A couple of months ago, a friend and I were on the phone exchanging familiar complaints about feeling drained, comparing notes on what our therapists had suggested. His therapist had recommended he consider a time-tracking app, as a sort of alarm bell for overwork, and a permission slip for rest. If, for example, by the end of the day Thursday you see you’ve clocked 38 hours, maybe on Friday you could be kind to yourself, take off a little earlier. If at 6 p.m. you think you could maybe just answer seven more work emails before logging off to check your personal email, then perhaps an app telling you that you had already clocked nine hours would make you feel better about leaving the inbox for tomorrow. It was working for my friend—maybe I should try it, too, he suggested.
It seemed like a good enough idea. I had used time trackers before, mostly while freelancing and juggling different hourly gigs, so it felt within my comfort zone in a way that, say, setting real boundaries was not. Plus, I was desperate—particularly during the pandemic, I’ve found consuming anxiety and guilt in any unfilled moment, which makes it feel impossible to pull myself away from the computer before 7 p.m. or ignore an email that pops up on my phone at 9 p.m. (During particularly low points, I’ve taken to answering emails in the bathroom, where my partner, who has a much better sense of work-life boundaries than I do, can’t see me.)
So, I downloaded and started using an app called, fittingly, ATracker, which lets you virtually clock in and out. Then, it can generate daily, weekly, and monthly reports. Each morning, I opened the app, began the timer, and set about trying to make the most of my now carefully enumerated time.
It didn’t go so well. ATracker, it turned out, presented lots of dilemmas. What happens, for example, when someone rings the doorbell with a package, and I have to march down and back up three flights of stairs (and then, obviously, open that package)? How should those minutes be counted? What happens when I take two-and-a-half minutes to stare into the microwave before grabbing my food, carrying it to my desk, and staring, once again, into my computer? How does one count the seven minutes spent squinting into the Gmail app while lying in bed in the morning?
Seeing my time so clearly in front of me, each minute categorized and accounted for, intensified the pressure I already felt to use every waking hour wisely, and every working hour productively. I’ve spent one hour and seven minutes working. What have I gotten done in that time? I found myself thinking. The app also became a challenge—what if I pushed eight hours to 10 on Monday? I would certainly feel more relaxed on Friday … until Friday came with its own crises demanding immediate attention. What if I worked 45 hours this week, just to do a little extra? Just to have something to point to, in case of emergency, that showed I was a dedicated and worthy worker?
Around the same time I started using the ATracker app, I began to really pay attention to an ad I must have already heard dozens of times on The Daily. It was a pitch for the productivity software ClickUp, and it invoked an alarming claim that we spend 40 percent of our time at work on “nonwork tasks.” The statistic came from a 2016 infographic produced (ironically) by another productivity software company, Scoro, and the ad felt like a shaming of sorts. After all, what is a nonwork task, really? Sitting in existential dread about the ever-intensifying pandemic and climate disasters? How much of our time outside of work do we use on work tasks? Why don’t we feel guilty about that?
ATracker and ClickUp are both part of a massive ecosystem of productivity technology, supported by the belief that we can optimize life. This ecosystem thrives thanks to the value we’ve attached to productivity, itself intertwined with self-worth. It promises to make us less exhausted and more effective—a promise so enticing that the actual results can feel secondary.
Here, an important disclosure: I’m a white, able-bodied woman working a cushy job, where I sit behind a desk most days. I have paid vacation, sick leave, and health care. I like my job, find meaning in my work, and have a supportive and understanding boss. I do not have children or other dependents. My decision to track my work is more about proving something to myself than proving something to someone else, which is not the case for many workers.
Nevertheless, “knowledge workers” are frustrated, tired, and working at an unsustainable pace. We are also, in the pandemic, quitting at an unprecedented rate. We get stuck between two narratives that feed off our frustration—the first composed of books and articles and social media posts preaching self-care, and the second of books and articles and social media posts that point out that we feel the way we do thanks to the economic and political systems constructed to make us feel this way, over which we ultimately have little control. Neither of these narratives is particularly helpful. We continue answering email on Saturday and feeling existential dread on Sunday.
So, when I heard Laura Vanderkam declare in her TED Talk that “Time is a choice”—that saying “I don’t have time” is really the equivalent of saying “it’s not a priority”—I felt somewhat skeptical. Who chooses those priorities? And what if there are just too many, and there’s no option to choose fewer?
Vanderkam has written several time management and productivity books, and in doing so, analyzed “thousands of time-logs” from busy people. She also has religiously tracked her own time, in 30-minute increments on a spreadsheet, for the past six years.
Much of Vanderkam’s work builds on the fact that there are 168 hours in a week—which means, if assuming eight hours of work five days a week and eight hours of sleep a night, we’re left with “72 waking, nonworking hours.” If you’re wondering where those hours go, that’s where time tracking comes in.
Vanderkam recommends that everyone track their time in 30-minute increments for a week. You don’t have to get super specific, she says, just think about how you would generally describe what you’re doing. At the end of the week, you can look at the major categories that come through, and think about whether there are areas that can or should be changed.
“There are stories we tell ourselves about time,” she said. “It’s worth knowing whether they’re true.”
Vanderkam argues that “even the busiest people have some discretion over their days,” and that more information enables better decision-making. For instance, what do you do with the downtime between activities? Are you actually working as much as you think you are? How much of your free time do you spend “puttering around”—that is, trying to figure out what to do next—rather than in “purposeful leisure,” which actually leaves you feeling refreshed?
If you like puttering, putter away! But the key is in making an active decision, Vanderkam said. (Here, it’s important to acknowledge again that class, race, gender, and ability often determine which decisions are truly on the table.)
When I told Vanderkam about my primary uneasiness surrounding time tracking—mainly that measuring time often feels like measuring productivity, and productivity too often becomes a proxy for self-worth—she was direct.
“Time is meant to be enjoyed, and you are the one who’s going to have to make decisions to enable that,” she said.
She also reminded me that as much as I wanted my time-tracker app to be the enemy for a) not solving all my problems, and b) making me feel bad about myself, ultimately it was just a tool.
“You don’t have a hammer just to have a hammer, you have a hammer to do something,” she said.
After talking to Vanderkam, I started thinking about my relationship to ATracker differently. What was I using my hammer for? What if the minutes it ticked away were just a source of information, not a value judgment? That was a premise I wasn’t quite ready to accept, but I was at least willing to consider it.
As I did, I felt like I was still missing a more systemic, bird’s-eye view of the things I was experiencing. That’s where Lonnie Golden came in. Golden is a Penn State professor and labor economist who studies work schedules, workplace flexibility, and worker well-being.
One of my big questions for Golden was whether we’re actually working more than we have been in the past. The answer, he said, is complex, in part because it’s gotten harder to measure working time. You could argue, according to Golden, that white-collar, salaried workers are putting in longer work weeks, but that’s not always supported by time diaries—because just as people are doing work tasks during what was once personal time, they’re also doing personal tasks during what was once exclusively work time. Think booking a ticket or appointment from work, or scrolling Instagram. “There used to be permeable boundaries, and now there are no boundaries,” he said.
Golden and other researchers point to a number of public policy interventions to respond to this erasure of boundaries—and hopefully make work better. One is the idea of a “good faith estimate,” which postulates that when you take a job, you should be notified how many hours you’ll be expected to work. This sets expectations and allows people to make informed decisions, Golden said. Along with the “good faith estimate” are the “right to request” and “right to refuse”—the idea that someone should be able to request, for example, to be part-time for a period of time, or to refuse to work weekends, each without penalty.
Golden acknowledges that these are far from radical solutions. Yet, given the way working in America currently feels, when I hear him describe these concepts they do feel sort of radical. Or, at least very European (which, surprise, they are).
This is in part because, yes, to some extent Americans are obsessed with working and achieving, Golden said. But the bigger part of the problem is that our systems reward that obsession. “The incentives are there, so we have to create the offsetting incentives,” he said.
My time-tracker app is a personal intervention, not a systemic one. At first, I felt it incentivizing me to work more, to push my already work-obsessed tendencies to their limit. But as I’ve continued to use it, I’ve started to see it less as an enemy and more as a yardstick—what it’s meant to be, I suppose. Sometimes, I find within it permission to take a break. Other times I don’t. Time ticks on.
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.