Editor's Choice 2019, macOS

Tracking your activities is a pain, Timing is the solution

Timing is one of those rare apps that have been made in Europe (Germany) to become a big hit. And it does so for a reason. Timing delivers on its promise to track your activities automatically. We – creators of videos, film, photos, graphics and text of all sorts – like to track how much time we spend on work we do so that we can analyse our productivity, invoice a client the right amount and get an insight into how efficient we are. So far, of the six time tracking apps I’ve tried over the years, the Timing app is the only one that fills in these needs.

Even if you don’t charge by the hour, it’s useful to know how much time you spend on a project and how scattered or organised your day is in order to determine how much you should charge on a per-project basis and what you can do to become more efficient. The Timing app lets you do that without requiring you to spend much time in the timing app itself. And that is quite unique.

It’s a promise that also evokes suspicions of high memory and CPU usage, a high risk of software conflicts and spying on your activities even. None of that, however, happens with this app, as I found out during my trial and I have several background applications running that capture a Mac’s hardware and network activity, while macOS’s Activity Monitor did not once report high CPU or memory usage.

Timing’s activity tracking service does its job with an absolute minimum of resource hogging and – I might add – without ever causing a hang or crash on my overloaded (including with unstable beta software) machine.

With that out of the way, the crucial question, of course, is whether the automation thing is true and accurate. The developer gave me a trial licence for the Expert version which includes every option on top of the automatic tracking and basic reporting – from manual time tracking to the ability to create Filters and having a whole slew of time report templates to choose from, as well as the ability to script the app with AppleScript.

Timing’s daily Dashboard where you get an instant overview of your activities

And yes, Timing delivers on all of its promises. It tracks activities automatically, doesn’t require you to remember pushing a start/end button, nor spend endless time with the app itself to get something useful out of it. On the contrary, it makes time tracking efficient, extremely effective – almost addictive.

Why is it effective? Well, Timing offers insight in what you do with your time, how you use that time and how much time you spend on each activity, including breaks. It helps you tackle procrastination, increase your productivity, charge your clients correctly, find out what you want to charge them when working on a project basis, and more.

How it works

First of all, the developer has gone out of his way to make sure you understand Timing. Although the interface is really straightforward and easy to use, there is a bunch of videos and written tutorials available online and if you do something that doesn’t make sense, a tooltip pops up. Even if you’re thick, you can use Timing to its full potential.

Timing does not require you to enter start timers manually unless you want to add a task with an estimated time explicitly. As soon as the estimate expires, Timing will ask you whether you want to end tracking, extend it – in which case you just keep ignoring it – or snooze and pick up later again.

The normal way to work with Timing and certainly the one you’ll want to start with is to just launch the app and let it track your activities on the Mac. When you’ve worked for a while, you can, at the end of the day or after a couple of hours or so, assign the activities Timing has tracked to a project and see how much time you spent on it.

Timing’s daily Review tab where you can drag activities to your projects

The beauty of the system is that it uses four different parameters to track: websites, keywords, file paths (in the broadest sense you can imagine – e.g. a mailbox) and apps. Timing automatically captures keywords from a tracked app. These could be tags, unique words, parts of an email address, etc. File paths are extracted to a level of detail that depends on the integration with the app.

For example, I’m typing this in the Ulysses editor that works without explicitly saving documents; instead, Ulysses uses “sheets” that live in a Container in macOS’s user library. Nevertheless, Timing integrates with Ulysses in such a way that the virtual file path of each text is made ready to use in rules that allow you to tie the timed app to a project.

There are many such integrations available ‘out-of-the-box’. This ensures that you can fine-tune your tracking to a granular level.

Another example… You’re writing a piece for a blog, creating text and images and using a browser to connect to the publishing website. Chances are that your post title contains a unique term and that the images you add also have unique names. To ensure the timing of your writing project is accurate, you will, at the end of the day, drag the unique term (keyword) in your title, the file path to your images and the URL from the website to the project name in Timing’s Review tab.

Magically, it will show you the time you’ve worked on exactly those things that relate to the blog writing project.

How it works with long-term and/or repeating activities

That workflow is fine for a single day, but what if you will be working on the same project for days on end? Or what if you want to know how much time you spend on writing for that blog over longer periods of time? In those cases, you can fully automate Timing by option-dragging the same parameters to the project. From then on the project in the Timing Review tab will be associated with these that have become rules in the Project editor.

The option-dragging method is only one of the ways to do this. You can also explicitly enter rules in the Project editor which allows you to create much more complex rules than by simply option-dragging.

Besides projects, Timing also supports tasks which are the smallest, least important time consumers of the day. You manually enter them, except when you’ve activated Timing’s ability to track the time you’re away from your Mac. If you turn on that feature, Timing will ask you to fill in what you’ve done when you return.

The New Task form

The form that pops up when you click the “New Task” button is the same as the one that pops up when you return to your Mac. It allows you to set a start and end date/time and a project to assign. You can also option-click a task bubble on the timeline. That will automatically assign the project’s name to the task.

Tasks are usually entered right before you start, but as you can edit them while running, you can also enter them while busy or even afterwards. As Timing automatically tracks your app-time and – when properly set up – assigns your activities to projects automatically, you might wonder why you should enter tasks at all. The reason is that it makes your timesheets and invoices more meaningful and gives you a deeper insight in your time usage by describing what exactly (e.g. which issue tracker ticket, todo item, etc) you have been working on.

Productivity and analysis

The focus on projects as containers of time slots could restrict your understanding of how you spend your day in the sense that – if this were all on offer – you would only get insights on a project basis and learn what each project has cost you, but not, for example, how much time you’ve spent on writing in a more general sense over the past week.

That’s where Filters come into play. They are available to allow you to analyse time usage across projects.

The Ultra-detailed report template

The insight Timing offers you is invaluable, but it does require you to have a good idea of the concept of productivity. How productive you are throughout the day depends on assigning the parameters to the right project and a correct assessment of the Productivity slider in the Project editor panel. The slider has a range from Unproductive to fully Productive. It’s your job to correctly evaluate how much an activity contributes to a goal you’ve set yourself. For example, going jogging can be very productive for losing weight but is totally unproductive when the goal is to earn money.

Conclusion

Timing is a dream app for tracking your time and analysing where your time went and/or invoicing a client for it.

While Timing automates most of the process, it does require some management after the facts, i.e. on a daily or weekly basis at least, you’ll have to analyse what happened with your time. When you start some new project, you’ll have to assign parameters through rules so that Timing knows what belongs to which.

Those rules can be simple or complicated and it’s not always obvious to create one that is going to be defined narrowly enough to avoid “contamination” from other tasks you perform and broadly enough to include everything you do while working on that project. The rule system is powerful enough, but you may need some help with setting it up. That’s why the online help pages are very useful, after all.

So, does Timing really automate your time tracking? It certainly does for 95% of the time, but there’s still some 5% that requires your input. Until we are able to develop a system that can read our mind, that’s not going to change.

Timing is available in three versions and only from the timingapp.com website. The Basic version retails for €39, the Pro version costs €69 and the Expert version is €99. For that money, you get an excellent app, 12 months of updates, free synchronisation (which can be used as a backup system as well) and – depending on your version – the ability to use the app on two, three or five Macs.