Zettelkasten Forum

Tracking Progress

This thought is a little disjointed, will hopefully make more sense by the time I hit post.

Due to other obligations, I am not a full-time scholar or researcher. Trying to fit my deep work in here and there around my schedule leaves me feeling like I'm not making any progress at all.

I'd like to implement a method of tracking the amount of time I spend on reading, note-taking, uploading notes to my ZK, processing into my own words, etc. Uncertain what that looks like.

Does anybody here track time spent as a variable? How so?


  • I do time tracking. The way I do it is simple: I start a timer (software app) whenever I start a task; I stop the timer when I stop the task; I label what I did during that time period; then I repeat.

    However, what's more important is that such time tracking is only the penultimate step of a general self-management process, of which there can be many variations, like what David Allen of Getting Things Done calls the "natural planning model". Time tracking is probably not worth the effort if you don't first do the steps that should naturally come before it.

    For example, since your struggle is about fitting your knowledge work into the rest of your life, you may want to start by taking a holistic approach to your life: listing the important areas of your life; listing and prioritizing your goals and activities for each area (and desired outcomes if not obvious), noting any conflicts among goals; creating an action plan for the goals (action steps, resources, deadlines, etc.); creating a weekly time budget that shows how much time you expect to spend on each area and goal per week; and scheduling that budgeted time use into your weekly schedule. Only after doing all those prior steps would you start tracking your time and, during your weekly review, comparing your real time use to your budgeted time use and making adjustments as needed.

    When you have reached what seems like a reasonable similarity between your time budget and your real time use, and you are making progress as well as could be expected given your time budget, you can stop the time tracking until you need it again.

    "How many pages have I produced? I don't care. Are they any good? I don't even think about it. All that matters is I've put in my time and hit it with all I've got." (Steven Pressfield)

    Here at zettelkasten.de there is a past blog post and related discussion that may be relevant.

  • @AWomanThinking said:
    Does anybody here track time spent as a variable? How so?

    In a way, I have the opposite problem. For about 6 months of the year, I am retired and do pretty much what I please. You'd think that would result in a more focused effort on certain projects, including working on my ZK. That's not always the case :blush:

    However, I have tried this app (available through SetApp on a Mac or directly from the web site), and find it is pretty efficient. But I am still in the discovery mode, so can't speak too deeply about it's strengths and weaknesses:


  • Are you working on a specific project?

    I am a Zettler

  • Good question!

    I have finished about 80% of one book I am reading and have consolidated my thoughts into some reading notes. Haven't done any extensive linking yet, but my ZK is young. Next book is lined up. Big picture, though, it's really about work flow and not giving up when progress is slight or slow. And about taking the time to process, instead of throwing myself into the next book. Knowledge doesn't accrete now as easily as it did when I was younger.

  • So, the project is a current book?

    I am a Zettler

  • edited July 2023

    @AWomanThinking said:
    leaves me feeling like I'm not making any progress at all.

    I would say that the problem is not so much one of tracking time, but being left with the feeling that one is not making progress. But is it really true that no progress is being made? Almost certainly not, which suggests that what is required is a shift in thinking. This also raises questions about whether "progress" in what is called "knowledge work" is quantifiable or measurable simply by tracking time explicitly dedicated to a particular task. Or must we merely rely on our impressions of what we are achieving?

    I work as a psychotherapist these days, and my supervisor observed to me the other day that often it seems to us that with each session we are just adding a single grain of salt to a barrel of water, and the effect is impossible to detect for a long while. Then something happens, and change occurs, sometimes very suddenly and quickly.

    Perhaps in things like learning, we have to set aside what I sometimes think of as the "engineering mentality". Building understanding is not quite like building a wall, brick by brick. I don't think anybody can predict how long it will take them to understand something, and I find it is not that easy to say how well I have understood something at the end of any period of study. Then again, the usefulness of what we are storing away may not really reveal itself for a very long time, perhaps even years. In my present work I find myself tapping into bits and pieces from my past education that I could never have predicted would be useful to me at a distance of fifty years.

    Perhaps we just need to enjoy the process while we are going through it, and not think so much in terms of specific outcomes. But perhaps it depends on how goal-oriented one is. Perhaps I'm just that type of person that is happy picking up stones if they seem interesting at the time, on the off chance that they may contribute something at some point. One never knows ... For me, it is only now, at the age of seventy plus, that I can look back and see how some of the pieces have fitted together. Often without my intending them to.

    Pardon the philosophising, which may not be of any use to anyone.

    PS: also be aware that a lot of learning/understanding takes place below the level of consciousness, without us being aware of it. There is no way of tracking that ...

  • @Sascha said:
    So, the project is a current book?

    Better definition.... I see where you're going with this.

    The current project is to finish reading a book, take notes on it, and integrate them into my ZK - then lead a 3-session workshop based on the book. For the workshop, I will need to come up with about 25% new material as 75% of the content will be provided. So I need to finish the book with enough knowledge absorption to be able to facilitate discussion about the major points.

    I've been particularly bad at finishing things over the last few years, and have often started books, including this one, that I abandoned 2-3 chapters in because something else looked shiny.

    Since I now have the 3 sessions on the calendar, I've been able to work backwards from that to assign myself a chapter a week of the book in my new shiny task management app, which would have me completing the book on time.

  • In that case, I'd just create a list of tasks (a section in the book would be its own task) that are necessary to accomplish for your ability to hold the workshop. Then you estimate how long you need to accomplish each task and multiply it by 1.5. Then you allocate at least this much time up until the deadline. :)

    I don't think this is a tracking issue but more a project management issue in general.

    But to answer your question:

    Does anybody here track time spent as a variable? How so?

    Tracking becomes obsolete if you allocate properly. This is what I do.

    • I scheduled 4 sessions this week for my current book, which is plenty to drive this project forward.
    • The entire September is blocked to create the ZK 101 workshop. Also: Plenty, since I know the material inside out.
    • In normal times, I schedule 2 sessions for indirectional work. This is enough to keep my brain fresh and avoid becoming narrow minded.

    I track written words per day to have an objective idea on how much I was able to think and write. (sometimes misleading if I do more visual thinking)

    I am a Zettler

  • @AWomanThinking said:
    Does anybody here track time spent as a variable? How so?

    I have and do. I have a fairly loose schedule and tracking time towards the things I'm focused to make progress on gives a level of accountability to it which I've found helps

    I use Toggl to track time. Timery on iOS works well to start/stop previously saved timers with one press

    I keep it very simple. I only track the broad category, not the task. Adding extra granularity to it doesn't seem to add any value. I only track a small amount of things because I don't want to be starting/stopping timers all the time for no reason

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