By Rémi Thériault. This blog has been reviewed by Catherine Cimon-Paquet & Elijah Nimijean
Do you sometimes struggle to get things done in time? Do you feel overwhelmed with the sheer amount of stuff to do? Do you feel like you don’t have enough time to do it all? Well, I’ve experienced my share of this, and I’ve worked hard at finding ways to optimize my time.
One thing I’ve realized about time management is that it’s not only about time management, but also about energy management — and I like to add, motivation management. To be fair, human motivation is complex and multifaceted¹⋅², and it plays out quite differently when you work for an existing organization than when you have to make your own schedule and work by yourself.
Human motivation is complex and multifaceted.
Especially as students, we don’t need to “punch in” or “punch out” for work like we would for a regular job. We have to self-organize and self-discipline, which can be quite the challenge. So, how does one keep on top of all the stuff we have to do? There are obviously many things that can help, but in this blog, I’ll talk about one powerful strategy: self-monitoring.
But what exactly is “self-monitoring”? Simply put, self-monitoring means tracking some sort of progress on your goal, say, the number of times you did activity X or the amount of time you’ve spent on task Y. Many professional writers, for example, set a writing goal for each day (a “minimum daily word count”) and monitor how many words they write relative to their goal.
Research shows that those who self-monitor are more likely to reach their goals. In fact, a 2016 meta-analysis (the highest level of evidence in science) evaluated 138 studies including 19,951 participants and concluded that “progress monitoring has a robust effect on goal attainment and constitutes a key component of effective self-regulation”³.
Research shows that those who self-monitor are more likely to reach their goals.
Given their need for self-discipline and structure, self-monitoring might be particularly useful and effective for students⁴. For example, in one study, graduate students who tracked the frequency and time spent studying for their statistics class ended up with better grades⁵. In another study, college students who monitored their time spent studying spent more overall time studying⁶.
But why is self-monitoring so effective at helping us achieve our goals? Among other things, it increases motivation by allowing you to assess and, quite literally, see your progress. It helps keep you on track, illustrating when you do well, and when you deviate too significantly from your objectives. There’s something else going on too: self-monitoring usually requires setting a goal (like a target number of work hours per day), which is also a big thing for goal achievement.
Self-monitoring increases motivation by allowing you to see your progress.
My own journey toward time optimization started with simple to-do lists, which was quite the change, considering I never really used them before. And indeed, I never get tired of David Allen’s assertion (author of Gettings Things Done) that “the mind is for having ideas, not holding them.” When you start using to-do lists, you never really go back to not doing them.
I would say the same thing about self-monitoring your time: you never really go back either. It’s like I’m now addicted to seeing my timesheets. It’s hard to explain, really, but it’s generating an immense motivational force that frequently keeps me from giving up early. It allows me to stick it out for that last mile because I have a reason to do it that I otherwise wouldn’t.
Another thing that motivated me to do this was the feeling that I was working so much, yet asking myself at the end of the day where all my time had gone. I’d wonder: what did I do today? How come my time has gone by so fast? Or better yet, people would sometimes ask me: “It looks like you work a lot… about how many hours do you work a week?” And I wouldn’t even be able to give an approximate answer because I simply didn’t know!
I’d wonder: what did I do today? How come my time has gone by so fast?
Noting things down allows me to keep track of what I accomplish each day. Now, when I inevitably ask myself, “What did I accomplish today?”, I can go back to my daily record. I’ll read everything I’ve done and I’ll understand where my time went. Most of the time, this will satisfy and motivate me (believe it or not!) to just keep going the next day. I’ll also have a fairly accurate idea of how many hours I work per week, and be able to answer people who ask me (which, by the way, is also useful to imagine what your life would be in comparison to a 9–5 job).
Now, practically speaking, how do I do it? Personally, I use a two-fold system that’s been working exceptionally well for me. The first part is a simple record of what I accomplish each day (note: some people use apps for that, but I don’t really like them personally). I also happen to combine it with my short-term to-do list, so that it’s easy to just transfer one item from the “to-do” list to the “done” list.
The first part is a simple record of what I accomplish each day; I also combine it with my short-term to-do list, so that it’s easy to just transfer one item from the “to-do” list to the “done” list.
I currently use the free Microsoft tool OneNote for this, but I’ve also used EverNote in the past. It looks a bit like this: I start by typing the date for the current day, then note my approximate work periods as I go through the day (+/- 30 min of precision). Obviously, I punch out when I take a break for lunch or some other reason (like if I ended up surfing the internet mindlessly for 30 or 60 min).
I also add the total number of (cumulative) hours in parentheses at the end of each new work session to log it more easily in my spreadsheet later in the process. Below those two lines, I use a point-by-point list of stuff I did (or that I need to do today). Keep in mind that as a PhD student, my days are widely different than when I was an undergrad, and that would probably apply to you as well. That being said, here’s what it might look like:
As you can see, I don’t tie the exact tasks with the times worked: those are two different things that I just keep together. I punch in and out as I would do for a job. And then I simply have a descriptive list of what I did, and some of the stuff I did isn’t even work (so it’s not included in the work timer!). Indeed, I don’t want to only write down “productive” or “work-related” stuff. I want to write down everything that took a meaningful amount of time, because at the end of the day, I just want to know where my time went (even if it wasn’t productive!).
Sometimes though, I just start working and forget to log my start and end times. Fear not! I’ve found a handy workaround for such situations. Open your browser history (Ctr+H) to check from what times to what times you worked. I can usually tell from which sites I visited (e.g., sites relating to my thesis, statistics, or classes, or, on the contrary, sites proving I procrastinated for a full hour!).
Open your browser history (Ctr+H) to check from what times to what times you worked: I can usually tell from which sites I visited.
At the end of each workweek, I look back on the daily number of hours worked that I logged, and add it to my Excel spreadsheet (this is the second part of the said two-fold system)! It looks something like this:
Now just seeing the numbers and being able to compare them from day to day, and from week to week, feels really nice. But something that feels even better (especially for a data and visualization geek like me) is having pretty data graphs! For example, the data table above allows to graph the evolution of worked hours throughout the semester:
The green line is my weekly objective, and the red line is my target “weekly minimum”. The blue line is my weekly number of hours worked, while the purple one is the cumulative average (it evolves as we input more data). You can even annotate the graph to explain certain irregularities (e.g., something happened, you got sick, you left for vacations, etc.). I find that reviewing your trends throughout (and at the end of) the semester is very satisfying and motivating.
Now the cool thing about using the same system for a few years is that you can also start making graphs that look at the evolution of your hours worked per year. You can see if there’s any regularity for certain months of the year (the graph below is across approximately 3 years):
In my case, I also added the 95% confidence intervals to estimate how “reliable” a given month’s average is (the bigger the error bar, the bigger the variance between the years for that month). We can see that, for me, some months are very regular, while other months are much more unpredictable. It’s still interesting to see the differences in average.
Finally, you can also simply compare how you are doing from year to year:
In any event, if you are considering starting to use such a self-monitoring system, I am making a template based on the Excel document I personally use publicly available. You can download it from remi-theriault.com/work-tracker.xlsx
If you ever give it a try, let me know how it has worked out for you, it would make me very happy (for real!!).
Thanks for reading this blog! Please feel free to reach out to me with any questions or comments!
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- Motivation: Ambition, Goals. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/basics/motivation
- Christopher Bergland (2015). Motivation is tied to the strength of your brain connections: Scientists identify a link between brain connectivity, apathy, and motivation. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/the-athletes-way/201511/motivation-is-tied-the-strength-your-brain-connections
- Harkin, B., Webb, T. L., Chang, B. P., Prestwich, A., Conner, M., Kellar, I., … & Sheeran, P. (2016). Does monitoring goal progress promote goal attainment? A meta-analysis of the experimental evidence. Psychological bulletin, 142(2), 198. https://dx.doi.org/10.1037/bul0000025
- Zimmerman, B. J., & Paulsen, A. S. (1995). Self‐monitoring during collegiate studying: An invaluable tool for academic self‐regulation. New directions for teaching and learning, 1995(63), 13–27. https://doi.org/10.1002/tl.37219956305
- William Y. Lan (1996) The Effects of Self-Monitoring on Students’ Course Performance, Use of Learning Strategies, Attitude, Self-Judgment Ability, and Knowledge Representation, The Journal of Experimental Education, 64(2), 101–115, https://doi.org/10.1080/00220973.1996.9943798
- Morgan, M. (1985). Self-monitoring of attained subgoals in private study. Journal of Educational Psychology, 77(6), 623–630. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-0618.104.22.1683