You know you’re serious about time management when you start researching apps and tools.
For some people, the idea of setting up multiple timers throughout your day seems oppressive and way too robotic. But to many of us, there’s a lot of freedom in time management.
At its heart, time management is being willing to say that we need help managing our day. I got serious about time management for many reasons.
- I wasn’t giving enough time to the truly important tasks
- I was giving too much time to small tasks and communication triage
- I wanted to be able to limit my working hours
- I wanted to feel better at the end of the day
- I wanted to avoid distractions
- I want to increase my capacity at work to be able to handle more high level things
I knew what tasks were the highest priority, but I still found myself struggling with managing my energy and time.
Do you really need time management apps?
We turn to time management apps because we don’t do a good job of managing time by ourselves. We experience time as infinite and finite at the same time. It seems like a day is never-ending, and that we will live forever. Yet we know that there is only a limited about of time in a day, and that one day we will die.
Time management apps help us apply the principles of time management into our daily lives, recognizing that it is hard for us to do it on our own.
What are time management apps?
Time management apps try to help you take control of your day by merging together how you spend your daily hours and keeping track of your most important tasks. What type of time management app you need is dependent on the other systems that you have already built around you.
These types of time management apps are simply just a clock. It might count up, or count down; you might have a lot of flexibility over it, or very little. Apps like these are for people who already have an effective task management system, and just need a way to measure and track time.
Timer + task management
These apps are more involved as they add the functionality of time tracking along with task management and prioritization. As you blend these two things, you are less likely to find the perfect app since you have one set of preferences for timing and another for tasks. But there are some systems out there that work well for people.
Timer + task + calendar
Finally, some time management apps try to go all the way and add a calendar function as well. All three are essential to good time management, but if you try to combine three sets of preferences, it even less likely that you’ll find the ideal app for you.
If you are serious about time management, you will have a good system for all three of these things. If you happen to find an app that does them all the way you want it, that’s fantastic. If not, you’ll need to maintain three separate apps, which isn’t impossible, but not always ideal.
Most time management apps are built for productivity around work, but some of them also try to extend to your personal life as well. As you are looking for the right app for you, decide if you are only trying to do time management at work, or for every hour of your day.
Billing or productivity?
You may think about time management apps as a way to be more productive, but some people need a time management app primarily for billing purposes. If you are a freelancer who bills hourly, or you need to track time for your entire team based on projects, you’ll need something dedicated for that. Many time management tools can help with both billing and general productivity, but they will usually do one better than the other.
Reflective or empowering?
Lots of time management apps out there are built to show you how you spent your day. They give a lot of insights to reflect accurately where your time goes. Other apps are purely built for putting you in control of how you are going to spend the next hours that you have. The reflective side is good when you are just starting out, or are using it for billing. But if you already know your style and have a plan, you want something that streamlines your work better.
Teams or individual?
Many time management tools are marketed to track your entire team’s productivity, especially when you are billing for an entire project. However, some of these can feel very much like you are spying on teammates and are built on the premise that you can’t trust them to spend their time well. My only motivation is improving my personal productivity, so I stay away from apps that offer team tracking capabilities.
Questions to ask before using a time management tool
How much control do you have over your day?
Time management apps work best for people who are in control over their own day, for example, someone who stays at home to work on a novel. On the other side, if you are a kindergarten teacher, handle support tickets, or spend every day in an open office where you are constantly being pulled into impromptu meetings, you won’t get as much value from it.
Where will you use the app?
Is it on your desktop? On your phone? Tablet? Browser? This is important because each app store is going to have a lot of different options. What works well for running in the background on your operating system may not have an option elsewhere. Your needs may be very different if you are on the go a lot instead of behind a desk.
Who’s in charge?
Some time management tools try to dictate what you should spend your time on by sending you reminders and notifications for what you should be doing at any moment. Others merely let you track the time and enforce your own priorities. If you already have a solid plan for how you want to spend your time, you want something that will serve you. If you feel lost and need help managing your time, you want something that will be more authoritative.
4 key dynamics of a time management app
Regardless of what type of app you want and how you answered the questions above, the best time management apps will have these characteristics.
How flexible you want the tool depends on how much control you want to give it. In my style of work, I want full control to be able to set a timer at any moment for any length of time. If you subscribe to the Pomodoro technique, then you have less flexibility over starting and stopping the timers.
A time management tool should be running in the background. It shouldn’t dominate your day or your desktop. You only want to think about the app when a timer buzzes and it’s time to move on to the next thing.
3. Quick and easy
Aside from getting it set up initially, you shouldn’t spend much time with you time management app. It should be as simple as clicking a button and starting to work. If you find yourself always inside the app and messing with things and entering details, then it’s really distracting from what it should be doing. Since I only want a timer, I want to spend no more than five seconds setting it up each time. If you need to document and track, that should also be quick and intuitive.
I’m not big on tracking my data about how I use my time. Since my main motivation is feeling more productive, I don’t need the app to tell me whether it is a good day or a bad one. But, if your goal is to actually spend more time on a particular task or advance towards a goal, then seeing that data at the end of the week or month is great. Of course, if you are using the app for billing, then you need some more advanced tracking and reporting features.
Time management apps I’ve tried
Shockingly, this has been my go-to timer app for more than a few years. It’s a Chrome extension, so it doesn’t run on mobile or really on any other browser. Even when I switched to using Safari as a browser for some time, I continued to use Chrome only to run this app.
The unique thing about this app is that it counts up, not down. I set goals for each day about how much time I want to spend on a few particular projects, and then set the timer when I’m on that project. The main reason it has been so enduring for me is its flexibility. Even as I try different time management techniques, I find that it is always helpful.
This is an app only for MacOS X. This one counts down instead of up. I use it along with the other timer to give me an idea of 45 minute sprints throughout the day. It’s super fast to set and very flexible.
There are many in this category with names like Be Focused, Focus Booster, Flow, Focus, Focus To-Do, and Tomato One. All of them follow the same Pomodoro principles. I stopped using them after a short time because I wanted more control. Most of them don’t let you stop a sprint early or quickly set a custom amount of time. You are locked into whatever time you configured at the start. That said, if you can implement the Pomodoro technique completely, they are a great option.
This app works in the background to monitor how you spend your time. I found it to be helpful when first analyzing what takes your focus most of the day. However, I didn’t find it as useful for implementing my specific time management strategy. It’s a great time management tool for anyone who is serious about starting out with these concepts and wants an accurate view of what their day is like. Plus, their blog is killer.
This is one of the very few cross-platform time management apps out there. It has mobile apps, desktop apps, and a Chrome extension. So, if you are on the go, this is one of the best options you can choose. It is definitely built primarily for tracking billing hours, and it’s more for team management, so if that’s not a focus for you, it can be distracting.
Harvest is very similar to Toggl, in that it is cross-platform, and built for billing and teams. It’s got a lot of insights built in, which can be good if you are trying to analyze what is going wrong. It wasn’t a good fit for me as it was built for teams and for reporting on how you spend your time rather than giving you the tools to take control.
This is one of the more intense time trackers out there that also incorporates task management. For me, it is a bit too intrusive and nanny-like. It markets itself as a tool to “ensure your team is working productively” by grabbing screenshots, which is a bit too invasive for my taste.
Find your time management app
There are lots of other tools out there and more being added every day. What works for you probably won’t work for your friend, and it all depends on your situation. I need something sleek and unobtrusive that allows me to just track time and stay on task. Others need something more robust that can track an entire team’s work for billing purposes. Whatever your goal, you can probably find the right tool for you.