Time Tracking Apps: The Tools for Agile Professionals

Time tracking can help you understand your productivity cycle, be more conscious about your process and help you grow as professionals.
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Time tracking has been a part of human society from its early beginnings. In fact, time has always been inexorably linked to work. For example, the oldest account of time tracking can be traced to the Code of Hammurabi, a set of 300 Babylonian laws written circa 1772 BC.

With the massive growth during the industrial revolution and the fast development of technology, time tracking was adopted as one of the standard methods to manage a workforce. It’s not a coincidence that up to this day we still regularly use the expressions “clock in” and “clock out”.

But time tracking can be so much more than simply tracking the amount of time you invest in your work. It can be used to understand your processes, it can be cross-referenced with other data to figure out your production cycles, it can even help you have a healthier relationship with work. All it takes is thinking about time tracking differently.

The Changes in a Post-Pandemic Era

Experts have called the 21st century the beginning of the fourth industrial revolution, an era defined by the rapid adoption of technology, automation, AI, virtuality, and new forms of communication. 

Virtuality is of special interest. Remote work has become the standard in most of the western world since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Even after the change in policies regarding social gatherings, over 80% of companies are allowing their workforce to keep working remotely for the time being, and up to 25% are considering going full remote.

Remote work is a very different beast than working from an office. Homes are full of distractions and unless you have a personal space or are very organized, odds are that sooner or later you end up mixing work and personal life. After all, it’s easy enough to wash the dishes while you are waiting for that next conference call.

Obviously, time tracking can be done remotely and, in fact, there are dozens of services on the market that offer time tracking tools to register work hours. But that’s not what we are talking about here.

In a post-pandemic era, we are becoming leaner and less structured. While that poses its own set of problems, most experts agree that the benefits vastly overshadow the risks. This is an opportunity to transform the ways in which we use time tracking. Additionally, it’s a chance to analyze how time as a measure can become something more than a simple way to assess how long we work.

Productivity Cycles

The nature of productivity has been a hot topic for organizational psychology in the last few decades. Why is it that sometimes we can accomplish tasks at a breakfast pace and at other times we can barely check a few emails before getting distracted?

The answer is Productivity Cycles. Sleep researcher Nathaniel Kleitman noticed that we tend to have productivity spikes throughout the day that can last from anywhere from 90 to 120 minutes. 

In other words, we are more active during certain periods of the day. There’s been a ton of research on the matter, and it would seem that on average most people hit productivity peaks between 9:00 A.M and 11:00 AM, with the least productive time being around 2:00 PM and 4:00 PM.

Having said that, that’s not a hard and fast rule. Some people have very different productivity cycles. “Night owls” for example, tend to have higher IQ and be more productive, it’s just that it so happens that their productivity cycle happens in the middle of the night.

Learning to identify and exploit your cycles is a great strategy to increase your productivity and that of your team. One way to learn about your cycles and understand them is by gathering data about your processes. In other words, by using time tracking.

Time tracking apps can be used to assess when your teams are reaching peak productivity, which is especially important in agile methodologies.

Imagine a project manager building a workflow around the productivity of their team. They could put the most difficult and demanding tasks like sprints when they know that people can give their best, and less demanding tasks when the team’s energy wanes.

Time Tracking In Agile Methodology

Time tracking has a bad reputation. People often think of it as a rather rigid and almost Orwellian management tool, a system that is used to reprimand people who don’t fill their daily quota. There is a grain of truth to that perception since many managers can be draconian regarding time and schedules.

But in agile methodology time tracking isn’t conducted by the manager or in service of the manager. It’s conducted by the developers for the developers. In agile, you use time as an objective measurement of your process.

With that data, you can then learn about yourself and grow, becoming leaner and more productive. That’s the heart and soul of agile philosophy: The iterative process. You create a system and make it more efficient by continuous improvement.

With a good time tracking methodology you can get a better feel of your estimates. That way you avoid overpromising or having to crunch extra time to meet deadlines. And if your story points can be translated into hours, you have a better understanding of how to adjust your workflow based on scheduling and/or your personal productivity cycle.

The Risks of Time Tracking 

Time tracking tools are meant to foster productivity. Unfortunately, they can have the opposite effect when used incorrectly, thus becoming a source of stress and frustration. All it takes is a subtle shift in perception, one that is often done unconsciously.

A self-critical person might see a slope in a productivity cycle and see themselves as lazy or losing their edge. That’s the wrong lesson to take from this kind of tracking. Rather, developers should interpret a change in the process as a sign that something is happening and make a thorough examination of both their inner being and the world around them.

Managers have a very important role in these kinds of situations. Aside from managing the overall workflow of the team, they can use productivity cycles and time tracking to help their developers build a healthier schedule. 

Think of a manager as an outsider who has an eagle-eye view of their developers, someone who can see the forest for the trees. In other words, with time tracking, a manager can be a coach, helping others find the best rhythm for their work.

Time tracking is a powerful tool, one that has a strong stigma due to how it has been misused throughout the 20th century. If you aren’t using a time tracking app, it might be a good time to look for alternatives or to develop your own tools in-house.

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