Should developers track their time?

Written 05 July, 2018, 3 minutes to read

A developer’s creative flow is a weird and wonderful thing. “Standard” deliveries don't really exist; a similar task could see you locking focus for hours of superhuman productivity, or spending ages researching and fighting off distractions before you even get going. Being unruly and unpredictable, programming life doesn’t easily lend itself to regular time-based measurement. So, should developers track time?

Why some developers hate time tracking

It’s challenging to evaluate development work against time-based increments for a whole ton of reasons.

Since there’s no way to magically get in your productive zone, you tend to work in irregular productive cycles. Some days might see you focusing on a single task for hours, whereas on others days the same task takes longer – you switch tasks and break concentration, your time is interrupted by bugs and meetings, or you’re low on juice from the previous day’s insane productivity.

There’s also no precise time value you can assign to coding tasks, since different types of coding takes different amounts of time. It depends on whether you’re writing it from scratch or dipping in to tweak something. Sometimes a ton of research is involved before you can even get going, and the issue of “incubating” on problems means it’s sometimes hard to even set an exact start and end point for development work.

Plus there’s the issue of “productive guilt”: only focused productive time actually feels like work. Struggling to enter your flow or taking ages to problem solve often seems completely unproductive and non-billable, and unworthy of a time value.

A lot of developers therefore choose to value their work by days instead of hours, but it still seems to be an imperfect measurement.

How time tracking can help developers

While all completely valid, these issues suffer from the same mental limitation: they see time tracking as a control mechanism for development work, rather than a referential tool to improve developer self-management.

Time tracking delivers huge value when applied to developer processes, productivity and organization (which all impact the quality of their work). Time tracking simply creates an accurate log to help you understand and access your own activities. It’s ridiculously helpful for helping you work out:

  • Exactly where you spend your time
  • What enables and disarms your productivity
  • Where you get distracted
  • Where processes can be optimized
  • If you’re addressing the most important tasks (not just the most urgent)
  • If you’re spending enough time on each client
  • Where you have room to work on personal projects and research
  • If fixed project prices are actually profitable
  • And create accurate, data-informed estimates for new work

Time tracking also helps address the unhealthy view that only productive development time counts. By capturing every insignificant, overlooked detail of your working day, time tracking helps highlight that all work matters. The time you spend head scratching around a problem may feel like vacuous space, but still counts; without it, your productive stretches wouldn’t be possible.

The best time tracking software for developers

If it’s going to help you manage your own processes, your time tracker shouldn’t add an extra time burden into your day. The best developer time tracking tools:

  • Fit in with your workflow – supporting your preferred editors, tracking your commits and syncing with your calendars
  • Are effortless to use – so you don’t spend any time learning how to use it
  • Let you work naturally – so time tracking doesn’t interrupt your flow

Automatic time tracking apps are the go-to lightweight solution for developers for these very reasons. They track all your app activity across desktop, web and mobile devices in the background while you work. And with AI-powered tools like Timely, you don’t have to mess around with timers or even physically log your time.

Still not sure if time tracking could help your development work? Try it out for free and see for yourself.


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