these duties must be juggled while also learning the institution’s norms and procedures.

With this in mind, I began monitoring where I was spending my time and energy in July 2022, just before starting my faculty position at Texas State University in San Marcos. I had two goals: optimizing my work hours and tracking my accomplishments for annual reviews.

I first identified key areas that faculty members typically prioritize for career advancement: ‘research’, ‘teaching’, ‘service’, ‘professional development’ and ‘other’ (predominantly a catch-all term for reading and writing e-mails and organizing projects and weekly to-do lists). I also brainstormed subcategories to get a more granular view of how I was using my time; for example, I grouped ‘grants’ and ‘study execution’ under research, ‘course prep’ and ‘grading’ under teaching and ‘journal review’ and ‘professional organization’ under service. Then, I tracked my productive activities in 30-minute increments throughout my entire first year on the tenure track.

The key word here is ‘productive’. I considered those activities to be work-related tasks that advanced a particular project or initiative, such as writing grants, holding office hours and answering e-mails. But they excluded time spent physically in the office when I wasn’t working (for example, having lunch with colleagues, using social media or staring at the wall, thinking). I intentionally counted only time spent productively, so that I could get a sense of (1) how many hours of work I was capable of; and (2) what types of activity I completed.

To keep things as low cost and flexible as possible, I used a spreadsheet. This allowed me to add entries both on the go (which I preferred) and at the end of the day. This spreadsheet has been open on my computer ever since.

After just a few days, time tracking became a natural part of my workflow and took just a couple minutes a day to complete. As well as the name or description, category and subcategory of the activity, I also track the level at which it occurs (such as department, college, university or professional), the date, for how many hours I engage in the task and any other relevant details (for instance, what progress I make).

Crunching the numbers

I worked 1,835 hours between July 2022 and July 2023, averaging 32.8 hours of productive time a week over that 13-month period. Unsurprisingly, most of that time was spent on teaching and research, each of which accounted for about one-third of my productive hours. The trends reflect the workload of a new faculty member, with considerable time dedicated to teaching (for example, course preparation) in July and August of my first year, and a jump in research productivity between semesters and from May to July 2023 (see ‘Annual review’).

Annual review. A stacked percentage bar chart showing the breakdown of productive hours spent on areas such as teaching and research.

Collecting data is just one part of the picture, however. More important is identifying, critically examining, and responding to patterns in the data. This process not only made my annual review a piece of cake — I had all the information at my fingertips, after all — but also helped me to understand myself, troubleshoot sticking points and, ultimately, become a more productive researcher. Here are my five key takeaways:

Working more than 45 productive hours a week is unsustainable. I exceeded 45 hours a week for several weeks in October 2022, and it started to negatively affect my health, relationships and more. Even when maintaining a 40-hour working week, I was so tired from the many cognitive demands of faculty life that I was rarely performing at my best. Tracking my time allowed me to seek balance whenever I tried to do too much. Now, I aim for no more than 40 productive hours a week.

Tasks often take much longer than you expect. Even after years in academia, I still underestimate how long it will take me to write a paper, prepare slides or put together a grant proposal. By tracking my time, I gradually developed more-accurate estimates of the time requirements of certain tasks and thereby improved my ability to schedule them on a daily and weekly basis.

It’s OK to have a life. I had a very productive first year: I published some two dozen papers, submitted or assisted on nine grants, did several conference presentations and chaired an international conference. I also received consistently positive teaching evaluations from students and peers — and yet I rarely worked more than 40 hours a week. The key here, again, is productive hours. When I’m working, I’m working; when I’m not, I’m not. And that’s fine. Being focused while at work allows more time for other rejuvenating and enjoyable activities.

It is OK for focus to ebb and flow over time. Although I did reasonably well in maintaining my intended goal of a 40:40:20 split across research, teaching and service, this was not necessarily the case on a weekly or even monthly basis. My teaching-related hours were higher when I was preparing courses; my service hours sky-rocketed in April, when the conference I chaired was held; and I generally had much more time for research in May, June and July, when teaching and service loads were minimal. There is no need to be rigid about maintaining an ‘ideal’ split from week to week — if you’re diligent, these ratios will work out in the end.

Be flexible. Before starting my position, I could only guess what tasks would be most relevant to track. With more than a year of experience behind me, I have started experimenting with extra subcategories (such as lab management) that better reflect my day-to-day work. I am also integrating ways to limit my working hours (for example, by planning activities outside work more consistently, doing a weekly review and scheduling the following week accordingly), so that my ‘eight hours a day’ do not stretch into the evenings and weekends. Furthermore, I am keeping an open mind as I refine my systems — what works for one person doesn’t necessarily help another, so I’m trying things out while being true to myself.

Odd as it might be to say, I’ve found that tracking my time can be rewarding and thought-provoking — fun, even. I have enjoyed this deep dive into my work life and plan to continue exploring trends and changes in my personal trajectories as I move forward in my career.

If you want to try out my time-tracking system, you can download my Microsoft Excel template. Good luck!

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