Tap into Time Management
Finally, a tool to answer the age-old question: Where did all that time go?
- By Jeffery Hicks
Early in my consulting career, I had a stint doing end-user support and other miscellaneous duties. I enjoyed many things about the job, but I dreaded the weekly time sheets. What did I work on, and how long did I spend? I think I resorted to scraps of paper, or maybe an Excel spreadsheet, to keep track. Nowadays, as an independent consultant and author, I still need to keep tabs on what projects are taking up my time. But today I have an easy-to-use -- and free -- tool that I believe you'll find helpful in your time-tracking and management tasks.
MapleXP is a small program that runs on just about anything post-Windows 2000. I'm running it on Windows 7 with no problems. The application's only requirements are the Microsoft .NET Framework 3.5 SP1 and Microsoft SQL Compact Edition 3.5 for the desktop. But don't worry about installing these ahead of time -- if they're needed, the installation process will add them for you. MapleXP has a small footprint, but unfortunately must be installed locally. Technically, all of the files are contained in a single directory. The application doesn't write to the registry and only creates menu shortcuts. Therefore, it can be run as a stand-alone app. But it does require SQL Server CE to be installed, which I think makes running MapleXP as a portable app a moot point.
After first launching the program, you'll need to create a new database. The database is a single .SDF file that you can store locally or on a network share. You can have as many different database files as you'd like. On a shared computer, each user should create a personal database file. When you start MapleXP, simply connect to the database to get started.
Within the database, you define all tasks you want to track. You can even create a task hierarchy by using slashes. For example, if I have a top-level task called "Writing," I would set up tasks as follows: Writing/Mr. Roboto,
Writing/Professor PowerShell and Writing/PowerShell TFM. When it comes time to review how much time I've spent on writing projects, I can filter by the top-level task -- which will consolidate time from all the child tasks -- or select a specific child task.
There's really no limit to the number of tasks you can create. It depends on how you want to track and report your time. Remember, you can have as many database files as you'd like, so you might use a different database for each project. MapleXP can only track one task at a time.
Once all your tasks are defined, open the Task window, select your task, right click and start the task. You can also use the task controller or the application icon in the system tray. Each running task is referred to as a work item. The default work-item setting keeps track in one-second intervals. MapleXP refers to this as the "quantum," but you can modify this if you need to track time in larger chunks such as 10- or 15-minute intervals. When you're finished with your task, return to the application and stop the task. You can also stop and review the task. I use this option to add a comment to the work item or to adjust the time.
Putting It All Together
After using the application for a while, you'll eventually want to get a report on how you've spent your time. In the Tasks window, you can select a task and adjust the timeframe to calculate a total time. Alternatively, you can open the Work Items window and filter by date, task name or comment. Unfortunately, there's no facility to print or prepare more formal reports. You can, however, export any or all of the data to a .CSV file and manage the data with Microsoft Excel. Other options include reading the database file with SQL Server Management Studio, or, if you're inclined and have the expertise, you can programmatically work with the database via the underlying .NET classes.
MapleXP is technically freeware, but you can support it through donations. There are no annoying nag screens or reminders, except for a very brief one that runs the first time you start the application. If cost-conscious time management is important to you, I hope you'll give it a try.
Jeffery Hicks is an IT veteran with over 25 years of experience, much of it spent as an IT infrastructure consultant specializing in Microsoft server technologies with an emphasis in automation and efficiency. He is a multi-year recipient of the Microsoft MVP Award in Windows PowerShell. He works today as an independent author, trainer and consultant. Jeff has written for numerous online sites and print publications, is a contributing editor at Petri.com, and a frequent speaker at technology conferences and user groups.