Better time management through profiling
By Abhijit Menon-Sen <firstname.lastname@example.org>
This web page is about the most potent charm in my long-standing quest
for better time management: a program to help me keep track of exactly
where and how my time is spent.
Of course, I can't tell you how best to manage your own time, but just
as profiling is the best guide to code optimisation, I found it useful
(and sometimes very surprising) to begin by knowing exactly where time
goes. I've been very happy with the results, and I know of others who
approaches to the problem.
The idea is that you run a program (ts) every time you change what you
are doing. This sounds intrusive, and it does take a while to get used
to; but ts goes out of its way to make it easy, and it's almost second
nature to me now. I find the benefits worth this extra investment.
To run ts, you will need to have Perl installed along with the DBI and
DBD::Pg modules. You'll also need to provide a PostgreSQL database for
it to use, and you'll have to create the activities table from ts.sql.
The profiling data is stored in this very simple SQL table:
create table activities (
category text not NULL,
started timestamp(0) not NULL default current_timestamp,
check (stopped is NULL or stopped > started)
A row in this table describes a period of time spent on some activity.
The category is usually something like "work/mail" or "work/src", the
latter perhaps with a comment like "Fixing Jamfile". I find it useful to
organise my activities into a hierarchy, but you can decide for yourself
how you want to categorise things.
When you start a new activity ("ts work/src Fixing bug 42"), its started
time is set, and the stopped time of any activity that doesn't have one
(any activity that is in progress, in other words) is also set. You can
also specify the start and end times explicitly
("ts -s 12:00 -e 12:30 lunch").
My .zshrc contains "compctl -/ -W ~/.categories ts", and I've created
directories that reflect my categorisation under ~/.categories. Now I
can do things like "ts w<TAB>e<TAB>" instead of having to
type the category name ("work/email") in full.
Running ts without arguments explains how to use it.
Once the data is available, it's up to you to figure out how to use it
to your advantage ("How much time did I spend on the phone last week?"
"Let me generate a time sheet for work/some-client/code/" ...). Just
playing with the data in psql is often instructive.
The tsc program generates sc spreadsheets from the profiling data. It
presents, for a given time period (the last week by default), a list
of the categories matching some pattern (everything by default), and
a table (with totals) of how much time has been spent on them on each
of the days in the period under consideration. (You need a patched
version of sc to use tsc.)
I plan to write something that generates nicely-formatted time sheets
from this data, but I haven't gotten around to it yet. If you have an
interesting visualisation idea, please let me know.
Here's a tarball of the source code. It contains
the ts and tsc programs, the SQL table definition, a patch required for
sc to understand the tsc output, and some documentation. (You can also
download a patched version of sc.)
Please write to email@example.com if you have any questions, comments, or
suggestions. If this program is useful to you in some way, I'd love to
hear about it.