Time tracking and task management for academics

I have been tracking my time for almost 9 years now and I have changed systems several times. I have also used various task management (or project management) tools in the past years and since about a year or so I have managed to integrate the two.  In this post, I wan to share my experience and perhaps make your choice of tools a bit easier.

I will mention the tools I have used in the past only briefly and the suggest three scenarios which I think are the best solutions you can find these days, depending on your needs. If you can’t be bothered reading the whole story, here is the gist of it (or tl;dr):

Scenario 1: If comprehensive time tracking is not so important for you and you are mainly looking for an easy way to keep track of your task, KanbanFlow is for you. The free version is perfectly sufficient for scholars but when I used it I actually signed up for the paid plan (5 USD per month) because I liked the swimlane feature.

Scenario 2: If you want to track your time throughout your workday, get a visual idea of how you spent your day (or week) and integrate that with your task management tool, then your best solution is using Asana for your task management in combination with TimeCamp for time tracking. Asana is free for up to 15 people, so you can even use it to coordinate work in a team but you’ll need to pay 6 USD per month for TimeCamp if you want to integrate it with Asana.

Scenario 3: If you are just looking for a time tracking tool and keep your task management entirely independent from that, I suggest you go for Yast. As an academic (student/teacher) the developer will – upon request – give you a free premium account (which normally costs 6 9 USD per month) but you may not even need that if the free account works fine for you.

So much for the quick summary and recommendations. Now comes the whole story.

Timepanic

tipenscreenshot01
Sample Screenshot from the developer’s website

I started using TimePanic back in 2007 simply as a means of finding out where all my time was disappearing to. At the end of the workday I often found that although I was certainly busy the whole day, it felt like I hadn’t really achieved as much as I wanted and wondered what I had used my time for. TimePanic is an offline Windows program that allows you to define certain keyboard shortcuts for switching to a specific task,

(For example, I had one of the F-keys set to “Chat with colleague” because when a colleague walks into your office to ask you something, you don’t want to start clicking all over the place to set your time-tracker to “Chat with colleague” before you actually react to him or her. So a simple key press would achieve that. And if you want to track who you actually spoke to or about what, you can fill that in afterwards)

and which shows allows you to produce detailed reports about how much time you spent on which task or project or how you spent your day or week or whatever. You can also define a day as a holiday or sich-leave or vacation etc so that you don’t end up wondering why you worked so little in August 2009 or so. (This feature is actually something I miss on all other time tracking tools I have used and tried so far!) Timepanic’s price is not cheap at 39 EUR but I have never regretted spending that money, even on my tight PhD student budget at the time. The developer was very responsive when I had questions or suggestions and the software was very user-friendly.

The most interesting (and somewhat ironic) effect of starting to track my using TimePanic was that I became much more aware of what I was doing already while I was doing it, simply because I had to log it. And perhaps more importantly, I became very aware of distractions (self-distractions and distractions by others) as well as any change of task, again: because I had to log it. It’s a nice example of how the measurement changes what it measures. (They observed the so called Hawthorne effect already decades ago with industrial workers, but it’s something else to actually experience it in yourself!)

So for anyone wondering whether time tracking is really worth the effort when you can’t use it to bill anyone, consider this self-disciplining and consciousness raising effect. Indeed, I rarely actually run any big analysis on my time-tracking data (although I do intend to do a little longitudinal study over the years one day. When I have time 😉  I just look at the day and the week and 80 percent of the time I’m only interested in the total time worked. Not even the project, let alone the task break down. But I do look, for example, at how much time I spend to peer review a paper – 8 hours! And I can’t seem to be able to do it much faster 😦   – or on publishing a paper (170 hours), but checking these things remains the exception. It’s just too frustrating to see how much time stuff actually takes!

Another reason to track your time as a scholar is to get rid of that bad conscience of not working enough. Or you might even be able to use your figures in negotiations with colleagues about how much time should be allowed for what kind of task. This may not be relevant in many parts of the world, but at Swedish Universities, your employer actually keeps track of your workload (and hence how many more tasks you should take on in a certain time period) and they use certain standard rates to estimate your workload. For example, at my department, correcting an exam gives you 20 minutes (sic!) and for giving a 1 hour lecture, you get paid 4 hours etc. When such rates are negotiated, being able to say “I have been tracking my time over the past X years and based on that this kind of committee usually takes X hours or work” might actually have a certain weight.

I left TimePanic because I wanted a graphical representation of my daily timeline. I wanted something like this:

yast-timeline
Yast’s visualization  displays of how you spent your day is quite unique in the diverse world of time-trackers

I asked the developer and since it wasn’t on his roadmap at all, I decided to go online, even though I would have preferred to be independent of the internet when it comes to time tracking (yeah, I know. But, hey, this was in 2011/12 when people still had a life outside the internet!).

Criteria for an online time tracking tool (choosing Yast)

I tried out a whole pile of online time tracking tools (and the number has multiplied since!) and thanks to Evernote, I still have my list of features that I used when comparing various options. Here it is (with some quick comments added):

  1. many projects, tasks and sub-tasks (and sub-sub-tasks…)
    • All tools offer that, but the question is whether and how much you have to pay for it. Sometimes the free plan is limited to one or two projects (like Harvest or Freckle) or don’t allow sub-projects/ tasks (like Toggle).
  2. logging of time of day (not just duration)
    • Many online tools (including KanbanFlow or Freckle) allow you to aggregate the time you have spent on a specific task, but they will not remember when you spent that time. Which implies: there is no time-line like the one shown above. At best, you get pie charts of how much of your time went to which project etc.
  3. easy switching between tasks/activities
    • after all, I’m gonna do that multiple times a day and ideally it should take zero seconds to so it. With it’s shortcuts-feature, TimePanic is probably still best at that. Because it is running on your computer, you can use global shortcuts to control it even when it is running in the background. With web-based applications, you have to at least bring your browser to the foreground and click some button. But the point with this criterion is basically that there should be a list of recently used or favourite tasks that I can start by clicking on them and starting one will automatically end the previous one.
  4. graphic display of projects over time (stacked)
    • I think what I meant by that was that I would like to be able to see, say, over the course of a year, which projects I was mainly working on each week or so. I don’t think I found this in any tool I looked at.
  5. android app or at least good mobile browser interface
    • If I’m going online, I at least want the benefit of being able to log my time also when I’m not at my desk but, for example, doing field work. Also good when you leave the office in the evening and notice you didn’t turn off the timer…
  6. note or comment field for each logged activity
    • This helps you to better understand afterwards what you were actually doing. I use it especially for big chunks of work (several hours), also to indicate that this record is correct on not a mistake of a forgotten timer. Having a comments field also prevents you from breaking down your tasks into too many small tasks. For example, if you have a task “write review for article XYZ” you might be inclined to have sub-tasks like “read the manuscript” and “write comments to authors” and “write comments to editor and submit”, but with comments, you can just write that into your comments field (unless you really want a formally exact break down of how much time you spent in each)
  7. defining the activity before it ends
    • This may sound strange, but I have seen tools where you just start a timer and only when you stop it will you be asked to say what you actually did during the tracked time. I don’t like that, not only because it defeats the disciplining effect mentioned earlier, but also because when I move on to the next task, I don’t want to thinking and writing about what I did but about what I’m about to do.
  8. offline use possible (cache or whatever)
    • I you’re tracking online, an internet or server outage just 30 minutes will interrupt your workflow and create extra work to fill on the gaps when the connection is back. Unfortunately, Yast had quite a few server outages and does not have an option for offline use.
  9. Not too business oriented
    • The thing is, most time trackers are designed either for freelancers working for clients or companies tracking the time of their employees (or a combination thereof). Since this is not what we do as scholars, we need to adapt these systems for our purposes and I’m fine with that, especially as long as I’m on a free plan. But there are limits to what I’m willing to use. For example, it’s fine to have an option to track time not only against projects but also against clients, but if the user-interface is designed in such a way that I am constantly asked to enter the client details or I even have to make up mock clients so that it works, then that tool is not for me. And then there are many tools that are more focussed on facilitating billing rather than tracking and analyzing time use (e.g.  MakeSomeTime)
  10. Low cost
    • Since I won’t make more money because I track my time, I don’t really want to pay a lot for this, perhaps I can even get it for free?

I will spare you all the details of my notes (which are four years old now). Suffice it to say that I eventually chose Yast because it fulfilled criteria 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 7, 9 and 10. I can still recommend it if you don’t want to integrate your time tracking  with your task management too (scenario #3 above). So here it is. This is what it looks like:

yast
The Yast user interface (At the top, I chose the weekly timeline view for this screenshot, as opposed to the single day view shown above)

 

KanbanFlow

Now, lets leave time-tracking aside for a moment and look at task-management. Until a couple of years ago, I was not using a particular task management system or tool but some combination of Outlook tasks, Outlook Calendar and some kind of lists (even on paper, yes!) But then I learned about the kanban method which apparently originated from lean manufacturing in the automobile industry, was then adopted in software development less than a decade ago. Although the original idea was to coordinate tasks and workflows in teams by visualizing them on a whiteboard, the Kanban was soon adopted to the personal level: the personal kanban. And while you can do this with paper notes on a pinboard, the digital version obviously bears a lot more potential.

So I looked around and tested quite a number of online kanban tools (such as: Kanbanery, Pivotal Tracker, Agile Zen, LeanKit Kanban, Kanban tool, kanbana, targetprocess, and, well, Kanbanflow). I will not go into any comparison here because I think for scholars the best choice is by far KanbanFlow and if you do a bit of comparing yourself, I am quite confident, that in the end, you will agree with me (please leave a comment below if you don’t – or if you do!)

The fact that KanbanFlow is the only Kanban tool with an integrated Pomodoro timer is already a fantastic advantage over other tools (find out more about the pomodoro method here). In addition, it allows you to track how much time you spent on each task, simply by clicking a button on the task-card (which you obviously are looking at anyway, when you are working on that task). I already mentioned the (paid) feature of Swimlanes which I used to separate teaching, administration, and various research projects from each other.

So I used KanbanFlow as a task-management tool for quite a while in combination with Yast as a time-tracker and it works fine. But at some point I noticed that I am not really using KanbanFlow for all my tasks. Sometimes I wouldn’t open it for days because I knew exactly what I had to do during those days anyway. But that also meant that I wouldn’t rely on it as my main task list, as the place to write that important thing that must not be forgotten, because I could not be sure that I would look at it when that thing needed looking at.

At first, I considered using the then new time-tracking feature in KanbanFlow instead of Yast so that I would open KanbanFlow first thing in the morning in order to start tracking my time. In order to do that, I would need to put all my tasks into KanbanFlow, and that’s where the problem started. The hierarchy of projects, sub-projects, tasks and sub-tasks that I had built in TimePanic and Yast over the years was quite complex and KanbanFlow wasn’t built to accommodate that kind of complexity in one Kanban board. The idea in KanbanFlow is to have one board per project. Technically, this is not a problem because you can easily create as many boards as you want. But I did not want to switch between boards, for example, when I finished preparing a lecture (in the “teaching” project) and start to prepare the interviews for a research project. And imagine the hassle when I student (teaching project!) comes in while I’m working on those interviews).

Besides, Kanbanflow’s time tracking is still rudimentary and since the developer said that this isn’t going to change in the near future, I decided to look for another solution. I still like Kanbanflow very much and may well change back to it once it’s time-tracking is a bit more sophisticated. So if time tracking is not a priority for you – perhaps you only want to know the time you spent on certain tasks but not on others? – then I suggest you should give KanbanFlow a try.

For me, abandoning KanbanFlow unfortunately meant that I would also leave Yast due to its lack of integration with any other online tools which made it impossible to find a task manager that would link to it.

The solution I came up with after some comprehensive testing and which I am still using today is Asana in combination with TimeCamp. I hope to write about this setup in more detail in a separate post (please comment below if you’re interested in reading it), so I will keep it short here.

Asana and TimeCamp

The beauty with this combination is that TimeCamp offers a browser plugin (Chrome only!) that puts a time tracking button on each and every Asana task and when you click it, it starts/stops tracking time against that task in TimeCamp. Like this:

asana
The (very customizable) Asana user-interface with the TimeCamp tracking button. On the left is the task list and on the right are the details of whichever task you select from the list.

This means that I don’t even need to open TimeCamp any more except for reporting purposes, i.e. if I want to know how much I worked on that day or whatever. Most of the time, I am only looking at Asana and tasks or projects I create there are automatically transferred to Timecamp and when I move them around in Asana they are also moved around in Timecamp so that my Time-Tracking and my task hierarchy are always in sync.

If you want to give it a try, please use this referral link to sign up. And let me know if you want to know more about this setup. It might encourage me to actually sit down and write it.

I just realize that with this referral link at the end, this looks like I wrote this whole thing only to get you to sign up for TimeCamp. But believe me, I have long planned to write about this and I only recently discovered that Timecamp have a referral program, so rest assured that my review here has not been biased in any way by the prospect of getting a reward for referrals. In fact, I still have some critical remarks to make about TimeCamp, but they won’t deter me from recommending them and I need to catch some sleep now. In the mean time, feel free to ask questions below, which can guide me when writing my next post.

 

How to Combine Citavi and Evernote

 I have been using Citavi for reference management since 2006 and I still believe that it is fantastic (although version 3 caused some serious drawbacks in my workflow and I sometimes even have thoughts about downgrading back to version 2.5, but this is  not the subject of this post). Since 2011, I am also a huge fan of Evernote and I am trying to put as much of the information that I might be looking for at some point into Evernote so that I find it without even thinking about where I might have stored it. In addition, Evernote’s Google Search integration for Chrome even lets me find information I already have when I’m looking for it on the net. A logical consequence of this is that I would like to combine the strengths of managing my literature and quotations/excerpts with Citavi with Evernote, which is great but will never replace a proper reference management program.

I have asked the Citavi folks to integrate a feature that allows you to upload content from citavi directly into Evernote using the Evernote API or perhaps this ommand line interface (I’m not a programmer). Unfortunately, they say that they have to prioritize other features and they might be right from the perspective of developing their product.

So I figured out a way to get all my stuff from Citavi into Evernote anyway: the trick is to basically print your whole database into an HTML file, open it in a browser, and use Evernote clipper to copy that file as a note into Evernote. Here is how you could do this (see difficulties further below):

1. Select  File | Save Project Bibliography | Annotated project bibliography (“Liste mit zusätzlichen Angaben” in German). The bibliography is created based on the current selection except if none is selected. So if you want all titles to be included, make sure you have no titles currently selected)

2. Select whatever information you want to be included from the list. Above all, you should select “Quotations”, because these are the most important bits of information that you want in Evernote, right?

3. Save your bibliography as Web Page (*.html)

If you have a large database, this can take a while. So be patient. Your Citavi hasn’t crashed. (To give you an idea, my ~3000 references took about 3 minutes to save.)

4. Open saved file in browser and clip to Evernote like you would do with any webpage.

Now this is what I have done so far. The problem is: it doesn’t work if you have a lot of records in Citavi. Or to be more precise: if  the resulting HTML file contains more than 5242880 Unicode characters. This is an additional limit to Evernote notes which they have unfortunately not advertized because “because the vast majority of our users never hit this limit when creating a single note” (EN support). I discuss this issue in more detail in a separate post.

So I am currently trying to find a way around this. Simply speaking, I have to divide my huge database into several smaller bibliographies. I guess, what I will do is to select titles in Citavi depending on the date they were last updated and the create Bibliographies for each year or six months or so and upload them as separate notes into Evernote (Citavi always saves the bibliography for the current selection or – if there is no selection – for the whole project).

What about the free floating thoughts in Citavi?

The method describe above can  only export information associated to titles. Free floating thoughts will not be saved in the HTML file(s). If you want to have also your Citavi thoughts in Evernote, you need to export them seperately by going to the Knowledge Module and select File | Print compilation | Print with options. You can also use “save compilation” instead, but going through “print” gives you a print preview where you can check if things are the way you want them. Once you see that preview, just go to File | Export to a new file and you can save as HTML file instead of actually printing.

Let me know if this is working for you or if you have any improvements to suggest.

 

Forget Atlas.ti and MaxQDA: NVivo is your friend!

NVivo

[UPDATE: Please note the updates at the end of this post, which basically revoke my enthusiastic statement in the main post]

Okay, I admit that the headline is perhaps a bit premature since I have not yet extensively worked with NVivo, but I just have to note that I am absolutely thrilled with what I’ve seen so far (NVivo 9.2)! I’m just wondering how it could happen to me that I did not see this earlier. I know I looked at it about 5 years ago so maybe it just wasn’t so good then or maybe it was too expensive for an underpaid PhD student? Maybe I was turned off by its rather commercial rather than academic appearance and self-presentation?

I can’t remember the reasons why I ended up choosing between Atlas.ti and MaxQDA, but I’m pretty sure I’ll work with NVivo from now on. I will write more about my NVivo experiences in a couple of months. At this point I can just mention some of the features that completely won me over:

Firstly, Since NVivo 9, several people can work simmultaneously on the same project (coding data etc). This is only possible in connection with NVivo Server, an extra software with an extra license (and hence extra costs), but I am not aware that any other QDA software offers such excellent team work features. In Atlas.ti, for example, you have to bundle your project and send it to your colleague who then can work on it, bundle it again and send it back to you. You can also merge projects in Atlas.ti, but once they are merged, its again only one user who can work on them at a time. (A note of caution: I have not yet had the chance to try out NVivo server but a colleague told me that there still seem to be some instability and connectivity problems that need to be resolved. So I’m not yet praising NVivo server! I’m just saying that there is huge potential!)

A second feature which is a must for me is the possibility to code scanned pdfs (handwritten fieldnotes!) Atlas.ti can do this but not MaxQDA. And NVivo can do it. I’ve tested it! Excellent!

Thirdly, I like to have my audiofiles linked and synchronized with my transcripts, which allows me to do rough transcripts at first and then go into detail where necessary by jumping to the respective audiosegment by clicking into the text. Again, Atlas.ti can do that. I think MaxQDA also introduced it recently (not sure though). Well, and NVivo can too, but my first impression here was actually a bit disappoiting since it does not seem to support “karaoke mode” when playing the audio and it puts the transcript into a table in which every row corresponds to a segment in the audio file. Its a bit clumsy to handle compared to the pure text version in Atlas.ti, but the problem with Atlas.ti transcripts for me has always been that they easily get messed up and the deitor is behaving strangely, for example by inserting a timestamp in front of the cursor instead of behaind it and and sometimes not allowing you to move the cursor past it. Well, anyway, the table layout of transcripts in NVivo seems to make the whole thing more stable. Hopefully anyway.

Another thing I like about NVivo is the way it displays code stripes not only down alongside your transcript (or other texts) but also across, along the envelope of your audio. It is also very flexible regarding which codes you want to have displayed.

Finally, I will just mention the incredible variety of analysis features, including the possibility to cluster your texts according to similarities in word use, the possibility to show the contexts in which a word is frequently used, and the possibility to automatically include synonyms and similar words in a word search. So for example, if you search for “tourist”, it can also look for “traveller” etc.

Let me know what your experiences witj NVivo or, if you prefer another QDA program, why you think it is better. Just post your comments below!

[UPDATE 04/11/2011: Here is a blogpost that came to a different conclusion than me, and I think Abdulrahman is making some valid points, especially about the speed…]

[UPDATE 13/10/2012: I don’t have time to write much today, but since this post is still one of the most popular ones on this blog, I need to say that I basically revoke my judgement: I cannot recommend NVivo 10 any more than Atlas.ti 7! The main reason why I am annoyed with NVivo is not so much about certain functionalities (if you want to import web-pages or study posts on social networks, NVivio 10 probably is still your choice) but about those little annoyances that keep bugging you while you work. I have a whole list of these, but the most annoying thing has been the way that NVivo links a transcript with the respective audio file: the transcript is in a table and one paragraph is a table cell. In addition, scrolling through the transcript table doesn’t go smoothly but takes quite big jumps so that you don’t know where actually you are in the transcript whenever you move the mouse wheel. It is also cumbersome to play a specific passage that you are looking at. Firstly because the way to get the audio playing is not intuitive and once you get it to play, it always starts at the beginning of that particular table cell. So if you got a long text within one cell, you cant’ really count that as text-audio synchronization in a meaningful way. The second huge drawback that I want to mention is that although NVivo 10 has become somewhat faster, it is still very slow (at least when you use it with NVivo server) which gets the more  annoying the more you are accustomed to the program and want to move around quickly. Finally, it seems that Atlas.ti has greatly improved with version 7.0 and I will check it out in the coming days to see if it still annoys me as much as when I decided to move to Atlas.ti with my new project.]

Citavi 3 released

We’ve long been waiting for this moment: Swiss Academic Software has released a major update for Citavi, probably the best reference management software in the world.

For any non-german speaker, the most important innovation of this release (version 3.0) is that Citavi is now bilingual: with two simple mouse clicks, you can change the GUI language from German to English or vice versa.

Another rather hidden improvement is the possibility to install Citavi on a USB stick and carry it wherever you want.

I will not describe the other (intriguing!) new features since they are neatly listed here [well sorry, it seems that the english version of the site is not yet up and running, but you can nevertheless download the free version here, it will also run in English.] and explained on video here.