✍️ dear [time] diary
⏰ time data is the new location data
*This is the 50th “regs to riches,” this year (!). Thank you for reading, sharing, and for your feedback. I haven’t done a company case study in a little while, but I will. 👌
As the year wraps up, you may be reflecting on how you spent your time, or simply muttering: what is time?
You may also be tracking how much time you spend asleep (“sleep score”), how much time you spend exercising (incl. how many steps you take), how much time you *actually* spend meditating, how many minutes to bill a client for, how much time you spend on your phone and on which apps, how much time you spend standing, how many books you read this year, etc.
This kind of vigilant self-surveillance can seem superficially quite good. Consuming insights about ourselves can feel fascinating - even rewarding.
In the ongoing “datafication” of ourselves, it seems like time tracking is the new thing; specifically a) tracking your own time across different projects/tasks and/or b) your employer having access to that information.
Time data is the new location data.
Maybe the real “productivity problem” is measuring it. 😉
I came across “Toggl data” in this Fast Company interview with Serena Williams. Honestly not even sure why I clicked on it - probably wanted some kind of magical time tip to ride into the new year with.
Toggl has a free tier of service that gives you access to all of its features via a Chrome or Firefox browser extension. There’s also a timer that shows up in web apps (like Google docs) - that way you always see the “toggle track” button while you are working, which creates a continual reminder to track your time (what a stressful sentence).
*When the app detects your computer has been idle but a timer is still running, it offers ways to correct the recorded block of time.
This feels relevant given the ongoing fracturing of our time - this year, there seemed to be more discussion around Brigid Schulte’s “time confetti” concept (scraps of free time in the day that get filled with small tasks, chores and emails), which she contrasts with deep time chunks.
I considered installing the free version of Toggl to test it out, but found it freaky. At its worst, it had a reductive concept of what it means to work. “Working” doesn’t always mean…typing or clicking. What if you are reading? What if you are talking on the phone? If you make a sandwich for lunch while you are thinking about a project - are you working, or on an unpaid break?
Monitoring programs like these leave no room for inefficiency and introduce a constant buzz of low-grade panic.
Harvest for tracking hours and expenses in teams;
Everhour for viewing and managing team availability;
HourStack for visualizing time differently;
RescueTime for reducing distractions.
Of course, there are some applications of the program that are intriguing, like maybe you can figure out better time estimates for projects.
This kind of information - how we allocate our time - is also of interest to the government. Time Use data have been collected every 5 to 7 years since 1986. Statistics Canada has been exploring ways to modernize its time use survey, with an anticipated update in 2021. A pilot survey on Time Use took place in 2020. Previously, time diaries were completed on paper and sent back in the mail. They are unreliable indicators, as they rely on the accuracy and transparency of the individuals being surveyed. Imagine if all that information was just automatically zapped by an app.
A lot of the utility with this kind of information comes down to who has access to the insights from this data, and why? There’s a different between trusting your contractors to bill you properly versus coercing them to add a program to their toolbar.
With Toggl, you can export your data. That implies that you want to share it with someone (am I right?).
Firms can use this data to track and rank the productivity of their workers. They could also use this information when they are courting funding rounds - e.g. “here is the evidence of how hard working we are.” This kind of information can also be used against a worker in a myriad of ways
soft surveillance normalized as “insights”
As we continue to work from home and shift the norms of computer-based work (which may be more accurate than saying “white collar”), effortless time-tracking applications may feel helpful to you, and seem private. Instead of your boss watching you - you are watching yourself.
Below are some “insights” that Microsoft served up to me about my work. I assume that my employer (McMaster University) might be able to access this information as well. Keep in mind the stats are probably clouded by time spent on my computer doing other things (like paying bills, “shopping” and writing regs to riches):
Why even track your own time?
Ok, enough about the natural intrigue re: learning things about yourself. For some, it may be exciting to figure out ways to be more productive - thinking of that millennial self-optimization that leads to the burn out that Anne Helen Peterson has written about.
I started tracking my time earlier this year using Freshbooks. I needed to in order to bill clients accurately, and I also tracked time spent on business development and other voluntary online activities ( e.g. editing other people’s work as a favour) as well as counting the hours against flat-fee projects (i.e. the summer elective I taught bills out to be an internship of sorts). It changed my relationship with time - in a bad way. Spare night “off”? Why relax when I could be billing? Hideous. That evolving relationship also affected my perception of work - it was easy to envy the security of the salaried that didn’t have to turn a clock off if they chilled with a friend for a coffee break. I
That complex relationship between time and work is also eroding in the labour market as more firms experiment with contractors instead of employees.
Further, the very existence of a dataset can compel calls for them to be released. Will we see the public inquire about the time allocation patterns and history of public servants or elected officials? Will charities and non-profits need to report on the work history of their CEOs?
Time tracking is also relevant to recent claims/conversations about time theft.
Programs like these mean that employees can have the receipts to show when and how they are working. But that doesn’t mean they should.
Productivity growth and productivity levels are critical determinants of a country’s per capita income. Annual productivity in Canada has declined since the 1970s.
While time tracking programs like the ones mentioned above reflect more about work intensity, they can also unlock insights related to working smarter.
Plus, in a recession, it’s interesting to ask whether the internet improving our productivity or leeching away our attention.
When we are “at” work, are we working?
Again, this kind of data may seem empowering and enriching to a worker. But it can and likely will lead to a continued erosion of the relationship between employer and employee. There is an important distinction between the data you opt to monitor on *yourself* (e.g. when you get your period and for how long) and the data you track and share with your employer - not to mention the data that your employer may have without you even realizing.
We all have the same amount of time, it’s just allocated differently. You can be informing your professional life when you’re in the zone doing some chores, listening to podcasts, or talking on the phone. An un-quantified life is still worth living.
Major conversations around data governance and ownership are underway;
Bill C-11 in Canada (An Act to enact the Consumer Privacy Protection Act and the Personal Information and Data Protection Tribunal Act and to make related and consequential amendments to other Acts) will improve consent and empower people with data portability and other rights';
Employer tracking software could be considered an online harm;
It is sometimes unclear who can see and share time tracking data - i.e. will it be tied to my Linked In profile in some way, or have I been assigned a secret productivity score?
I’ll be watching for ongoing scholarship on these issues in labour law.
These companies could seek to sell productivity data, or sell the insights they derive from it back to the employer;
There are also other “insights” like what kind of employee works when and on what;
Presumably insights regarding how people spend their time, what a project costs, how to better estimate time, and “productive” workers can act to improve a firm’s productivity and create economic value.
Vass Bednar is the Executive Director of McMaster University’s new Master of Public Policy in Digital Society Program.