Beeminder Forum

How I use Toggl (for full-time time tracking)

I gave a rundown of how I, personally, use Toggl (a free timetracking app) for 24/7 time tracking on the beeminder discord, and it was requested that I post it here for broader dissemination, so if you’ve been wondering what are some ways you can organize your life with its client/project/task/tag based labeling, this might be interesting to you!

First off, background: I started using Toggl in 2013 or so during grad school, and I’ve been using it continuously since then. I track ALL my time with the exception of when I’m traveling for vacation (for more or less the same reason that I don’t keep up with any beeminder goals while traveling). I do, in fact, have a timer running right now that I’ll stop when I’m done with this forum post!

As far as “why do I do that”, honestly at this point it’s largely habit, reinforced with a handful of concrete benefits (see also: why do I wear hats). I find that having a timer running improves my focus, because if I suddenly switch gears right now and, say, order a replacement phone charger, I’d have to either stop my timer and start a new one (and label the task, see below for details), or I’d have to later label this current task something clunky, like “Post on beeminder forum + Order phone charger” and then figure out what project I should assign that to (see below) etc etc, and that’s the sort of thing that makes data cry. I also have been able to pull out some cool numbers on occasion – I wrote up a detailed breakdown of exactly how long I spent on each step of grad school (turns out most of my time was wasted on a project that completely failed and never went anywhere), I was able to look at exactly how my time use changed after having a baby (mostly I stopped randomly surfing the web as much), and when my manager asks for time estimates for projects I can go “well the last several times I had to build a feature like that it took me 4 hours.” I will say the data hasn’t really been life-changing though; the insights I’ve been able to pull from it are largely insights I already had (“not sleeping is bad for productivity”, “children fragment your time”, etc) although I did learn one useful thing, which is that for me, non-specific task labeling (“stuff”) is a pretty solid indicator that I’m depressed.

So on to the actual organization: My primary toggl organization level is projects. Obviously all my major work projects (as well as evergreen categories like meetings, administrivia, and ad hoc) are projects. All my major hobbies are also projects (I have a catch-all project for “other hobbies”), as are my various areas of responsibility like housework, home repair/improvement, my kid’s preschool, my ducks, and childcare. Then I have “projects” that are basically just time groupings that feel reasonable to me – transit, physical maintenance (bike rides, weight lifting), personal management (showers, eating meals alone), social interaction, etc. Finally, my entertainment preference projects: gaming, web surfing, and non-specific “faffing about” (everything else).

The divisions are pretty idiosyncratic (I don’t have projects for cooking or finances, it’s just rolled into “housework”; I don’t split up social interaction by digital vs. in-person, etc) but are largely based on what I care about. Hence splitting out web surfing (which for me is mostly unproductive and makes me feel bad), but grouping most other entertainment together (because I find both watching youtube and reading fiction to be good, restorative activities that will make me happy after doing) so “faffing about” is a largely positive category, whereas “web surfing” is something I strive to minimize.

I use pretty consistent task names (helped by the autocomplete present on the web app) so I find it pretty easy to split out/regroup projects when I need to, so I don’t worry too much about if I’m at the ideal level of granularity. For instance, I recently pulled something out of “ad hoc” that was turning into a full-fledged project, and it just took two or three searches and the batch edit tool to get everything re-categorized.

The projects themselves are grouped into “clients” – basically “life areas”, or large categories I’d like to be able to break down time by: work (paid), output (productive stuff), me (stuff that primarily benefits me, although anything to do with childcare is also in that category), sleep (otherwise it would overwhelm whatever other client it was grouped with), and faffing about (fun stuff/time wasting stuff/stuff with no productive output). These are also largely dictated by what categories I think I’ll want to look up later, so I can see in my weekly pie charts where my time is going. Back when I was trying to analyze this data (toggl lets you export your data as a csv), I analyzed it on a mix of project and client levels (ie, “how is time spent on the project web surfing correlated with time spend on paid work or productive output?”)

When it comes to figuring out what tasks should be assigned what project, I tend to focus on what would be most useful to look up later. So “building a duck pen” went under “Ducks” because I definitely wanted to be able to see exactly what the time cost of my ducks has been, instead of “home improvement” or “other hobbies”, even though theoretically it might be neat to see how much time I’ve spent building things. I know myself, and I know I’m far more likely to want to compare my “duck” hobby timecost to other hobby timecosts, than I am to want to look up how much time I spent building things in 2020.

Of the Toggl organizational hierarchy I listed initially, I basically don’t use tags at all (although I sometimes consider it); it feels like too much administrative overhead given I use it 24/7. I tried way back when I first started using it, but dropped them pretty quickly; for my use case, speed of data entry beats completeness of data every time. I’ve recently considered using tags to label things like my meetings with which project they’re related to, but honestly 90% of the time I can accomplish the same thing by searching the descriptions (“Meeting about activities” is obviously related to my Activities project). When I did try tags, I found it slightly better to use them for “how” or “what else” information – so if I worked on a work project but I was distracted, I could use a “distracted” tag but the project would still be the work project, or if I was reading nonfiction on the bus, I could use a “transit” tag and the project would be “read nonfiction”. But overall, if the tag always goes with the activity, there’s no point to it (just roll it into the project), and if it changes every time you do the activity, then it’s something else you have to click on and change every time (instead of just letting the autocomplete do its job), so I just don’t use them.

Final note: I haven’t tried it in the last year, but as of a year ago, the Toggl mobile app is pretty weak. It has frustrating input lag and clunky UI, and doesn’t let you access all the features the web app does. I actually subscribe to Timeular solely for their mobile app, which feeds data back into Toggl; however they just updated their app with changes that made the UI clunkier and added input lag, so it might be time for me to check out the native Toggl app again. Fortunately, I tend to be within arms reach of a computer nearly always, so the mobile app situation isn’t a dealbreaker for me (I used toggl with no mobile component for years before Timeular came out).


(and for the curious, the above post took me 32 minutes, and I categorized it under “Social Interaction”.)

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I use Rescuetime to track my time in front of the screen. But I’m very interested in using Toggl for time tracking, for the same reason you mention: to have a clear view of how I’m using my time. Stopping and starting a new timer is enough friction to avoid switching tasks.

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