The Dark Side of Time Tracking and Productivity Culture

John Reeve | March 22nd, 2023 | ,

A woman who is visibly stressed sitting at a computer, chewing on a pencil

What is Productivity Culture?

Productivity culture, also know as hustle culture, is a societal mindset that pressures teams to promote and quantify performance above all else. The demand to constantly produce work often goes unchecked, and results in team members making unhealthy personal sacrifices.

Common symptoms of toxic productivity culture are anxiety, burnout, and an unhealthy focus on quantity over quality. Teams mired in this culture may find themselves feeling like they can’t rest or enjoy any downtime. The irony of hustle culture is that a team’s work will inevitably degrade as a result of pushing too hard.

Sadly, time tracking is one of the major contributors to a toxic productivity culture.

How does Time Tracking Contribute to Productivity Culture?

The most basic description of time tracking is that it is a tool used to quantify the number of hours and minutes spent working on a task. When we deploy time tracking as a quantitative tool, and nothing else, we are stepping on to a slippery slope that leads directly downward into toxic productivity culture.

Work environments that focus too much on quantifying time will end up encouraging negative behaviors. For example, some team members will simply lie on their timesheet. Others will focus only on busy work, ignoring more creative and challenging pursuits. And, some will push themselves too hard just so they can appear to be doing enough.

Here are just a few practical ways time tracking has been misused that promote a toxic work environment:

  1. Enforcing an eight hour work day
  2. Comparing employees to one another to “motivate” them
  3. Capturing every minute with monitoring software

How Will Time Tracking Help Us Steer Clear of Productivity Culture?

When properly implemented, time tracking tools give teams an accurate measure of their efforts. The data gives us a feedback loop that is essential in making smarter decisions as a team. Here are a few practical examples of how time tracking data will help project-focused teams work better together:

  1. Reveal which projects were profitable, which were not, and find out why. Use that information to increase the likelihood of delivering future projects on time and under budget.
  2. Find out where time is going and trim wasteful work. It’s not uncommon for well-meaning people to spend too much time on a task, only to find out they’ve not left enough time for their other work.
  3. Know your team’s limits and work within them, because no two people are equally productive. Use the data to focus in on what the team, not each individual, can accomplish collectively on their next project.

One important factor to consider is the time tracking data itself — it only measures the hours and minutes we’ve actually worked. To steer clear of productivity culture, we need to focus just as much on the gaps in our workday.

Because it’s these gaps — the moments of down time in the midst of a busy workday — that will make us more creative, innovative, and successful in the long run. It’s an idea known as productive procrastination.

What is Productive Procrastination?

Productive procrastination is the counter-intuitive idea that taking breaks and allowing your mind to roam will actually make you more innovative. It’s centered on the theory that our brains need time to rest and recharge, not just when we sleep at night, but throughout our workday.

Taking a mentally healthful approach to productivity requires that we intentionally take breaks throughout the day. This means allowing our minds to relax, while still maintaining a sense of direction. Research has show that when we give our brains a break we are better able to think up new ideas and solutions.

How Can Time Tracking Promote Productive Procrastination?

Teams that are intentional about practicing productive procrastination will find themselves more aligned, productive, and successful, in the long run. Admittingly, this can be especially difficult in the face of a westernized work culture that glorifies the hustle. Here are three practical ways that time tracking tools will help:

  1. Take regular breaks. If you are logging eight hours in an eight hour workday, you aren’t recharging enough. Run reports to find out if you’ve been working too much.
  2. Spend less time doing and more learning. Spend more time engaged in activities that inspire creativity — reading, drawing, or writing, for example. This time is just as important as any other work, so track it if you’d like.
  3. Switching between tasks will help prevent fatigue and keep our brains engaged. Use an app that features timers to alert you when it’s time to switch it up to the next task.

In summary, the toxic culture of a productivity-focused workplace can have dire consequences. People working in this environment will experience burnout, mental health issues, limited innovation, and a work-life imbalance. Time tracking tools, when used improperly, will contribute in a negative way. However, when used to promote the overall well-being of the team, time tracking tools will help build a healthy and balanced workplace.

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A collection of useful tips, tales and opinions based on decades of collective experience designing and developing web sites and web-based applications.

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Intervals is online time, task and project management software built by and for web designers, developers and creatives.
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John Reeve
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John Reeve

John is a co-founder, web designer and developer at Pelago. His blog posts are inspired by everyday encounters with designers, developers, creatives and small businesses in general. John is an avid reader and road cyclist.
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Jennifer Payne
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Jennifer Payne

Jennifer is the Director of Quality and Efficiency at Pelago. Her blog posts are based largely on her experience working with teams to improve harmony and productivity. Jennifer is a cat person.
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Michael Payne
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Michael Payne

Michael is a co-founder and product architect at Pelago. His contributions stem from experiences managing the development process behind web sites and web-based applications such as Intervals. Michael drives a 1990 Volkswagen Carat with a rebuilt 2.4 liter engine from GoWesty.
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