Daniel Alm is an iOS and Mac app developer from Germany who quit his job at Google in 2013 and went fully indie to fulfil his vision in Timing — an automatic time and productivity tracking app for macOS. Since then Timing has become an essential tool for every freelancer as well as everyone who wants to stay mindful of their time use.
In the #3 edition of our Workflow series, Daniel shares with us his work life before vs. after Google, avoiding burnout’s, setting up your own time management system… and more.
Hi Daniel! Please tell us a little bit more about you and the story behind Timing.
Hi, glad to be here! My “career” as a self-employed software developer started at a very young age: I developed a sophisticated calculator app for Windows Mobile PDAs (those were the clunky things nerds had before there were smartphones) called PocketCAS. After hearing the first stories of developers making money on Apple’s App Store, I decided to spend my university summer holidays porting PocketCAS to the iPhone. While I didn’t get rich, that actually brought in enough money to finance my studies. At that point I started wondering what kind of “hourly wage” I was earning with PocketCAS. But to figure that out, I’d need to know how many hours I spent working on it. But I would never have the discipline to track time with start/stop timers!
From my time before the Mac I knew of a Windows app called ProcrastiTracker that would automatically track your computer time. It appeared that no good equivalents for the Mac existed, so I decided to build my own and sell it on the Mac App Store.
After my studies I went to work at Google for two years, but left to finally become a full-time indie developer, which I’ve been doing for the past 2 and a half years now.
Your decision to leave Google and work on Timing stresses the importance of staying focused. How did your workflow change after going indie?
I tried out a coworking space right after leaving, in case staying home would make me crazy! As it turns out, I manage to stay fairly productive even at home. I do make a point to take breaks, e.g. to cook and go to the gym, which actually is much easier if you are working from home.
It seems like I just have the discipline or “excitement” to keep working on my products without outside stimulation. If anything, I’m probably working too much!
Walk us through a typical work day for you. How much planning do you do for your day?
6:30 — 7 AM I get up and take an hour or so to shower and have breakfast. Often I do procrastinate a bit, so I start work proper around roughly 9 AM. I have lunch for about half an hour around 1PM and finish work to have dinner by 7 PM. I’m not actually working nine hours, as most days I go grocery shopping or to the gym.
In terms of planning, I mostly use an issue tracker called JIRA to gather all the things I want to work on next; I then drag those to prioritize what I need to work on and simply get through those tasks in the time they happen to need.
I’ve found that always having a “next thing to do” helps my productivity a lot; otherwise I tend to procrastinate a lot once I am done with a particular thing.
How is the work culture in Germany?
I think Germany is fairly well off in that regard. People do tend to work 35–40 hours, but it’s often possible to work part time as well. And, unlike the US, you get a whopping 30 days of vacation per year.
At Google, I left my work laptop at work most days, so “Feierabend” (off time, end of work time in 🇩🇪) really was time without work. Likewise, on vacations I was just unavailable and nobody expected me to reply to emails.
Has it been easier to manage time working indie, or working in a company?
It is actually easier to manage time by myself. If I’m “done” with my current work, I can simply look for something else to do and start working on that. At Google, there were often delays waiting for a co-worker to finish their work, or for a manager to discuss what to work on next. (I am more prone to overworking now, though…)
What are some tips you can offer to any freelancers (or anyone) to manage their time more effectively?
I think the most important tip is to be mindful of how you are working. That includes just noticing what you are spending time on, and when you tend to get off track, or when things take longer than expected.
⚡️ An app like Timing can help you with managing your time, but just the practice of observing yourself and seeing how you’re working can be very powerful.
For example, I’ve recently started using a tool called Focus to stop myself from impulsively checking email or support requests during development, and it made me realize how strong that habit was! Things like this really help us wean ourselves off our computers now that we have become so “addicted” to them.
What’s the biggest challenge for you personally to balance work and life?
I must admit that “checking email and support requests after working hours” has become much more frequent for me since becoming self-employed. When you work for yourself, you just happen to think more about your work at unusual times; it’s just the nature of it.
On weekends, however, when I’m with my girlfriend (we are in a remote relationship) I make a point to almost never check my emails. I feel that it is really important to have sufficient “off-time” like that.
Please share with us some apps or tools that are absolutely essential in your daily workflow.
JIRA byAtlassianis one of the things I couldn’t live without. It might actually be overkill for one person, but I’ve customized it for my needs and am happy with how it works for me. Two more tools would be replies.io, my support helpdesk tool, and Mailbutler. Oh, and Timing, of course 😉
What is one advice you can share with our readers to avoid a burnout?
Burnout has been fairly well studied by now. It’s only when you disconnect from your work and start to feel that it is meaningless — that is when burnout tends to become a problem. That also reflects my experience with it.
⏳ The no.1 thing to do for avoiding burnout is simply to feel empowered about the work you do, and know that it has meaning.
Let’s talk about emails! How many do you receive a day, and how much time do you spend in your inbox?
Uh, good question. More than I should, probably 😉 The bulk of my email used to consist of support requests. Since switching to replies.io for support, the amount of email I receive has shrunk dramatically. I still need about half an hour per day on support requests, but that’s much less than it used to.
Nowadays, I’d say I receive 10–20 “meaningful” emails, i.e. ones that I need to take action on. Plus maybe 20 less important ones, such as newsletters. So non-support email would probably be another half hour per day.
There’s probably another ten emails or so that I send myself per day; I tend to treat my “unread emails” folder (see below) as a short-term to-do list.
Do you follow a specific routine (e.g. Inbox Zero)?
For me, it’s more like “Unread Zero”: I have a “Smart Mailbox” that gathers all unread email from all my mail folders. Those are the emails I still need to take action on. Usually, a few old emails linger around in there, but in general I try to stay below 10–20 of those emails and deal with the rest as quickly as possible. I also try to stay close to “Inbox Zero” with regards to support requests.
How do you use Mailbutler to leverage your time management?
I like Mailbutler’s built-in follow-up reminders. They prevent me from losing track of ongoing conversations, and are a tremendous help when reaching out to journalists. I also use Email Tracking from time to time.
Any email tips you can share with our audience?
First of all for developers — if you have to deal with support requests; get a help desk system. All those support requests mixed with my regular “proper” emails used to really stress me out, especially while on vacation, when I wouldn’t have enough to keep my inbox clean and orderly. Nowadays, I don’t need to worry about support requests cluttering my inbox.
And to generalize that rule: Email is for communication, and for communication only. Mind you, I am not a good example in that regard, but there are so many things that actually don’t belong in your inbox. Try to get them out of there and into a better system (e.g. JIRA or OmniFocus) as quickly as possible instead. That really helps with managing stress levels.