The Emergent Task Timer: Revised for 2013

Emergent Task Timer 2013 Update I’ve been tracking my time to see if my “feeling unproductive” was supported by data; as I wrote in the Assessment section of last week’s Groundhog Day Resolutions Review, it seemed possible that I was over-emphasizing the number of negative moments and creating a false sense of slackness.

I’ve been using the Emergent Task Timer (ETT). This is the older cousin of the Emergent Task Planner (ETP), and it was originally created so I could see where my time actually went in the foggy early days of my productivity journey. After a few days of using the ETT again I was surprised to find it wasn’t as easy-to-use as I remembered, so I’ve made an enhanced version to match my current design thinking.

Introduction to the Emergent Task Timer

The ETT is a stack of “task tracks” containing 15-minute bubbles of continuous time. Each track represents a distinct activity. Although there are multiple tracks, we can only focus on one task at a time. By using an interval alarm that chimes every 15 minutes, we note which activity gets the bubble. For example, when the alarm goes off at 3:15PM, I fill in only one bubble in the entire stack of tasks: the one that corresponds to 3:15PM, which is the first bubble in the group of four between 3PM and 4PM.

When I start the day, I list what I am supposed to do at the very top, and start my interval alarm. If I catch myself doing something that isn’t on the list—say, I catch myself surfing the Internet for examples of outdoor clay oven cooking—I add that item to the bottom of the list and fill-in the bubble. Over the day, the “distracting activities” start piling-up at the bottom if I’m particularly unfocused.

When I am really focused, I’ll have solid lines of bubbles at the top of the form. They’re easily counted for the daily total. However, when I am sidetracked a lot, my bubbles get scattered around lower parts of the form. The great thing is that you don’t have to add up any stupid numbers at the end of the day, and you’ll see the pattern of your time emerge as you are working. After a couple of weeks, you’ll have the data you need to figure out what needs to change, and you can show your manager what the hell is really going on.

The New Version for 2013

The old design is perfectly adequate, but I had the following issues (see image below, left side):

  • I was initially confused by the time marker positioning: “which bubble is 3:15PM?”
  • I found myself wanting to write in-line comments near the bubbles I was filling in, as opposed to writing them down in the NOTES area.
  • The sameness of the entire bubble field made it more difficult to find where I was in the day, particularly if I’d been away from the form for a few hours.
  • I missed the three tasks focus of the Emergent Task Planner.

Here’s what’s new. The image below shows the new form on the right side.

Comparison Between Old and New ETT Briefly:

  • I’ve respaced the lines so I now have room to write notes between them.
  • I’ve adjusted the hour boxes so the boundaries are clearly BETWEEN groups of bubbles. Before, you had to infer this from the position of the vertical background boxes.
  • I’ve removed as many extra horizontal lines as possible to make it less-busy.
  • I’ve adopted the Emergent Task Planner three important things to do section at the top, and numbering of each task line.
  • The ETP-style colored bubbles break the day into morning/afternoon/evening, so I can see at-a-glance where I should be writing.
  • I’ve added ETP-style task indexing. There are 17 total task lines.
  • New Feature: full 24-hour tracking on a single piece of paper (printed double-sided)

Here’s some pictures showing the filled out forms.

Front SideBack Side Regarding second photo:

The front side has 16 hours, and the back side has 8 more. There have been times when I’ve needed some extra bubbles due to starting late in the day. Instead of getting another sheet and rewriting my task list, I can now fold over the task list from the front and not have to re-write anything!

The back, when it’s not folded-over, looks like this:

Back Side You’ll see there’s a note area that incorporates the folding guide, splitting it into two columns. I think this works better as a dedicated note-taking area for phone numbers. The use of space on the front side is now completely devoted to capturing context around each task.

Evaluate the Prototype

As I mentioned before, I think the Task Timer is good for situations when you are diagnosing where your time goes. I also find it useful when I don’t feel like planning with the Task Planner. With these new changes, though, you can still emphasize what you’d like to do and see what you spent your time on. You could probably make the argument that the ETT is for slacker productivity and the ETP is for planned productivity, and I would believe you. I’ll be using the new form this coming week and see how it works out.

Download Links

Here are the available design candidates. They are all 2-page, 8.5″ x 11″ LANDSCAPE PDFs.

Take the Survey

I’m thinking that this double-sided version will be the next printed product. If you have some time to express your opinion, I just set up a product survey where you can express your desires regarding the ideal format for you.

Once the finalized version is done, rest assured that I’ll make full package will contain A4 and B&W-optimized versions for download in addition to the physical printed version.



  1. Ooooh! Awesome!

    …I’ve been sadly focused in the last week, which gives me no excuse to use this form.

  2. Cliff Brake 2 years ago

    Thanks! I look forward to trying it. If anyone needs a quick timer, I created this just to use with ETT:

  3. Mike 2 years ago

    Funny, but this is timely. I ordered your Mini ETP from Amazon, and have over the years kept falling back to using the ETT. Which got me thinking, I try to plan my day, and know it will change, and therefore love how the ETT gives an accurate recap of the day. With that said, it would seem the ideal product might be something like the ETP where on the back of the page so, it was on the left when you opened it, you would have your ‘planned/scheduled’ day, and on the right side, front page, you would have the ETT to record how you used your day or how it progressed. So, the very first page of the product might be a simple instruction set or area to record, name, address, contact info, etc. That way, every time the product was opened you were looking at a ‘day’s’ information.

    Anyway, love your blog and products; great writing style and I’ve gleaned much from you and the site. Thanks!

  4. Author
    Dave Seah 2 years ago

    Amanda: That’s great you’re maintaining focus! Good for you! :-)

    Cliff: Ooo, thanks for making that! Very cool!

    Mike: That’s a great idea, a hybrid design for a two-page spread. Perhaps something like this will make it into next year’s planner. I’d been avoiding two-page designs for print because of the expense, but it occurred to me that there might be a way around that. Going to ask the printer about it.


  5. Mike 2 years ago

    Next year! Dave, you’re killing me. Execute, execute! LMAO. Oh well, one can only hope. :)

  6. Amanda Ramsay 2 years ago

    Ooooh! I second the vote for Mike’s idea! Especially if you could figure out how to line it up so you could see at a glance the difference between what you planned and what you did.

  7. James 2 years ago

    I love the new form, it is definately easier to use now that it’s “spread out” a little more. I’ve been using the other form for some time.

    I would like to see one less “Hour” on the end of the form for a larger area to write the task down. The other hour can be added to page two.

    Thanks again for everything.

  8. Author
    Dave Seah 2 years ago

    Mike: Heh, keep the hope alive! :-)

    James: If I remove an hour to make the description wider, then I lose two hours from the other side if I retain fold-over feature. I suppose I could also just make a reduced-hour version that has 16 hours total, so there’s more room for everything else…

  9. Nancy 2 years ago

    Dear David – Just had a chance to print this out – thank you!! As I mentioned to you before, I have lately been tracking how I spend my time via various colored calendars on Google calendars – exercise/family/organizing/housework or groceries/planB/planC/work, etc – but it is just a dry record of what was actually done; any plans that were swept away by more pressing priorities or procrastination simply disappear. I’ve printed out five copies and will see how it either adds to or detracts from my current system. I’m trying to avoid using too many tools because then I end up overwhelmed. Right now I use Google calendars, Workflowy and a large, lined, Moleskine journal for daily journaling – 1 page minimum per day.

    My request for the ETT is that you center the start time (the hours) directly over the column of bubbles; the left-aligned is a little unsettling, haha! Also, I vote for keeping it all on one side and just encourage people to sleep eight hours a day. Not just because it’s important for the health of the nation (I am a patriot, after all), but because if I used this regularly I would want them wirebound since I tend to keep my daily records, either for short- or long-term. It’s useful to have a number of days or weeks to review in order to see patterns of behavior.

    BTW, love your term ‘happy bubble’. Decided to deliberately schedule happy bubble time into my days, where I could do whatever I want, such as printing out the ETT, commenting here, and buying my son a trench coat on Amazon. :-)

    Keep up the good work, David.

  10. Author
    Dave Seah 2 years ago

    Nancy: Yah, I hear you on the keeping to a few tools a day. I don’t like looking in too many places!

    I like the idea of aligning the start time OVER the columns. That makes a lot of sense! I’ll make the adjustment. I’ll probably keep the 24-hour format because it’s not required to use all of them, but when you want them BOY DO YOU WANT THEM :-) Perhaps the back could be used for additional time tracking of short tasks too.

    Hey, you gave me an idea for making an actual “happy bubble” on these forms! Maybe a bonus bubble.

    I sent the file to the printer to get a quote on pads. Will probably design a wirebound version too and get that going as well.

    Thanks for the great feedback!

  11. Jackie Wilson 2 years ago

    I second what Nancy says about the time centered over the bubbles.

    Also. if it is wire-bound, you could have the two pages (planned versus did) facing each other). However, I also understand the need of the 24 hour day as I tend to not start my day at the same time everyday. (Wish I could be consistent, but until my insomnia disappears, my days can start any where from 5AM to 2PM! Could thing I am retired from my day job!

    Another suggestion would be hole punched for a 3 ring binder with the 2 pages facing each other. Then other planning pages could be kept together – like a Master Tack List, Project Planners etc.

  12. Lynn O'Connor 2 years ago

    I use the ETT on and off –whenever I’m wondering “Where is my time going?” or when I’m worrying that I’m not working enough. I haven’t tried out the new forms yet although I printed them out right away and I immediately liked having the extra hours/extra sheet (though I printed them out as two sheets, not double sided). But, I’ve been more relaxed these past few weeks, simply because I’ve had so much “date specific” things I’ve had to do (end of school year, reading papers, dissertations being finished up etc), so whenever I’m not working, I think “Good.” But this latest version is inspiring and I think I’ll print it out and try it out (not the one with the time fixed, with orange column, because like someone else said, my days start at many different times, some days 6AM, some days 10AM etc.

    This new form may encourage me to use the “Agile” method recommendation of selecting 3 main things to get done. Previously I just wrote down what I was doing by time, without consideration of a hierarchy. So if I started with internet browsing, that’s what was on top line. If I next watched the news, that came next. I didn’t try to organize the day on the ETT therefore, I just tried to see what I was doing, realistically. It will be interesting to see what happens when I try the new forms out. I’m not sure until I try it, as it brings up this really new construct so to speak. (Having the hierarchy of what is important, like the ETP). I’ll print the last version without fixed times and let you know how it works. Of course if something works well I would love it in a spiral book –although I’m not sure if it would work in a junior size book, I always have a letter size for my ETT use, landscape direction. But I throw them out, and in a notebook they could provide a record of time spent on X, Y, or Z. Someone mentioned a spiral notebook with spirals on the side, and letter size sideways, that would suit how I use it. I’m just concerned re the hierarchical first 3 tasks –I have so many other things that are not just “things that happen,” but are things I have to do in a day. Will try new form out right away and let you know results.

  13. Lynn O'Connor 2 years ago

    Another comment worth mentioning: When one of my clients (and this is not unusual) is having trouble with a boss (a real onsite boss, or an off site knowledge worker boss who is questioning how much time the “at home” worker is spending on work) who is asking for more work than it is possible given the number of hours in a day, I give them the ETT and tell them to use them for a few weeks. Then take them to their boss (whether they are an “at home” or “in the office” knowledge worker) to provide clear documentation that demonstrates when something (a demand) is realistic or not. If every hour is filled up with work (for that boss) then it becomes obvious. In these cases the free, printed out forms, are adequate because the person is not going to use the ETT regularly or even semi-regularly, but it serves an excellent function temporarily. For those of us who use it routinely (or even someone like me who uses it on and off, when I’m concerned about where my time is going etc), the spiral bound ETT would definitely be very helpful.

  14. Margo 2 years ago

    Thank you for creating so many wonderful and very useful products.

    Too often, what I plan doesn’t happen. What about a version of the ETP or ETT (or something new!) which helps visualise the difference between “what I planned to do” and “what I actually did”. I’m thinking of something with pairs of lines: top line (or left or right)one shows the plan by task, while the bottom (or left, or right)one, is where you fill in what you actually did.

    I could also use a weekly version of it, to help me plan my week and see how it actually turned out.

  15. Lynn K. 2 years ago

    I will second Margo’s request for something to help plan out my week and then see how it actually turned out. I’ve used your ETP off and on in the past and it really helps me with one day at a time planning, but frequently, I sit down and think of far more than will happen in a day and think it would be great to be planning out my whole week. I kind of like the idea of the format of the Planner Pads, but I really like your granularity of 15 min. times and bubbles – it helps me a lot.

    Things do change throughout the day from what I thought I would be doing, to what I actually do. But then it would be great to see what I had planned again and be better able to “get back on track” with the ETP and ETT combo ideas …

    Thanks again for ALL you do!!! You are a great inspiration!

  16. Simon 6 months ago

    Hi David, any updates on the A4 + B&W versions?

A message from Dave:

I really believe we all benefit when we share our own perspectives on common experiences. It would be great if you added your own anecdotes and comments, even if you don't necessarily agree with the premise of the post; that's just good conversation in my book. The house rules are "treat each other with kindness and respect" and "enjoy the flow of ideas!"

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