Knowing how long tasks take is essential

I was talking with some friends yesterday and mentioned the power of time tracking. It’s not that everyone should track time all the time, but you almost have to track time in order to to be productive.

Here’s why

  1. We all have the same time each day.
  2. The choice is how to spend that time.
  3. Most of us don’t know how long it takes us to do certain tasks, underestimating by nearly half.
  4. Until you know how long tasks take, you can’t predictably plan.

It’s this reason I think the secret to productivity is predictably knowing how long each task will take you.

If someone asks you to do a specific job, you can only be predictably productive if you can accurately predict how long it will take you to do the task.

An analogy

Think about it like a market. We all have the same money (time). If you don’t know how long each task will take you, it’s like you’ve taken off all the price tags. You’re selecting tasks and not knowing the cost until you go to pay.

Perhaps you can make accurate time predictions without time tracking, but I’ve found it essential.

EDIT: Many are reading “time tracking” here as “you have to formally track your time in a system.” I mean only that you need to know how long tasks take you. I don’t formally track my time anywhere. Let me offer an alternative title: “Observing yourself honestly enough to know exactly how long tasks will take you is the prerequisite to being productive.” That’s all I mean. Not revolutionary, but it’s been helpful to me.



This is why it frustrates me that so many task managers do not offer a function to record task duration. Task managers treat two tasks as equal, even though one may take 3 hours and one may take 5 minutes.

When I’m actually in the day I like Llama Life for managing a time-based to-do list , but it’s not a task manager so it’s more like a day-based fix to this problem (it’s a great little web app though for managing this specific issue).


Secret? Really? Somehow my wife made it through medical school, teaches our kids violin and maintains a very nice garden in our backyard. She hasn’t tracked squat.

I’ve published three books and run a full private practice (and wrangle the kids), all without time tracking.

If it works for you, that’s great. But man… the hyperbole in the productivity world is off the charts.


There was, back in the bad old days, an app called “Above & Beyond”.

From memory you could track time and it allocated that time to your calendar and pushed things around to fit in (that is a very bad description, I’ll try and fix it). So it showed you how full your day was and if you were overcommitting. You could override it of course (AI and robot killers werent invented back then) but it did a great job at least trying to help you manage your resources.

The time period was around the same as the magnficiant Ecco Pro (I will die with that app’s name on my lips! :rofl:

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I find myself in agreement with your comments. I have never found taking the time to track my time to increase the use of my time productive.

Simply blocking off sufficient time to accomplish a given task or project, and being disciplined with the use of one’s time and prioritizing what that time is devoted to are the keys to “productivity.“ Tracking the minutia of the use of one’s time, seems to me to be precisely the antithesis of productivity. That is not a criticism of anyone who thinks otherwise, just my perspective.


I use the system @Cpenned (Chris) describes. Sometimes I write it out and sometimes it’s just internal. I find I can be very compartmentalised at work and not at home. (though I tend to over estimate on purpose and then try and beat the time allocated! Gameifying it, if you will)

To me it’s necessary just as a Project Manager would have to know formally. :man_shrugging:

And to @Bmosbacker, also agree, It is not always formal like a spreadsheet or project schedule but when I have a LOT on, it really helps me focus.

EDIT: took out possibly inflammatory comments, not wishing to offend! :grimacing:

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I don’t want to speak for her (too much), but based on what she thinks about my productivity interests… she’d find this entire thread a bit bizarre.

I can represent my own thinking/experience. I’ve tried time tracking, and found it more a pain than anything else. It didn’t indicate anything that I didn’t already know about my habits (good and bad).

My overall point is this… what works for you, might be a poor fit for me.

I tell my clients that I’m agnostic with respect to which self-regulating tool they employ to manage their mood. Meditation, medication, exercise (well, I have a bias for this one), therapy… you need to experiment and not get too caught up in the honeymoon phase of any of these things. My personal and clinical intuition tells me that 4-6 months of working with a tool/system should provide enough experience to know if it is beneficial in your life (or not).



I suppose it’s in the definition of “time tracking”. Mine is “back of a napkin” level just so I know what needs to be done if everything comes at once. The rest is internal. But I’m still “tracking” - if that makes sense!

Just to add: I work for a govenment agency so perhaps part of it is self preservation! :rofl:


I assume this is key, that cpenned is talking about consulting or professional services where you can’t just auto-bill as Avrum would in his medical practice. You have to estimate the effort and/or duration first and then do what you said.

Quoting jobs without knowing what they actually take is stressful and, unless you’re lucky, unprofitable.

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Hey, Avrum. I’m thinking I chose the wrong wording here; I was just trying to pick a title that was short enough for the post title field.

My point is that you can’t plan if you don’t know how long tasks will take you. I don’t mean you have to formally track time (like clocking in and out)—I don’t! So perhaps I’m not engaged enough in the productivity world because I didn’t mean it in a formal sense.

I don’t track time in any system, but after I complete any task, I note how long it took me—sometimes by writing it down and sometimes by mentally noting it. I found that at first (like most people I think?) I completely underestimated how long things took. I’ve gotten to a point where I can look at any task and guess within a few minutes how long that task will take.

Hopefully that clarifies things. Perhaps “prerequisite” is better than “secret”? This isn’t exactly a revolutionary thought, I realize, but it’s been helpful to me.

So let me offer a new title to the post: “Observing yourself honestly enough to know exactly how long tasks will take you is the prerequisite to being productive.” That’s all I mean. Again, not revolutionary, but it’s been helpful to me.

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Llama life looks interesting!

That sounds interesting!

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That sounds exactly like my process, Bill. I don’t formally track time. Responded to Arvum already, but I just meant “knowing how long tasks take you,” not “formal time tracking.”

I plan on filling 60% of my day with formal tasks and then guest how long they will take me. My goal is to finish each task within the timeframe and I’ve become increasingly better at guessing the exact time things will take me over the years.

My post was essentially observing, “I have no idea how I used to plan my days when I couldn’t accurately predict how long things would take me.” I didn’t mean it to be controversial :slight_smile:

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Yes, definitely. It’s often clients. But knowing how long everything takes (from personal items like cooking dinner to regular work tasks like filling out reports, etc.) is what I was encouraging. It’s not exactly a ground-breaking thought, but the better I am at guesstimating, the more predictable I can be. It’s also a great way to turn down work or counter a new initiative (i.e., “I hear that our department needs to do ___, but that will take me between 4.5 and 5 hours a week for the next 2 months. What would you like me to give up so I can do this new work.”).

Like I’ve said in other comments, I didn’t mean formal time-tracking, only having a very good idea how long things take you. And that sounds like exactly what Arvum is arguing for. I think we’re actually on the same page.

Yeah - the word “secret” irked me. It’s a tactic used in all self-help (biz and psych). I still disagree with the overall premise - even the way you rephrased it. For example, in-between my clients I have discretionary time. I can use that time anyway I want. Sometimes I read, sometimes I sketch. I don’t give it much more thought than that. And yet, I still sketch (almost) daily, and maintain my commitments to my practice/clients, family, etc.

But if it works for you, that’s wonderful.

Fair enough! It was a quick post early this AM and I didn’t think how that title would come across. Reading your other comments, I actually think we are fairly close, but I don’t think I’m explaining myself very well.

Either way, it’s also clear that you are very disciplined, and I think you intuitively do what I’m saying here. Your line of work with people also requires more flexibility than some jobs. All that to say, thanks for the interaction. I’ll be more precise in my wording going forward. I can’t remember the last productivity blog or book I’ve read and I can’t stand any podcasts besides Focused because of all the stuff you mentioned, so definitely don’t want to add to that noise :grimacing:

[quote=“Cpenned, post:16, topic:34279, full:true”]
Your line of work with people also requires more flexibility than some jobs. [/quote]


Have you heard of Laura Vanderkam. She’s a savvy writer and speaker and goes deep on time tracking. You might dig her material: Laura Vanderkam Blog | Time Management, Life, Careers & Family

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I’ll check her out! Thanks!

This is exactly what I came in to post. I put duration on everything in 2Do. Then I can scan the list to see if I have too much (or too little) planned for a specific day.

I’m certain I would benefit from tracking my work time for a while. It would surely help me better understand how long it takes me to accomplish certain specific tasks. But it would also help me understand how much of my overall time is devoted to the various areas of responsibility I have in my job.

But I wouldn’t call it essential. So far I’ve never had the… ahem… time to figure out the best way to do that kind of tracking, yet it’s extremely rare that I ever find myself unable to deliver what I promised.