Tracking Time to Improve Efficiency

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“INSTEAD OF MAKING EXCUSES I WANTED SOME EVIDENCE TO SHOW MY SUPERVISORS WHERE I WAS HAVING TROUBLE”

This isn’t a topic we often discuss.  In fact, “Tracking Time to Improve Efficiency” might be the five most boring words associated with animation. It’s right up there with “counter animating piles of rope” and “shaper controls for jacket deformation”.  But before you close the tab take a look at this.

Over the course of a year, tracking helped me double the time I spent animating at work.  My case may be an extreme example, but you can use monitoring your activities as a tool to identify problem areas and help you get on the right track.

The Problem

I started tracking my time because I was receiving complaints about how slow I was animating.  I had been with the company for six months at this point but it was true.  I wasn’t keeping pace like I was at my previous employer.  There were some differences.  We were a much smaller team (only two animators).  We didn’t have the support of tech animators and producers.  Plus, I was taking on more responsibilities than I had in the past.  But that didn’t seem like enough of a difference to hamstring me. Instead of making excuses I wanted some evidence to show my supervisors where I was having trouble.  I threw together a spreadsheet and started tracking my activity for an entire month.  This is what I came up with.

The results were surprising!  I knew I there were issues, but I didn’t realize it was this bad.  I talked it over a bit with my supervisor and we suggested some ways to fix it.  But the only thing that happened was I stopped receiving complaints. Some would consider that a victory, and I’ll admit it took some of the weight off my shoulders, but nothing changed.  Out of habit, curiosity, and an unhealthy love for spreadsheets, I kept tracking my time.  One point doesn’t make a trend and I wanted to make sure this wasn’t a coincidence.  Another month went by.  I plotted my time to a pie graph again and came up with this.

What!?

This wasn’t a coincidence, but now I needed to take steps to fix it, which wasn’t easy!  I had a career working at huge, well-managed studios.  We had metrics, producers, and tech teams that were able to quickly patch issues.  I wasn’t used to addressing things on my own. Plus anyone who’s worked in AAA knows you sometimes have to shake the tree more than once to get an apple, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

How to Track Time

If you’ve worked as a professional you’ve had some experience tracking your time with studio metrics and billing.  If you’re a freelancer, you’ve most likely got this down to a science.  But these instances deal with general time spent.  “I spent 8 hours today on that grapple sequence.” or “Don’t worry, I only spent 3 hours on those fixes you wanted.” or “Bathroom breaks totally count towards overtime!  So what if it took 50 minutes?”  If you want to get useful information out of it, you’re going to have to be more specific about your daily activities.  For instance, you may have an assignment working on a walk cycle, but that task is not only animation.  You have to build that scene with rigs, props, and environments.  You’re going to need that animation reviewed.  Then you need to export the animation and test it in the engine to make sure it works.  So we need to categorize our time.

Categories

Categories are different ways you spend your time each day.  These are going to vary for each person depending on your responsibilities.  A lot of animators will not have “Scripting” as part of their daily tasks.  Some people work in engine with tree-building, state machines, and blendspaces.  Others might work more with cameras.  In any case you should define 5-10 categories that apply to you.  Getting too specific and creating a ton of categories will make data harder to read, and it will be difficult to identify one specific problem.  If you have too many categories try grouping them under a common theme.  For instance, you can include tree-building, state machines, and blendspaces all under “Engine”.  You can also include kickoffs, reviews, and talking with various departments as “Meetings”.  If you’re having trouble thinking of ideas here are a the categories I use:

Animation – This one seems obvious.  Any time you spend setting keys and posing characters is animation.  But there are a lot of things I do in my daily job that fit here better than anywhere else. Blending and manipulating anim clips, placing cameras, jury rigging, and creating pose libraries are all things I include in animation.

Exporting – Exporting can encompass a lot of things.  You can summarize it as transferring animation from one program to another.  MoBu to Maya, Maya to Engine, Engine to Recycle Bin, I have to switch programs all the time.  In preparation, I have to strip my scenes, bake the animation, and swap rigs before I’m able to export something.  That all gets roped into here. I also include minor documentation like email notifications and checking in files as part of exporting.

Meetings – If you’re a Junior or Senior you won’t have to attend a lot of scheduled sit down meetings. But meetings can include any time you talk with another person instead of remaining glued to your screen. Kickoffs, critiques, idea generation, and hunting down designers are all situations where you’re not setting keys.

Idle – This is any time you’re not being productive.  It does not include mandatory breaks like lunch, union breaks, or any time you’re off the clock.  Also, personal events where you’ll make up the time later don’t count towards idle time, like picking up your kids or a dentist appointment.  Idle time is where you’re sitting at your desk Googling alt fan art because your lead doesn’t have anything for you to do.  If you want to punish yourself you can also include things like water cooler talk and social media.  But honestly, you shouldn’t feel bad about taking five minute breaks to give your eyes a rest every once and awhile.

Fixing – Taking care of matters that disrupt your normal workflow is fixing. Correcting mistakes after you’ve submitted work, hardware and software issues, broken rigs, and helping others with their problems are part of this category.

Documenting/Research – If you’re a Senior or higher this will come up a lot more often for you. Documenting is any time you have to write tutorials, document tools, send out team emails, or assign tasks. If you’re watching/reading tutorials, trying new methods, learning new skills, or looking up/shooting reference, that’s considered research.

Building – Setting up your scene so you can start animating falls under building.  Importing scene elements, finding and applying MoCap data, and incorporating reference is what I do to build my scenes.  I even include rigging as part of this category.  It’s infrequent, yet I can’t start animating until it’s done.

Testing – This one is pretty straightforward.  If I’m playing the game, that’s testing.

Scripting – Programming, testing programs, and scripting hotkeys.  It’s not part of my job, but sometimes you get sick of counter animating and your TD’s have way more important things to do.

The Spreadsheet

There are tons of ways to keep track of your time, and I’ve tried a few over the years, but the easiest for me was to use a spreadsheet.  They’re clean, they’re simple, and you can auto-compile data any way you want with minimal effort.  I formatted all my cells into drop down menus so all it takes is two clicks to mark what I did during that half hour.  Next I formatted all the cells to be color coded for readability.  Finally I have a separate page to total everything up and a dynamic pie chart to see how I’m progressing.  It’s not hard to keep track of either.  I have the tab open between my Jira tasks and the Duck Tales theme song on a loop.

If you’re looking for a spreadsheet like mine I’ve created a template in Google Docs that’s available for download.

Tracking Template

Half-Hour Blocks

When I record my time I break my spreadsheet into half hour blocks. This seems like a very general way of measuring time, but if you’ve ever tried recording your time using stopwatches or timers, you know how much of a nightmare it can be.  You get into the zone, switch over to something else, then 20 minutes later go “Ah crap!  I forgot to stop it again!”  Then you try to think back on when you were supposed to stop it, fix it, then start the process all over again.  Filling something out at the end of the day can also be problematic.  You make guesses and completely forget about minor things.  Like the talk you had with a designer after lunch, or the 20 minutes you spent remembering the name of the voice actor who played Fry from Futurama (It’s Billy West by the way).  For me it’s much easier to keep track of half hour blocks, but don’t let that stop you from using different methods.  If you’re good about starting and stopping timers, stick with that.  15 minute blocks?  Go for it.  Sun dial?  I’m not about to stop you.  This is just the method that works best for me.

Identifying Problems

Once you’ve gotten into a routine of tracking your time you can start to see where your energies go during the day.  It’s important to note that you won’t be able to get an accurate depiction from one day of tracking or even a week.  You need to get at least a month of data to see how things work in your routine.  Afterwards you can start setting goals reflecting your current position. For instance, I thought it was reasonable for me to be spending 65% of my time animating, 15% building scenes, and 5% exporting.  The rest I knew were going to vary.  A lead might put a bigger priority on meetings.  A Senior might find themselves documenting wiki articles a lot more than a Junior would.  Once you’re finished you can start picking out problem areas in your data.  You can see from my example that I was spending an outrageous amount of time exporting.

The most important thing is to be honest with yourself.  You can’t fix an issue if you don’t document it.  Sometimes that might involve a harsh truth. Maybe you watch too many Youtube videos during the day, or maybe you spend too much time trying to fix things instead of asking for help.  But that’s fine.  No one is going to see your charts unless you Tweet them every month or write an article about them.  So be honest and record your day as accurately as possible.

Fixing Problems

At this point I hope you can see how tracking time can benefit your daily work.  A readable breakdown will highlight obstacles that prevent you from maximizing your time.  Awareness is always the first step to addressing a problem.  Fixing issues is a daunting task though and it won’t correct itself overnight, especially in a large team.

In part II of this article I’ll go over each category and explain how I reduced the impact of each section.