During my masters program, we had to keep track of how much time we spent on various tasks– reading, development, testing, team meetings, etc.– and submit weekly “effort logs.” We would either just keep track of the time by looking at the clock, using a spreadsheet with VB Script voodoo where you could hit a start button, work, and then hit stop to record the elapsed time, or just plain guesstimation. Effort logs were submitted as spreadsheets and team coaches or mentors (faculty/staff) would have to tally up each team’s total hours by wading through spreadsheet after spreadsheet for each student and team.

Because of the challenges and general annoyances the above caused, when it came time to develop our own software product as part of our curriculum, our team decided to build an effort logger– namely, the “Surreal Effort Logger,” or SEL for short– to better address the above need. (Our team was called “Team Surreal.” From what I remember, when faced with the always troublesome task of coming up with a team name, we used a random word generator, stumbled across the word “surreal” and went with it.) SEL was built as a webapp where you could hit a button to start the clock, work, hit a button to stop the clock, and then enter what you had worked on– the “task”– and the webapp would log the amount of time spent. SEL let you see the totals for individual and team effort for a given period of time.

As it turns out, somebody actually went ahead and built a “real” version of SEL called “Toggl, It’s complete with a timer, start/stop button (rendered as a shiny red power button), task, project and client tracking, and reports. I think the need to track software development time was the impetus, but the system can be used for any type of work that needs easy and accurate time tracking, especially when having to calculate billable hours and generate reports to be used as invoices.

Toggl is a “use anywhere” tool since you use it to track time for projects,There’s also a desktop version so you don’t have to have a browser window open to keep the timer going– you don’t even have to worry about logging out. and for Mac OS X users, a dashboard widget for greater convenience. (The widget was developed by a Toggl user– not by Apprise, the Estonian company behind Toggl– and was released today, which is eerie, considering I was thinking of developing a widget myself today.) You can even embed it as a gadget in iGoogle or GMail.

More things that are great about Toggl: there is a free version that has “minimal limits”; for example, you can have as many projects and tasks that you want. The “premium” (for pay) versions also include features like support for planning ahead, avoid having to end tasks before your session

I couldn’t find the exact date, but Toggl was created some time before 2007, so it was out before my CMU team built it, probably even conceived of the idea! Now, if only Team Surreal had thought to take SEL to the next level…