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I tracked every minute of my time for the last 4 months. Here are 7 totally unexpected results

Bilaniuc Dragos
Tech guy • Explorer • Avid public speaker, writer and Latino dancer. Still looking for the perfect bio.
・10 min read

A 30 minutes lunch break? Time entry. 12 minutes of arguing with mom? Time entry. 7 minutes of stalking my ex on Instagram? You guessed it!

That was my life over the last 4 months, being my own time tracking cop while carrying out the most outrageous experiment of my life so far. The results amazed me in ways that I would never have expected, so I decided to write about them. Who knows, maybe you’re also going to find something of value in my journey.

But first…

What the hell made me do it?

To be honest, it was a combination of frustration, guilt and fear — all generated by the fact that I kept setting big goals for myself, but never seemed to make any progress towards them. Time was passing, and I had nothing to show for it.

All I had were vague reports at work, where “working” covered everything from writing code, to talking to people, to watching Russian slapping contests on youtube.

I knew I had to do start tracking my time if I wanted to keep my sanity. And I’ve seen how something casual/half-hearted would quickly become too vague to be of any use. If I wanted to do it, I had to go all-in.

So…

How exactly did I do it?

I used an app called Toggl to do all my tracking. I chose this specific app because:

  • it’s available on all platforms and syncs very nicely between them
  • it has an intuitive UI, with suggestions that become more and more accurate over time
  • it allows for very fine customization and reporting

At first, I devised 7 main areas where all my entries would fall, using tags and colors to mark them in the app:

areas

Then, I created some high-level projects that I knew I was already spending time on:

projects

After the setup was done, I would simply start a new time entry, every time I would move from one activity to the other.

One important note here was that, because I decided to go all-in, I had to be particularly careful not to have any entries “cover up” unrelated things that I was doing. For example, if I would be writing code on my project and I’d receive a call, I’d have to create a separate time entry for it, even if it only took 5 minutes.

This level of strictness was a bit taxing at the beginning, but after a while, Toggl’s UI came in very handy. I rarely had to create new entries. Most of the times when I’d switch to something else (even just short interruptions), I would just have to press “continue” on a previous entry.

continue

At the end of the week, here’s how my timetable would look like:

timetable

And now that the “how” is also out of the way, let’s move on to the exciting stuff. Here are the biggest changes I noticed, over these 4 months:

1. Drastically improved my focus and productivity

Yep, the biggest impact of this time tracking journey didn’t come in the form of a mind-blowing insight at the end of the week, when I was looking over my timetable. The biggest impact was in how I was spending my time while I was doing the tracking.

At first, nothing big happened. But after a while, I found myself more and more often in an interesting situation. Whenever I was working and felt the need to “zone out” by jumping “just a bit” on youtube or Instagram, I’d find myself thinking “nah, I don’t want to start a new entry now. I’ll just get this thing done, and then take a bigger break for that”.

And, more often than not, I wouldn’t even feel that need for youtube or Instagram anymore, once I actually finished the task. The feeling of accomplishment was enough to give me the refreshment I needed.

This increase in focus sent my productivity through the roof. Yes, I’ve always read and heard of how context switching is a very bad idea. But, until I tracked it down, I never knew how often I was doing it — and I never knew that getting rid of it would make me get things done literally twice as fast! After seeing all this for myself, I felt like I somehow hacked my own life.

2. Saved a lot of time from unexpected places

One of the most shocking insights that I had in the beginning, after looking at my reports for a week, was that I was spending over 20 hours a week on food-related activities (buying food, cooking, eating).

Every day, 3 times a day, I would take some time off to cook. And, since eating healthy was always an important thing for me, I didn’t feel bad if it sometimes took a little longer. But I never knew I was doing the work of a part-time cook out there! At least if I’d learned to cook something more exciting than this boring salad:

salad

Once I became aware of this, I automatically started thinking about how I could make it a bit more efficient. A simple thing that popped into mind was that, instead of cooking everything from scratch in each of the 3 breaks, I could simply prepare everything in the evening before, and have my food ready to go for the next day, with minimum adjustments.

This trick solved all my cooking for the day in under 1 hour, instead of 2–3, which amounted to over 10 hours of saved time, per week. And the best part was that I didn’t have to sacrifice anything in terms of how healthy or tasty my food was!

Such a simple solution. However, I would never have thought of it, if there wasn’t this table that was telling me straight to my face: “here’s how much time you’re actually spending on this thing”.

3. Formed habits & routines much easier

Turns out time tracking helped with my habits and routines, as well, in two not-so-obvious ways:

1 - If I would have the same entries at roughly the same hours, Toggl’s mobile app would start suggesting them, in those time intervals. This made my tracking way easier, and turned the clock into a kind of trigger for the habits I was trying to form:

suggestions

2 - There was a deep satisfaction when I would look at my weekly timetable and see all the entries nicely aligned. Here’s one of the weeks that I’m most proud of. Just look at how satisfying those morning entries look:

habits

It might sound trivial, but just these two simple tricks were enough to make me form and cement very helpful habits, without thinking too much about them.

4. Enjoyed my “chill time” more than ever

Here’s something interesting. This experiment, which was chiefly meant to increase my productivity, had another very unexpected — but very welcomed — effect: it increased the quality of my “chill time”, as well!

chill

Firstly, as I was doing my work much more efficiently and saving time from all kinds of unexpected places, I found myself with more and bigger blocks of time on my hands. That meant I could fit in some leisure activities that were more time-consuming — but that I really enjoyed doing.

Secondly, all this increased amount of “chill time” came without the usual guilt I felt before, when I was “chilling” by scrolling through the Instagram feed, while I knew I had to fix that stupid programming bug at work.

This made me enjoy my free time like never before, and rekindle old passions like salsa & bachata —passions that I forgot how good they made me feel, amongst all this clutter of work and guilt and continuous distractions.

5. Made better decisions, overall

choicesone of the toughest decisions in life

Since I was being as honest as I could with those time entries, weighing my decisions wasn’t that complicated anymore: I would look over my timetable, see exactly how much time I spent on something I decided to do, and look at how much I got out of it.

This way, “Is it a good idea to write that article for my 23rd birthday?” became “Is it a good idea to write that article for my 23rd birthday, given the fact that last week I spent 11 hours, and got nowhere with it?”. Not so hard to see the issue, from that perspective.

As a bonus, tracking my time solved another one of the biggest problems I had, in terms of decision making. I always had the tendency to overestimate my abilities and take on much more than I could actually handle. This obviously had some very bad consequences, like frustrating other people that were working with me.

Well, once I had this sheet that was telling me “this is how much it actually takes you to do it” and “this is how much free time you have on your hands right now”, deciding whether I could or could not handle something new became a factual decision, rather than a whim of my arrogant ego.

6. I finally felt in control of my time

As I said in the beginning, the irreversible passing of time was one of the biggest sources of stress and anxiety for me. And, while I’m still having my fair share of existential crises about it, doing this experiment drastically reduced that stress and anxiety. The main reason was that, again,

I finally felt in control of my time.

Yes, I was still binge-watching cat videos on youtube, probably more than I should. But at least it was a conscious decision, rather than a reaction to some algorithms designed by smart people to make me mindlessly spend hours on end on their website. And this “conscious decision” part was what made all the difference, for me.

And the coolest thing was that I didn’t have to change anything in the way I was spending my time, in order to feel better about it. Simply having it noted down was enough to give me that empowering feeling of control.

7. Felt more tense, uneasy and guilty (at first)

Surprise-surprise: this is not a silver bullet to shoot down all of life’s problems. It actually came with some not-so-nice consequences that I have to mention, if I am to paint an honest picture of my journey.

First up, I became more tensed and uneasy, especially in the beginning. I think that’s not too unexpected — just imagine having a cop on your back, 24/7, that sees every single thing your doing, and tracks it down on a sheet that’s gonna stare you in the face every Sunday. Quite a reason to feel uneasy…

policeshoutout to Mr. policeman, for not arresting me when I randomly asked him to pose for my blog

The other thing was guilt. Again, especially in the beginning. After the first few weeks, I was confronted with a hard truth: I was wasting time. Lots of it. And not in a vague way. I could actually count the hours I spent on things that were totally unproductive, projects that failed and times when I did something completely different than what I had to. Talk about pills that are hard to swallow…

I eventually managed to keep those bad sides under control through other habits, like meditation. That being said, this journey was definitely not all fun and rainbows.


So, that’s about it for my journey. Currently, I got so used to this system and it seems to work so well for me, that I’m gonna keep doing it — as long as I’ll be able to keep those negative sides under control.

Afterthought: it’s not as hard as it seems

I’ve been showing this article to some friends, to get some feedback before publishing it. A common response was: “Wow, that’s so impressive! You must be so disciplined! I could never do that.” And while it tickled my ego to hear this, the truth is, it’s really not that hard.

Yes, like all things, it requires effort in the beginning. But after you got it all set up and run it for a few days, it becomes pretty easy. 99% of the time, you’ll just press “continue” on a previous entry, which only takes 5 seconds. And since you’ll have to do it dozens of times a day, it will become instinctive much sooner than the usual “3–8 weeks to form a new habit”.

Even now, my timer runs “Blog — time tracking” for 9 minutes and 20 seconds. I don’t remember having made a conscious decision to start it.

Tips & tricks

If you like the idea and consider trying it for yourself, here are some things I wish I knew when I started, and that I hope will help you in your journey:

  • Try to be as honest as possible. The benefits are gone if you find yourself scrolling through your Instagram feed, while your timer says “preparing yearly report”
  • Keep it personal. Don’t mix it up with any tracking software from work. Don’t tell anyone about it. Basically, don’t do anything that would make you feel even remotely uncomfortable about recording those 2 hours of binge-watching Japanese eating contests on youtube.

private

  • Keep it simple. As simple as possible. Don’t overkill it with tags and projects (the way I did, in the beginning). You can always add those later. The whole system should be a pleasure to use, or you’ll have trouble using it at all.
  • One step at a time. At first, don’t change anything in how you spend your time. Just get used to tracking down what you’re already doing. The main focus is to get used to pressing “play” every time you’re doing something new.
  • Be patient with yourself. Once you start doing this in full honesty, you’ll probably see that your time isn’t really spent the way you imagined. That’s an easy way for guilt to creep in. But don’t despair. Once you become aware of this, things will get better by themselves. And keep in mind that, just by trying it out, you’ve already done something very courageous that’s a huge achievement in and of itself.

Conclusion

Tracking every minute of my time is, by far, the most effective thing I’ve ever tried, in terms of becoming more focused, getting more done and improving the quality of my time.

But, at the end of the day, this is just another way in which someone on this planet is trying to deal with the fact that life is hard. And if my trick doesn’t work for you, what will definitely work is keeping this healthy mindset that makes you read these kinds of articles, in the first place. Kudos to you, for keeping an open mind in the face of life’s hardships!

We’re all trying to make the most out of our time. Thank you for spending some of yours with me, today!

light

PS: This is the first article I’ve ever written, so I think you can imagine how anxious I am about it 😬 Any though (positive or constructive), clap, comment, share, or feedback in any form would be very, very much appreciated!

Discussion (67)

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siddharthshyniben profile image
Siddharth

Nice! I've been thinking of doing something like this sometime, and hearing your experience makes it seem easy!

I can see that your time is basically really broken up.

Broken up day vs normal day

Credit to Todoist, to which I've linked below

You should try time blocking and it's cousins task batching and day theming to bring all similar stuff together.

PS: Congrats on your first post!

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get1page profile image
1Page

So true

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dragosbln profile image
Bilaniuc Dragos Author

Thanks, Siddhart!
And thanks a lot for the insights, too! That's basically the next stage in my system: trying to block things together as much as I can :D

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Mike Lockhart

A few years ago (like 10?) there was a Life Tracking fad. I heard about it through Emacs Org Mode circles, and I thought about trying it myself. Unfortunately, because I was using Emacs, I ended up spending so much time setting up my tracking system that I never actually started to track. This is not to disparage Emacs, it's great fun! It's too much fun! Which was my problem.

I like your setup in Toggl, which I think is a big point for other readers to take away: if you're going to do this, then just start! You can iterate on the system with tags and whatnot later. In fact it would make more sense to do so after you have some data.

Great work on this first post.

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dragosbln profile image
Bilaniuc Dragos Author

Thanks so much, Mike for the insights and the support!
Definitely agree with you there, the most important thing is to get the system going. After that, (at least in my case) it kept going from momentum. Once I had a few days nicely filled with all those time entries (and I could see that in toggl's weekly view), I just didn't want to leave any blanks in there.

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Adarsh TS • Edited

This article was a real eye opener for me. I am going to try to track my time from today. Hope that it will go well and I get more control over my day.
Thank you for sharing your experience. Kudos for your first article 👏.

Is toggl free to use? Did you buy the premium version?

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Bilaniuc Dragos Author

Hi Adarsh! Thanks a lot, I'm so glad you liked it!
Toggl has some premium plan, but for what I did, the free plan provided everything I needed.
I really hope you make it work, best of luck in your journey!

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Samuel Suther • Edited

Really nice Idea, thanks for sharing it.
I will definitely try this too.
At your conclusion, you've wrote: Keep it simple. As simple as possible. Don’t overkill it with tags and projects (the way I did, in the beginning).

What you mean with that. Do you mean the topics, you show in your image are overkill... or is this image still the final (slimified) version ?

Can you give some suggestions how to work with Projects and Tags, and why you choose this way around you did? (BTW: What is the border between "money" and "career"?)

I wonder if there are arguments against having projects like "Business", "Family", "SpareTime", "Learning", "Misc".. and use Topics you do in this section as Tags (e.g. "reading Emails = Business, "watching nonsense at youtube" = "Misc").

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Bilaniuc Dragos Author

Hi Samuel! Thanks a lot for the support!

The areas in the image are the final version that I use today, as well. What I meant by "overkill" was that, initially, I was trying to put 4-5 extra tags on an entry (like, "free time", "habit", "on computer", "outside", etc). That's because I wanted to see nice reports for, say, how much time I was spending on the computer in a week. But that turned out to complicate a lot the process of starting a new entry - and, as I said, that should be as easy as possble, if you are to do it consistently.

I think your split seems really good! You shouldn't dwell on it too much in the beginning, either way, because you'll see what makes sense for you, as you go.

And to answer your question, the difference between money and career, for me, is that "career" reffers to entrepreneurship and things things that I don't do strictly for money.

Hope this clarified your questions a bit. Let me know if you have other thoughts.

Best of luck in your journey!

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Faisal Mukhtar

Nicely written article. I have already tried few times to track my daily activities. Some of the times manually by using a pen and paper. Some times with apps but it never seems to work and after few days, I forget about it. I really like your insight about time tracking and how it can help you become more productive.

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Bilaniuc Dragos Author

Thank you, Faisal!
I can see how you'd forget about it, but maybe the visuals in this app will help (especially that calendar view - fore me, it's kind of addictive to see it 100% full all the time :D). Also, maybe it helps putting it in perspective: it's about tracking the most important resource you have, the only one that never comes back...

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Simon Barker

Nice write up, i've been tracking time spent on side projects for a couple of years now but never graduated to full life tracking like this. I have a new role and project starting next month so I'm going to finally start!

Also, I batch cook about 3 weeks worth of dinners and lunches and freeze them in to portions to have each day. I say literally hours a week 😀

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Bilaniuc Dragos Author

Hey Simon, thanks a lot for your support, and for sharing your thoughts!
I really hope you'll make it work, best of luck!!

And yess, that batch cooking really sounds like a life saver! Lately, I've been trying batch cooking for a week - but I'll definitely consider your, more "extreme" idea :D

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Ian McGowan

Thanks for a fascinating post - this was really interesting to someone that struggles with procrastination, very useful ideas. I read something about scheduling "fun" activities for a lot of the day, leaving a pretty minimal window for those grind-type tasks that you hate to do - sort of seems to fit into your "chill time" concept. And excellent writing too!

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Bilaniuc Dragos Author

Thanks a lot, Ian!
Yes, that's kind of my current "experiment" - to force myself to finish my "grind" earlier, so I can have more time for leisure activities.
And I have to say, the results are very promising. I seem to be getting basically the same amount of work done (even of more quality) in a much shorter time span. Maybe I'll write an article with some insights on that, as well 🤔
Thanks for the idea! And best of luck in your journey!

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Johny Papajohny

Very nice and interesting article, Dragos! I am kind of time tracking like you do with a simple Excel file (well, I am not as thorough as you), but I think that using your method I will track my time better (and make the necessary fixes to watch those cute cat videos later :P) At least, I'll give it a try! Oh, and congratulations for your first article!

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Bilaniuc Dragos Author

Thanks a lit, Johny! It means a lot to me, that you like it!
And yes, I also explored other options to my time tracking. But, to be hones, what got me hooked to Toggl were the visuals. I just find it so satisfying and exciting to see that week view full of entries.
I hope you'll also make it work somehow. Best of luck!

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Ash

Fantastic post, thanks for writing!

I also time track, albeit on-and-off, and a lot of what you've put down here resonates with me. When I'm really on top of my time tracking I feel much more in control of my day, and just more on-top of things in life. I don't do as much social media scrolling, and I catch myself when my focus drifts from the task at hand sooner.

Thanks for the great post, and the reminder to step my tracking game back up! 🦄

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Bilaniuc Dragos Author

Thanks a lot for your support, Ash! I'm so glad it resonated with you!
I totally agree with the "feeling more in control of my day" part, as you already saw ;)
Wish you best of luck with your own tracking business! :D

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Oisín

Thanks for a wonderfully honest and thoughtful article!
If I could share one idea, we've grown to see frequent task-switching as bad, because the cost of context switching adds up.
However, if you're doing tasks with a significant component of learning, then it's actually better to switch tasks frequently, because that context switching moment forces you to review your memory of what you're doing, rather than grinding away on autopilot.
This idea is called interleaved practice, mostly in research on learning motor skills, but I think it applies to many skills that require procedural learning.
There are some great articles by musician and researcher Christine Carter on interleaved vs blocked practice, and the related idea of contextual interference (where you introduce variations to the task that force you to solve the problem again instead of repeating a solved motor path over and over).

Just wanted to point out that while "flow" is great for creating stuff, you can use context switching to your benefit in some situations. I actually do this at work, setting an 8 minute timer for normal work (coding, dealing with emails and chat), then 4 minutes to learn a little Rust, then 4 minutes for PyTorch, then back to normal work. If things are busy I'll slip in an extra work block between the Rust and PyTorch blocks.
It seems like it should be really inefficient for getting work done, but I somehow focus and get a lot done during each block. It's only been a couple of weeks trying this out though, so too early to say if it was a genius move or a huge mistake.

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dragosbln profile image
Bilaniuc Dragos Author

Hey Oisín, thanks a lot for your support - and especially for sharing your insights!

It seems quite counterintuitive what you're saying - but I can definitely see how it could work! I think, like all things, context switching isn't just black or white. In some circumstances is clearly bad (and I can give you my personal example of "switching contexts" to instagram when I was in the middle of deeply focused work😅), but on other times, it cam be of great use, just as you pointed out.

I'm really curios what you'll think of it after you do it for a longer while 🤔

Again, thanks a lot for your insights, and best of luck in your journey!

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Shukhrat Khodjaev

After reading this, I'm also tempted to start tracking my time. Results would probably be shocking but also enlightening to see how much of my study time is being wasted.. Overall, great article. Keep it up!

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Bilaniuc Dragos Author

Thanks a lot, Shukhart! I really hope you'll make it work somehow, as well! :)

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hctrbz

Great article. Your insights have won me over. I'm going to try this.

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Bilaniuc Dragos Author

Thanks a lot, I'm so glad they resonated with you!
Best of luck with trying it out! :D

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Jon Telles

This sounds like my personal hell and I would never, ever force this upon myself.

Glad it worked for you, but this is nightmare fuel.

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Bilaniuc Dragos Author

Hey Jon! Thanks for sharing your thoughts!
I wouldn't expect either, that the exact way in which I did things would work for everyone. But, from my personal point of view, living the way I lived before, with that constant anxiety of "time is passing and I have nothing to show for it" was an even greater hell. And, as I said, it quickly became manageable :D

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Saphirah J Pociluyko (she/her)

Congrats!!

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Bilaniuc Dragos Author

Thanks a lot!

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wingsico profile image
wingsico

Wonderful article! I have these problems for a long time. Thank you for sharing your journey.

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dragosbln profile image
Bilaniuc Dragos Author

Thanks a lot for your support! I'm so happy you liked it!
Hope it gave you some nice ideas to try :D

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SillyCarbon

What you have done is truly amazing!

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Bilaniuc Dragos Author

Thanks so much!

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Ehsan Ghorbani

Very useful 👍
I hope I reach this point of control of my life in future 😬😁

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Bilaniuc Dragos Author

Thanks Ehsan! Really appreciate the support!
You know how they say, the first step is the hardest one, and in my case, I can definitely confirm that was the case ;) Best of luck out there!

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Ian Engelbrecht

Great article, I tried this before but didn’t have the discipline to keep it going. I’m inspired to try again

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Bilaniuc Dragos Author

Thanks a lot, Ian! I really hope this articles provided you with some useful ides, and you manage to make it work this time :)
Best of luck!

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Muhammad Zubair ul hassan

Nice article, thanks for sharing it helps alot. Many of us feel that way. Moral for me: Sticking honestly to some thing unless it concludes is key to open next door.

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Bilaniuc Dragos Author

Thanks so much, Muhammad! That's a great insight, I totally agree with it (even though I'm not really applying it as often as I'd wish)

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Rolando Medina

Thanks for sharing! I've been thinking into doing this myself for several weeks. It's nice to see the experience and from someone who already did it

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Bilaniuc Dragos Author

Thanks for the support, Rolando!
That's great to hear, best of luck in your journey!

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Aaron

Nice post! I'll try something like this!

Can you share the categories in which you sorted the tasks?

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dragosbln profile image
Bilaniuc Dragos Author

Hey Aaron, thanks a lot for the suppert!

You can see the categories in the first screenshot in the article. Those are exactly the ones I used :)

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Elizabeth Alcalá

Very nice post! I'll try it and see if it works for me 😅

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Bilaniuc Dragos Author

Thanks a lot! Best of luck in trying it out, really hope it'll work for you :D

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Maxi Contieri

Loved the article!

thanks for sharing it!

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Bilaniuc Dragos Author

Thanks for the support! I'm so glad you liked it!

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Carlos Alberto

What a good article, I am using clickup.com and calendar of google, trying to do something like your experiment, thanks for share your experiences..

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Bilaniuc Dragos Author

Thanks, really appreciate it! Best of luck with your own system :D

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Juan Manuel Bello

Excellent!!! thanks for sharing, i'll give a try

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Bilaniuc Dragos Author

Thanks a lot!! Hope you'll make it work, best of luck!

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Rama Sbeinaty

Love this article!
Always wanted to experiment with this and actually note where my time is going to gain back control.

Thank you for the inspiration and sharing the tools you used for this journey!

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Bilaniuc Dragos Author

Thanks Rama, I'm so happy you liked it! Best of luck in your own journey!

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John Kazer • Edited

Unexpectedly interesting and enlightening!
Did you annoy yourself and everyone else with frequent phone fiddling to toggle the next task?

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Bilaniuc Dragos Author

Thanks a lot, John!
To be honest, not really. That's mainly because it's surprisingly quick to start a new entry (just open the app, scroll a bit and press "continue", as most times I was doing things that already had a previous entry).
And then, there's the option of maually modifying your time entries, in case you missed something. This is not as quickly, but it's very simple way of "setting things straight" when you're by yourself, in case something happened and I didn't get the chance to press "play"

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Bento

I loved it man ! What an amazing first article, keep going !!

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Bilaniuc Dragos Author

Thanks so much, Bento! I'm so glad you liked it! :D

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Beto Caballero

Ok, I will give it a try. Honestly it seems to be a very difficult task, but your experience may inspire some of us. I will share how it goes. Thank you!!

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Bilaniuc Dragos Author

Hey Beto!
Yes, as I said, in the beginning it will require quite some effort. But in my experience, after I got it going, it went quite smoothly.
But again, it's all about trying out things and seeing what works for you. If it doesn't, at least you know that :D
Best of luck!

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Yogesh Beria

I did the same using an app called aTimeLogger and had the same experience.
I haven't been consistent recently in continuing this for very long but still strive to record as much as possible.

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Bilaniuc Dragos Author

That's great to hear, Yogesh! Best of luck!