Using ATracker to track and manage time

When Kim and I returned from our 15-month RV trip across the U.S. in 2016, I was overwhelmed — and for a lot of reasons. One problem was that I couldn’t seem to manage my time.

Time management has been a struggle for me all of my life. It’s something that most folks with ADHD wrestle with. It’s tough for us to prioritize. And even when we do manage to prioritize things, it’s tough for us to stay on task.

Related reading: Yesterday on the ADHD subreddit, one user asked a great question: Why the hell does my brain tell me this five-minute thing I need to do will consume my entire day, leading me to do the fun stuff first? Ah, this is my life. Instead of getting the requirements out of the way and playing later, I play first. I cannot defer gratification. Apparently, it’s an ADHD trait. I’m working on it.

In 2016, I spent a week performing Laura Vanderkam’s time makeover. For seven days, I logged everything I did in fifteen-minute increments. It was a useful exercise.

I’ve been wanting to do something similar again. But really, I want to track my time on an ongoing basis. One week doesn’t give enough data. Plus, although I tried not to do so, I know I alter my behavior slightly when I’m aware I’m conducting a short-term experiment. I want to see long-term patterns.

Yesterday morning, because it was the first day of the year, I went on the app store to search for time management apps. There are a lot of them (although most are targeted at business users). Each works in a slightly different way. Most seemed a bit clunky to me. But then I found ATracker, and I knew I’d hit the jackpot.

How ATracker Works

For me, ATracker is perfect. (I don’t mean to be hyperbolic in this case. I mean it. It’s a perfect app.)

Fundamentally, ATracker does only one thing: It logs the time you spend on various activities. Here’s how it works.

  1. You create a “task” for each activity you want to track. Each person will want to track different things. In my case, I created tasks like Sleeping, Gaming, Hot Tub, Mindless Web, and Get Rich Slowly.
  2. Whenever you start a task you’d like to track, you go into the app and touch the task name. This starts a timer.
  3. Whenever you finish a task, you go into the app again and touch the task name. This stops the timer.

That’s it. That’s the basic functionality built into ATracker. That’s all it does. But you know what? I don’t need (or want) it to do anything else. And while this is its basic functionality, let’s talk about a few of the apps more important features.

First, you can track multiple tasks at once. So, for instance, yesterday while I was in the hot tub, I tracked that activity and I tracked the fact that I was reading. I’m not sure how many activities you can “nest” like this. Because I was reading a book about money, I might have also tried to log this as Get Rich Slowly time also…but I didn’t.

Second, there’s an Apple Watch version of the app. This is huge. I know it’s easy enough to go into my phone to start (or stop) a timer when I’m doing something, but having a watch app for this removes all barriers. Now it’s merely a matter of getting in the habit, which will take a few days. (Remembering to start/stop the timer when I’m sleeping will be the biggest challenge.)

Finally, ATracker offers amazing reports.

The main screen — the Today screen — is where you start and stop tasks. Here, you can see how much time you’ve spent on each activity today.

ATracker's default Today view

On the Calendar screen, you can see a timeline view of exactly what you did each day — including “nested” tasks. In this screenshot below, for instance, you can see when I was reading in the hot tub yesterday morning.

ATracker's Calendar view

The History view is somewhat similar to the Calendar view, but it shows you each activity in discrete chunks.

ATracker's History view

Lastly, the Report page gives you a pie chart that breaks out how you spent your time during a given period. You can opt to see the breakdown by day, by week, by month, or by a specified range.

ATracker's Report view

Based on the app’s iconography and dialog boxes, I’m certain that there are some subtle features that I haven’t discovered yet. There are different ways to view the data. It look as if you can set goals and/or targets. And so on. I don’t care about any of this stuff. What I want is an app that tracks how I’m spending my time, then shows me that data. ATracker does precisely this.

Final Thoughts about ATracker

Will I continue to use ATracker for more than a few days? That’s a great question.

I have a 51-year track record of starting stuff like this and then not following through. A couple of days ago, I mentioned my new five-year journal, for example, as something I worry about using for a little while and then forgetting.

But the thing with ATracker is that it’s so brain-dead simple. I mean it’s very very easy to use. There’s no barrier there. (The barrier is me forgetting to start a timer. When I started writing this post, I forgot to start my “Folded Space” activity in the app, for instance. I remembered after a couple of minutes. Fortunately, you can edit and/or manually enter data to fix issues like this.)

Plus, I’m highly motivated to use this. It’s something I’ve been wanting to do for a long time, and implemented in a way that I love.

So yes, it’s possible that this app will fall by the wayside. But I suspect there’s a high chance that I’ll continue to use it not just for days, but for weeks and months ahead.

If you want to change, change today — not tomorrow

Every year as December winds to a close, I think about all of the things I’d like to change in my life. I think about how I’d like to lose weight, stop wasting money on stupid stuff, and — especially — learn to use my time wisely.

Some years (and this is one of them), I make grand plans to change my habits.

Recently, for instance, I purchased a five-year journal. It’s exactly what it sounds like: a lovely little book that includes space to make entries for each day from 01 January 2021 until 31 December 2025.

Hobinichi 5-year planner

In my mind, it’d be awesome to commit to keeping this journal for five years. And I really really want to do it.

But here’s the problem. Often, these grand plans aren’t rooted in reality. They’re based on some idealized picture of who I want to be, not who I am. As a result, I don’t follow through. (Fortunately, my intended journaling routine is aligned with who I am.)

Here’s a real-life example.

I’ve struggled with my weight all of my life. There have been periods where I’m fit and healthy, but there have also been periods during which I indulge myself indiscriminately. I gain weight. My blood pressure soars. My mental health suffers.

Eventually, I decided I need to get fit again. When this happens, I take one of two approaches.

  • The first approach is to adhere to some sort of regimented diet. Maybe I decide I’m only going to eat vegetarian. Or, usually, I aim to stick to a high-protein menu. Plus, I’ll exercise every day! As you can probably guess, this doesn’t usually work. (Sometimes it does but not usually.)/
  • The second approach is to allow myself to continue eating and doing the same things I’ve been eating and doing, but to do so at a reduced level. I don’t deny myself anything that I enjoy (hello, Hostess Sno-Balls!) but I eat the stuff less often.

This latter method is aligned with who I am. It doesn’t operate on the assumption that I will suddenly become a different person. It accepts my quirks and works with them.

Like I say, I have a much higher success rate when I opt to make changes that come from a place of intrinsic motivation.

There’s nothing revelatory here. Psychology shows that changes are more likely to stick if we’re intrinsically motivated rather than pursuing something because somebody is making us do it (or we think we ought to do it). We have to want the change for the change to occur.

I know this, but that doesn’t stop me from wanting to adopt habits that are completely foreign to my mental make-up. I think we all do this.

There’s another problem with deciding, “Oh, I’m going to suddenly be a different person on January 1st.” When I decide to adopt resolutions on some meaningful date — the first of the year, my birthday, various anniversaries — they rarely stick. Maybe I adhere to the new behavior for a day or two, but then I forget (or fail) and it makes me feel shitty. I feel ashamed. I feel like a failure.

I have much, much better success if I do not aim to adopt new habits on some meaningful date. I get better results when I decide to start now.

Again, let’s use my fitness as an example.

I frequently try to start fitness programs at the first of the year. Or on my birthday. But during my 51+ years on earth, this has never worked. Not once.

What has worked, however, is starting immediately.

If I want to lose weight and get fit (and I’m serious about doing so), then the most effective thing is to begin this very moment, not wait for some arbitrary date in the future. I have the motivation now. I have the desire now. If I start when I’m motivated, I’ll build momentum. If I wait until a future date, I may or may not have the desire at that time.

In 1997, for instance, I hit 200 pounds for the first time in my life on May 6th. After I stepped on the scale and saw that number, I decided then and there to lose weight. Over the next six months, I lost forty pounds. (And it was this weight-loss journey that led to my first blog. Neither Folded Space nor Get Rich Slowly would be here today if I hadn’t made that decision!)

In 2010, I resolved to lose weight starting January 1st. It didn’t happen. But I did get fit after a similar “come to Jesus” moment in early April. (That instance led to me losing forty pounds again and achieving the best fitness of my life.)

And this year? This year, I hit my limit on July 28th. I resolved to lose thirty pounds in six months. It now looks like I’ll miss my target by a week or two — but I’m still going to shed that thirty pounds. (And more.) Then, I’ll start working on exercise to boost my overall fitness.

In each of these three cases, I started when I was inspired to start. I didn’t wait for some date in the future.

I went alcohol-free from July 5th to October 29th of this year using the same method. I simply said, “Enough.” I made the decision to stop drinking, and I followed through. I’m ready to resume sobriety starting tomorrow, even though I know have a lousy track record of doing things when I pick a “magic” date. If I was serious, I’d start today. I’d let Kim enjoy champagne tonight and I’d celebrate sober.

Anyhow, none of this means that I shouldn’t try to make changes in the new year. It’s always good to pursue self improvement. But I need to be realistic about the likely results. And I need to recognize that my true successes come when I make changes immediately, when I’m motivated, instead of waiting for some magical time in the future.

My Goals for 2011

Earlier this week, I wrote at Get Rich Slowly about how to set New Year’s resolutions you’ll actually keep. My number-one tip? Make just one major goal every year, and treat that as your top priority.

I’m about to be a hypocrite.

Major Goals for 2011

I’ve thought a lot about my goals for 2011. For once, I’m entering a year without anything HUGE that needs to be fixed in my life. I have lots of little things that need work. Instead of taking on too much at once, I plan to set three main goals (and they’re “main goals” only because it’ll take all year to complete them), and then have a series of small “serial goals” to tackle in my spare time.

My main first main goal for 2011 is again a physical goal. I want to drop from about 23% body fat to 15% body fat. As a side effect of shedding forty pounds this year, I also dropped from 35% body fat to 22% body fat. Rather than focus on losing my last few pounds (my target weight is 163), I’m going to shift my attention to body composition. I want to lose fat and build muscle.

My second main goal is to read one non-financial book every week. By this, I actually mean I want to read 52 books this year. (There will be weeks where I read zero, but there should also be weeks where I read three.) As I mentioned yesterday, a decade ago, I was reading nearly 100 books a year. Last year, I maybe read 25. Time to boost that number. I’m reading four books at the moment — True Grit, Born Free, The Covenant, and Citizen Vince — so I’m off to a good start. (Audiobooks count, by the way.)

My final main goal? I want to write 250 posts for Folded Space. That’s right. I intend to post here an average of five times per week — just like in the Olden Days. That’s triple the rate I’ve posted over the past two years. Don’t think I can do it? Just watch.

Minor Goals for 2011

Those three goals will require year-round attention. They can’t be completed all at once. But I have a series of quarterly goals that I hope to pursue in my spare time. As I complete one, I’ll move on to another. They are:

  • During the first quarter of the year, I want to resume an old habit. My financial goal is to track every penny I spend. After several years of tracking my spending, I let go of this habit last spring. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but I don’t like how this makes me feel like I’m out of touch with my spending. As I wrote recently, I plan to get back to basics.
  • Once I’ve resumed this habit (which shouldn’t be difficult), I’ll move on to a second small goal. I want to rejuvenate our yard and garden. For too long, I’ve been lackadaisical about completing projects and chores around the house. I plan to spend much of this spring outside, pruning and planting.
  • After I’ve spruced up the yard, I want to spruce up my on-line world. For years, I’ve scattered my writing across a half dozen blogs. This summer, I want to move all of my non-financial writing to Folded Space.
  • Finally, when autumn rolls around, I want to turn my attention to book #2. I’m proud of Your Money: The Missing Manual, and I think it’s a great summary of the best personal finance advice from many experts, but it’s not the “J.D. book”. Now that I know I can actually write a book, I’d like to write that J.D. book, one more in the style of Get Rich Slowly, one with more personal stories, from myself and others. Next fall, I plan to complete a book proposal for a Get Rich Slowly book.

Last week, I met Adam Duvander for lunch at Milo’s City Cafe. We chatted about life (we both attended good old Willamette U.), blogging, and more. Adam mentioned having seen my list of 101 things I wanted to do in 1001 days. I may revisit that later this year (because it was a fun project). For now, though, I think these seven goals are plenty. Especially since I believe strongly that one goal per year is best.

Junk Food: A Character Flaw

I have no self-control.

This is the fundamental reason that for so long I was fat, in debt, and unable to do anything productive. Instead of doing what I ought to do, I always chose what I wanted to do. These rarely overlapped.

When I decided it was time for me to get out of debt, I had to find ways to short-circuit my lack of self-control. That meant setting up automatic payments and deposits, whenever possible. That meant finding ways to make frugality fun. That meant removing temptation when I could.

For example, I cut up my personal credit card. Without the ability to spend charge my purchases, I was less inclined to buy on credit. (I still found ways, but they took work.) And one of the best methods I found to stop spending on stupid stuff was to steer clear of the stores where I was most likely to do so. For a long time, I wouldn’t go into a comic shop, for instance, because I knew that doing so was dangerous.

Another example: I have no self-control when it comes to videogames. If they’re installed on my computer, I will play World of Warcraft or Starcraft II to the exclusion of all else. In fact, I wasted much of this past August playing Starcraft II for 6+ hours each day. How do I stop? I have to uninstall the games. Lately, I’ve been playing iPad games 1-2 hours per day. To short-circuit this lack of self control, I’m taking my iPad to the office and leaving it there.

The same problem holds true with food. I have no self-control when it comes to sweets. If there are cookies or candies in the house, I will eat them — sooner rather than later. And I have a tendency to indulge every craving my body has. Hungry for donuts? Boom! Have three! Want some cookies? Bam! Here’s a package of Oreos.

I’ve lost forty pounds this year. That’s great, but the truth is, I could have lost fifty with ease. How? Exercising self-control.

Last week, Kris bought two packages of Oreos to re-purpose for Christmas truffles. (She makes an Oreo truffle that everyone loves.) I found these cookies, and I couldn’t help myself. I had nine Oreos and a glass of milk. Thirty minutes later, I had another nine Oreos and a glass of milk. Before the end of the day, I had another nine Oreos and a glass of milk.

This isn’t healthy, but it’s how I operate. And I know it.

Because I know my self-control is weak, I’ve taken steps to thwart myself. Since I can’t be disciplined on a micro level, I try to be disciplined on a macro level. Translation: Since I know I’ll eat the Oreos if they’re in the house, I try not to have Oreos in the house. Or breakfast cereal. Or ice cream. Since starting my diet in April, I’ve done my best to keep the house junk-food-free.

That doesn’t mean I don’t have junk food. I do. I just don’t have as much.

I often think of the conversation I had with Sally Parrott Ashbrook when she came to town in 2007. (She and her husband were the first GRS readers that Kris and I ever met.) She had recently begun her regimen of “self-care”, and as part of that, she was trying to give up junk food, too.

“I try to tell myself that I don’t need this cookie or ice cream,” she told me. “If I really want ice cream, I remind myself that I can have any ice cream in Atlanta.” What she meant by this was (I think): Instead of keeping store-bought junk food in the house, she gave herself permission to occasionally go out and buy some good junk food. So, instead of having always-on-hand ice cream, once in a while she could go get the best ice cream in town. Or the best cookies. Or the best cake. The key was to ditch the everyday temptation.

That’s what I’ve tried to do this year. For the most part, it’s worked.

Mind Games

Here’s one way I’ve made this work: Whenever I have the urge to eat junk food, I try to tell myself that I can eat anything I want. If I’m driving home from Crossfit and I crave donuts (which happens often), I consciously think to myself, “J.D., you don’t have to eat that shit. You can stop now and buy any food you want, as long as it’s healthy.” So I do.

My definition of “healthy” is broad in this instance, but it rules out breakfast cereal, cookies, cakes, donuts, chips, and soda. It includes fruits, vegetables, cheeses, and meats. As a result, instead of donuts for breakfast, I’ll often eat a $15 filet mignon. No joke. Yes, it’s expensive, but I’m okay with that.

The point is, I’m trying to train myself to forget about the shitty food and eat stuff that’s better for me. When I remember to do this, it works like a charm. (But I’ve been forgetting recently.)

Why this rant about self-control? Because my friends and family have unknowingly sabotaged me this Christmas. They’ve kindly given me Life Savers and jelly beans and candy bars and cookies and, best of all, a giant Godiva brownie containing over 5,000 calories. I’m grateful for these gifts, but I have no defense against them.

I see the jumbo bin of jelly beans, and I grab a handful. I eat them mindlessly. By the end of the day, I’ve had three or four handfuls, for about about 500 calories of pure sugar. And so on.

As I say, I have no self-control.

A part of me wants to keep this food around the house because my family and friends have given it to me. To show my appreciation, I want to eat it. But I can’t. I have to draw a line. I sent some of it to work with Kris on Tuesday. She took the big barrel of jelly beans today. All that’s left in the house is the gigantic brownie — and soon that will be gone, too. (But that’s because it’ll all be in my belly, not because I’ve magically developed self-control.)

Maybe someday I will have enough discipline to not eat the junk food in the house. But that day isn’t today. And it won’t be tomorrow, or anytime soon. It’ll probably take years. I’m okay with that. For now, I’ll continue to exercise self-control on a macro level since I don’t have it on a micro level. We won’t have junk food within easy reach. When I crave junk food, I’ll give myself permission to have anything healthy that I want. And if I absolutely have to have it, I’ll let myself go buy the best ice cream (or candy or cookies) that I can find in Portland.

For now, though, I’m going to go pour myself a glass of milk. There’s one last brownie to be eaten.

What I Did This Year

Allow me to be immodest for a moment.

I’ve worked pretty hard this year to get fit, and I’m finally starting to see the result. I like it. By chance, I’ve posed for three photographers in 2010, about four months apart. That means I have visual documentation of my progress, which I’m proudly sharing below.

January 1st – 213 pounds (35% body fat, 30% muscle)
photo by J.D. Roth

At the start of the year, I weighed more than I ever had in my life. And I felt awful. I couldn’t sleep. Walking uphill to my office was taxing. I was stressed, and I ate to cope with it. It wasn’t good. I resolved to make 2010 the Year of Fitness, but I was slow to start. Here’s how I looked on our jungle vacation in late February:

Me in a Hammock in Belize
Here I am, lounging in a hammock in Belize. I am fat.

April 1st – 207 pounds (33% body fat, 31% muscle)
photos by Gabby Francis

My first photo session this year was with Gabby Francis, a Get Rich Slowly reader who e-mailed offering to take my photo. Gabby works as a production assistant in television, but wants to branch out into photography. She was very patient with me, and it was fun to chat with her while we worked. But I was more than a little uncomfortable. I hated how I looked and felt. In three months of trying, I’d lost only four pounds.

photo by Gabby Francis
I’ve been using this as my primary publicity photo.

photo by Gabby Francis
Let’s be very clear: I hate how heavy I am in these photos.

photo by Gabby Francis
This is me trying to be happy. It was tough.

July 23rd – 187 pounds (27% body fat, 34% muscle)
photos by David Hobby

You’ll remember David Hobby from my tale of win-win conflict resolution: I stole one of his photos from the web; he suggested a creative solution for restitution, and ever since we’ve been supporting each other. He’s a good guy. He’s also a pro, running Strobist, a giant among photo blogs.

When David told me he was going to be in Portland and wondered if he could shoot some photos of me, I was happy to agree. I’d lost 20 pounds since the photo shoot with Gabby, which allowed me to feel more relaxed in front of the camera.

photo by David Hobby
David’s a pro. I like that he specifically told me not to smile.

photo by David Hobby
“How about something at the table with you rolling pennies?” David asked. “Like a LOT of ’em.”

photo by David Hobby
“Would it be too much trouble to have you take a photo of both of us?” Kris asked.

Aside from the fact that I chose to wear the same shirts for David as I did for Gabby (what was I thinking?), I like how these turned out. I was still heavy, but the weight loss was starting to become apparent.

November 18th – 175 pounds (24% body fat, 36% muscle)
photos by Amy Jo Woodruff

My friend Amy Jo is an editor — but she wants to be a photographer when she grows up. After seeing her photos of Lisa, I agreed to pose for her too. This was my favorite photo shoot so far. I haven’t yet lost all of the weight I want to lose, but I’ve shed most of it. I no longer have those chubby cheeks or the bags under my eyes!

photo by Amy Jo Woodruff
“You can’t sit there,” said Amy Jo. “There’s a weird light across your eyes.” Psycho-killer!

photo by Amy Jo Woodruff
Now officially my favorite photo of myself. I can retire the one I’ve been using since 1999.

Amy Jo asked me to list fourteen words that I feel best describe me. I gave her this list:

  • Adventurous – I love to try new things.
  • Creative – I love to make new things.
  • Curious – I love to learn new things.
  • Evolving – I’m a different man today than I was yesterday.
  • Independent – I make and act on my own decisions.
  • Intelligent – I am smart.
  • Playful – I like to joke and jest.
  • Positive – I look on the bright side.
  • Resourceful – I search for ways to get things done.
  • Sociable – I enjoy the company of others.
  • Tenacious – I pursue my goals with vigor
  • Unguarded – I share myself freely, and I accept the word of others.
  • Versatile – I am good at many things.
  • Zealous – I’m passionate about my friends and hobbies.

“It’s funny,” she said as we were walking to the park. “Whenever adults do this exercise, all of their words are positive.”

I laughed. “Yeah,” I said. “Kris told me that she could think of some other words to describe me. Like ‘obsessed’. I told her that’s why ‘zealous’ is on the list.”

I have negative attributes, just like everyone else. I’m sure you all could name them. But I don’t think it’s productive to dwell on them. Instead, I like to focus on my strengths, and let those guide my life. Dwelling on the negative is a sure path to misery. I don’t want to be miserable.

photo by Amy Jo Woodruff
Welcome to middle age, my friend.

photo by Amy Jo Woodruff
I love in-jokes. This one’s for all of those who’ve read Foldedspace since the beginning.

So, to summarize: Since the start of the year:

  • I’ve lost 40 pounds.
  • I’ve dropped from 35% body fat to 24% body fat.
  • I’ve increased my muscle mass from 30% to 36%.
  • I no longer use my C-PAP machine.
  • I can run faster and farther than I ever have in my life.
  • I can lift more weight, too.
  • And most of the time, I don’t crave ice cream. (Just don’t look at my work area right now, though!)

My physical transformation hasn’t happened by chance. It’s taken hard work and dedication. But I’m starting to believe I really have made a lifestyle change. I want to exercise more now, not less. It sucks when I don’t get a workout in. (And somedays, like I hope to do tomorrow, I actually work out twice.)

So, do I think Crossfit works? Hell, yeah!

Before   After

Maybe if I keep it up, when I’m 91 I can be like Olga Kotelko.

On the Verge of Inbox Zero

Alright folks. I’ve nearly done it. After years of being buried in e-mail, I’m down to just 39 messages left to process before my inbox is empty. Not bad, eh? Over the past two weeks, I’ve managed to archive hundreds of old messages, delete hundreds of others, and actually reply to a couple of hundred very patient people. And now I’m nearly to that mythical state called Inbox Zero.

More and more, I’ve come to understand that e-mail really is a “variable reinforcement machine”. It’s like a little pleasure pill that sucks productivity from your life.

I’m not about to go email-free like I’ve heard some other crazy folks do. I’ll admit it’s tempting, but I feel like that’s just me being difficult, being unwilling to address my own problems and so creating problems for those who want to contact me. Instead, I’ve set up a series of filters in gmail (which I now cannot live without despite my initial hatred for it) that will help me process the incoming flood of messages. Plus, I plan to be merciless about archiving stuff. Nothing gets to sit in the inbox except the stuff that actually needs a researched reply.

While looking up my link for Inbox Zero, I found Merlin Mann’s Inbox Zero website. Mann is the guy behing the productivity blog 43 Folders. He’s a producitivy expert in a similar way to how I’m a personal finance expert. And he’s writing a book. He made this video about the process, which I find hilarious:

Hahahah! Having just finished my own book-writing process, I find this very very funny. My office, too, looked like something from Silence of the Lambs. At one point — well, “line” is probably a better metaphor — I just gave up and started hucking things over my left shoulder. No joke. I had a mound of trash (much of it food-related) that built for months in my office. I’m not proud of the this, but facts are facts.

Anyhow: Inbox Zero and my book is done. Will wonders never cease?