I’m a sucker for systems, a hoarder of habit trackers, an advocate for apps that help us manage  time. The structure they provide seems vital —especially for creative types, and extra especially now, in the age of coronavirus, when many of us are stuck at home for unstructured day after unstructured day of social distancing.   

Right now, we work-from-homers have a choice. We can come out of these months as nervous wrecks, having spent the time alternating between moments of boredom and terror. Or we can treat this time as a gift, using it to rebuild ourselves the way we’ve always wanted to be. 

We might learn new skills, start baking our own bread, ramp down our time-sucking addictions (looking at you, social media), maybe even find the patience to actually read Infinite Jest (or some other hefty classic you’ve always meant to tackle). We can, like the mind-blown birb in my favorite birb cartoon, discover the glorious possibilities of making time. The right app can make all the difference.   

Only trouble is, the increasing number of apps that promise to manage your time or your self — many of which reveal their flaws only once you’re deep into them. Like a skittish suitor, I’ve spent the smartphone years hopping from system to system, sometimes changing what I use week to week, never quite ready to commit. 

Only recently, by luck on the cusp of the coronavirus era, did I alight upon a system that stuck. And it uses a time management app that has almost zero name recognition: ATracker Pro ($4.99 iOS, $3.99 on Android). 

… Make Time …

I know, it surprised me too, but this comes on the heels of extensive research. You name a self-management app that arrived on iOS in the last 10 years, I’ve likely tried it. I adore Todoist, a to-do list that gets more customizable with every update. You’ll have to pry it from my cold, dead hands. But no list is all that great for building new habits, given that you can defer tasks with no penalty. 

Streaks is a beautifully-designed habit tracker that integrates with Apple’s Health app, but it’s not granular enough. Unless you hit 100 percent of your daily goal —say, take 9,999 steps instead of 10,000 — there’s no record that you even tried. And I would argue it’s the record of us trying that encourages us to do better.  

Maintaining daily records in these apps can become a part time job in itself; that was my problem with Strides, another lovely-looking habit tracker that dazzled me into signing up for premium service. There’s the Pomodoro technique, and approximately half a zillion apps based on it, but I find it too rigid for anything I want to improve. It’s hard enough getting into the reading/writing/running zone; why force yourself to break every 25 minutes? 

ATracker simply tracks your time, in the background, in any category you care to name. Like Todoist, ATracker has been quietly improving itself for years; it now offers Streaks-like daily (and weekly) goal targets, but still records your time even if you don’t reach them. It can sync those times to your Calendar app, so you can see at a glance what you did with the week. 

Like Strides, it’s available as an Apple Watch complication, so I basically just tap my wrist three times to change time categories. This isn’t possible with time-tracking apps designed for business, like Toggl. For an extra $3 a month, you can go nuts and have ATracker sync to your web browser and to your iPad (where it makes a neat homepage widget). I tried but found occasional syncing errors; start a time on one device and finish it on another, and you’ll go back to the first device to find it still running. 

No such trouble when you just use the iPhone and Apple Watch, one of which I always have on me — and have used, these past few weeks, to record literally everything I do, with so much ease that I barely realize it’s happening. Even when I sleep.  

Just record it. All of it. 

A day with not enough reading or exercise. And that’s okay! Looks like I had a lot to do.

I’d played around with ATracker on and off for years. But all the stopping and starting of timers seemed too fussy — until I created a simple system where the timing never stops. It just switches between one of five categories that encompass everything I could possibly be doing while awake. Each category has a different letter to remember it by, with the stuff I really want to be doing more of at the top of the pile. 

First there’s A, or All Creation. This is the time I’m writing stories (not research, I mean actually typing), sketching, note-taking, keeping a diary, etc. B is Books, research and other educational tools. C is Care of the Self: all exercise and meditation, walks included. D is Do, where I’m crossing stuff off my list or calendar, meetings included (I include food prep in this category). E is Everything Else I do while awake. And F activates when the watch hits the bedside charger and I start trying to Fall Asleep. (This is really all I need from a sleep-tracking app, just to know that I put in the right number of hours.)

Now if you attempt this, you’ll probably find exactly what I found at first: You spend a lot of your waking hours in E. And that’s fine! E contains a lot of what keeps us sane: time with family, friends (even if remote for now), entertainment, TV, games, and of course social media. You could, if you liked, break down this category further. But I don’t recommend it. You’ll soon resent doing so and rebel against your own system. E isn’t a category so much as a state of mind. It’s downtime. You don’t want to see too little of it.

But you don’t want to see too much of it, either. Because E is where dreams go to die.  

As my quarantine kicked in, I started to see a subtle shift in my behavior. The evening hours I spent on the couch, scrolling on Facebook then Twitter then Facebook again, began to curtail themselves. This wasn’t because the news got any less scary; I still felt like a deer in the headlights of the coronavirus. No, it’s because after a while in E, I felt motivated to get out of it. Folding laundry or emptying the dishwasher would at least move me up to a D. I could meditate for 5 minutes to get a little C time, or pick up a book (even if the concerns of most fictional characters seem bizarre right now) and lose myself in B. Or confess my feelings to a blank page and earn the ultimate accolade of A. 

I still reach for my phone first thing in the morning. But instead of Twitter, the first thing I open now is my diary app, where I briefly record whatever crazy dream or terrifying nightmare I just had. That’s moving me from F to A, not F to E. And that’s a win, no matter how small.  

The beauty of this system is that in itself, ATracker is completely nonjudgmental. It just records. The goal is not to eradicate any category, it’s just to pay attention — in the moment, and in retrospect — to what you’re actually doing with your time. Does it match up with how you want to spend your life? If not, how could you change that tomorrow? 

ATracker’s reporting pie chart is wonderfully versatile, and one of the things it lets you see is what your average day is like, based on the last 7 days or 30 days. To improve, just beat your own average. 

Habits are a hard thing to shift, as we are finding out in this time where millions of them have suddenly changed, out of necessity, all at once. So yes, this time represents an opportunity, but you’re going to be disappointed if you think you can change everything all at once. To turn around the supertanker of your personal habits, you’re going to have to make small moves. And ATracker may be the compass that helps you navigate the turn. 





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