I do this with pen and paper, but you could do this digitally with a spreadsheet, or a text file, or just about any application where you can write things down.
At the beginning of the week, I just put a series of hash marks on a grid page. There are for grids between each hash (representing 15 minutes) and 6 hours on a line. I fill in the line as I get work done. Here is this week’s page, as of Tuesday afternoon.
As I go through each day and spend time on work that moves the needle, I log it on this page. Consider it time-tracking light. I’m not keeping track of how much time I spend doing everything. I’m just keeping track of the time I spend moving the needle. This has several benefits.
First, I can see how much I’m getting done on the work that matters. That feels good, particularly when you end a day and know that you spent a substantial portion of your day doing this type of work.
Second, you have a mechanism to hold yourself accountable, not just at the end of the day but throughout the day. The process of finishing a few hours of client work and then logging it on this page comes with its own unique blend of happy chemicals in my brain. Likewise, when I get to mid-morning and realize I haven’t logged any work for the day that moves the needle, I get a kick in the pants to fix that.
I just started doing this in April, and I’m admittedly still in the honeymoon phase of this practice, but I can tell you it is working. It helps me stay focused throughout the day, and my enthusiasm for the idea is even higher now than when I first started doing it. The question of getting my most important work done is much more present in my mind now, and that has obvious benefits for me both mentally and in terms of actual production.
This practice is not meant as a substitute for time tracking. You can do this whether or not you time track. The point, at least to me, is to give myself an easy accountability measure for the work I want to get done every work day. I think the trick is to keep it simple so you can stick with it.
One of the effects on me is that I’m more vigilant about asking myself the question, “Does this move the needle” throughout the day and even before agreeing to additional projects.
But Not All Work Moves the Needle
There still is some work that both must get done and doesn’t move the needle. I think plenty about that work as well every time I set time aside to do it. This is work that gets in the way and, with this practice, I’m more motivated than ever to throw it overboard. I’ve got a series of questions I ask myself every time I pick up this type of work:
Does this need to be done at all?
If it must be done, can I automate/delegate it?
If I must do it, what is the least intrusive way for me to accomplish it?
There are a couple of insights I’ve had on those category three jobs. First, I’ve been intentionally scheduling time for that stuff when I’m the least productive. For me, that’s after 3 pm on most days. Also, I find I get that type of work done faster if I pile it all together and set aside a few hours to do it, rather than picking it up piecemeal throughout the day and week. I’m currently experimenting with ganging all that work into one block in the week (currently Wednesday afternoon). I’m not sure if that is going to work or not, but it sure feels better knowing I have set aside a place for that work during the rest of the week.
Being deliberate about my work that moves the needle and tracking that daily has had immediate consequences for me. I’m doing better at getting client work done while at the same time, I shipped a new field guide. It’s working for me. I hope it works for you as well.
This whole system of moving the needle isn’t some stroke of inspiration from nowhere but instead results from me reading and talking to others about my own challenges and obstacles to getting my work done. Significant influences on me in coming up with this include Mike Schmitz, Shawn Blanc, Matt Ragland, and Michael Hyatt, but those are only the tip of the iceberg. Also, Mike and I speak about this at length in Focused 74.