Dissertation Hours Log / Timesheet

I just wanted to share about how I stay on track with my dissertation and keep my spirits up by reminding myself of my progress. It’s such a long process that it can feel endless; this feeling itself can lead to feeling depressed and lost. But whenever I start to feel that way, I spend some time with my admin files, and realize that things are actually going fine. (What a relief!)

While this post is written around a timesheet system set up for a dissertation, you could use it for any situation where you need to keep track of your time spent on various projects and activities, for your entrepreneurial business, your self-care routine— anything at all, really.

There are two main components to my system: a timesheet and running log of hours, and a master file (to be covered in a separate post).

Some benefits of keeping a dissertation log and timesheet:

  • helps me stay on track and realize that I’m actually making progress (otherwise it feels like the time just floats away and is lost)
  • keeps me motivated and happy
  • helps me know where I’m putting my energy, and if I need to shift my time commitments

My time tracking system has 2 parts: a running log and a timesheet.

The Running Log

I make timesheet entries as I go in a text file. For example, working on this project garners a timesheet entry:

Running Log Entry

It has a start time, a hyphen (the end time will come after that when I’m done), a code (Do), and a description.

Here is what it looks like with some other things I did earlier today:

Running Log Entries

Once I finish the task, I put the end time in. I like to divide on the quarter hour. (I also like to use 24-hour time.)

But what do those two-letter codes mean? Here’s the whole head of the document:

Running Log Entries and Codes

This shows the codes I use. Nowadays I mostly remember them without looking, but I had to think about them a lot while I was putting the system together. The first code is an uppercase letter which designates the project; the second code the type of task I was working on, shown by a lowercase letter.

The present task is encoded D (dissertation) o (other). Blogging and documenting my dissertation process doesn’t quite fit into any of my other categories, but I still want to keep track of it, because I think it’s handy.

Ok, here’s the whole first page:

Running Timesheet Top

I use TextWrangler, a powerful free text editor for Mac that has lots of great text manipulation tools. Other options include Sublime Text, Atom, and even WordPad. Something basic works fine; TextWrangler is one of my workhorses for keeping things organized, mostly because it’s easy to use and well-designed.

I write using Markdown, which is why you see the funny blue # signs. This allows me to elegantly preview my files in the Finder using QuickLook (highlighting the file and pressing the spacebar, although you might need to install a Quicklook module), and in TextWrangler it also enables me to fold different file sections at the header (the triangle next to the # signs in the left margin).

This view shows my work over the last week; the entire file has 964 lines and goes back to August 2015. (So I’ve been using this part of my system for almost a year.)

This running log file is where I collect all my work periods; when I split time between projects, I record them as separate items. Like the July 2nd example.

Once I have my time entries in the bucket, at least once a month I total the times up and enter them into the timesheet.

First I entab the entries for that day to show that I’m in the process of counting them. In TextWrangler this is made easier by selecting several lines, and then striking Command-] (Right Bracket) to entab to the right.

Then I total each different category by day, and write the total and codes under the day block.

Running Log Entries Totaled

I do this for all entries for the month.

Then I transfer the data from each entry to the timesheet, and mark an x to the left of the entry to record that fact.

Running Log Entries Totaled X'ed

The Timesheet

I use the timesheet to keep track of what I’ve been working on, to know how to direct my energies, and to remind myself that I’m actually making progress. Otherwise I end up getting into a catastrophizing frame of mind, think I’m wasting my life on the dissertation without making any progress, and generally end up in a funk. Each time I fill in my timesheet, I actually feel really relieved and reinspired to keep working on it. It took me about 5 hours to set it up and tweak it; since then, I probably spend an hour a month actually maintaining the timesheet system. A small price to pay for peace of mind!

I use LibreOffice, the free office suite, to maintain my timesheet, but you can use whatever spreadsheet software you want.

This is the basic layout of the timesheet:

Dissertation Timesheet

The projects and codes from the running log are reflected here. At left is each day of the month; each tab at bottom shows a different month (the format is YYMM). The red stripe down the middle separates the two columns, but also contains a formula that counts the total in each row from the left column and the right column, and if the totals are not the same, it displays a not-equals sign. This is just a basic accounting flag I put in to keep my data entry on point.

Here’s how it looks with unbalanced columns:

Unbalanced Columns

There’s also a column with a running total of hours worked, and a monthly target that this counts against. Right now my monthly target is 40 hours.

Monthly Target

When I do the data entry, I put the TextWrangler and LibreOffice windows side-by-side, and just transfer data and x out each line item in TextWranger as I go. When I get to the end of the sheet, there’s a total by column and a grand total, which lets me know how I’ve done for the month:

Dissertation Timesheet and Running Log Totals

I can’t tell you how relieving and satisfying it is to see the total add up at the end of the month. And in June, I spent most of my time working on my proposal, either writing or editing. It’s easy to see at a glance how I’ve been spending my time.

And the final sheet on the tour is the totals, which uses formulas to gather values from all the sheets in the file, and presents them in category and cumulative totals:

Dissertation Timesheet Totals

Seeing that I’ve spent more than 330 hours on my dissertation in the last year is really relieving. I might need to step it up soon (it’s only about 28 hours a month on average), but it’s a far cry from the no-progress, no-end-in-sight attitude I had just an hour ago. Huzzah!

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