This year is a year of improvement.
In each month of 2018 we are exploring a different area of life and figuring out the best ways to improve it.
In January, we looked at life planning and how best to look at what we want out of life in the big picture. Then we looked at the basics of personal finance in February.
For March, we will be exploring time management.
Find Your Starting Place
As we learned when exploring life planning, the first step in any plan is figuring out where we are.
This is why we started in personal finance by tracking all of our money and getting a record of where every dollar was going.
The same is true with time.
If we want to improve the way we spend our time, we first need to have an accurate picture of how we’re spending it now.
This means that we need to create a time log.
From 168 Hours to 15 Minutes
The basics of a time log are pretty simple: you write down how you spend your time.
There are plenty of different ways to do this, but I prefer the spreadsheet created by Laura Vanderkam for her book 168 Hours.
Vanderkam asks you to track how you spend your time in 15 minute increments for a week.
While this sounds difficult and frustrating, it actually isn’t that hard. It only takes a couple seconds to fill in the box and you get used to it quickly.
Clocking Your Hours
I recommend printing out a hard copy of the spreadsheet, folding it up, and keeping it in your pocket. The physical presence of the paper will help remind you to do your tracking.
I take the paper out and put it on my desk next to my monitor when I get to work and put it on my nightstand with my phone when I go to bed so that I can’t forget it in the morning.
That said, you will miss some things. It happens.
I’ve done a week of tracking five different times now, and there are always blocks of time that I am guessing at after the fact.
Try to keep them to a minimum, but don’t stress out when they happen. There are 168 hours in a week. You don’t need to nail every one of them exactly for this to be a useful exercise.
As Much Detail As You Want
Ultimately, this exercise is for your own benefit. To that end, use however much detail is useful to you.
I use “Int.” to signify unproductive time on the Internet. For me this includes Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, news stories, games, and any other unplanned and unproductive time online. Maybe you want to be able to differentiate your Twitter time from your gaming time or your Facebook time from your Reddit time. Do whatever works for you.
I differentiated between active television and passive television. There are some shows that I enjoy watching and I want to watch new episodes to keep up with the story. There are others that I just put on because I don’t have the energy to do anything else. I wanted to know how much time I spent on each of these separately.
Maybe you just want to track how much time you spend reading. Or maybe you want to differentiate between reading fiction, reading business books, and reading the news. Tailor the system to fit your needs.
You can also change this as you go if you find that your approach isn’t working as well as it could. I originally had one mark for conversations with coworkers. I later decided to differentiate between project-related conversations with coworkers and personal discussions.
Painting an Accurate Picture
That’s the how of tracking your time. What about the why?
As discussed above, the first point is that if we want to improve, we need to know our starting point. We can’t get from Point A to Point B without actually knowing where Point A is.
Even if we think we know how we spend our time, we’re probably wrong.
Research shows that we are very bad at knowing how long things take. We overestimate how long we spend on some tasks (like working and doing chores) and underestimate how much time we spend on others (like watching television).
We can’t trust our own sense to get an accurate picture of our time usage. We need to go out and get the cold, hard data.
Conscious Time Usage
Beyond that, though, just tracking your time makes you more cognizant of how you spend it.
In the same way that keeping a food journal helps you lose weight, tracking time helps avoid waste.
If I have to write my food intake down in my journal, I am going to be more aware of the fact that I am reaching for my tenth Thin Mint. If I have to consciously write down every time I go on Facebook, I’m going to be mindful of the crazy amount of time I’m spending on Facebook.
A lot of our time usage is unthinking. Most, probably.
This is often good! We don’t want to have to think through the process of getting out of bed, showering, brushing our teeth, getting dressed, packing our bag, etc. We want this to be a mindless, semi-automatic process.
But sometimes our unthinking use of time hurts us. If I am writing in Word and hit a tough part, I will often flip over to Chrome and check GChat. If there’s nothing there, then I’ll probably check Twitter.
(At other points, I’ve mindlessly checked Facebook or my blog stats, although I’ve mostly kicked both of those habits.)
This is fine in moderation, but if left unchecked it can suck up hours of our day.
Tracking makes us conscious about our time usage. Consciousness avoids waste.
Find the Problems
A time log also helps you spot problems and set realistic goals.
Maybe you spend way more time on social media than you want. Maybe you spend a ton of time checking your email. Watching mindless television. Tooling around while you transition from one thing to the next.
These habits are sometimes tough to recognize (or recognize the extent of) in everyday life, but are easy to spot on a spreadsheet.
On the other hand, maybe your time is mostly productive and you have no space to fit more stuff.
If you’re already doing a ton of productive work, it may not be realistic to try to squeeze more things in. You may look at your spreadsheet and recognize that you need to say no to some things and drop them off your plate.
If your problem is not wasting time, but rather taking on too many responsibilities, then that is something that would be very useful to figure out. We’re not going to get very far if we’re trying to solve the wrong problem.
Join the Conversation!
Now that we know the how and the why of time logs, I hope you’ll join me in keeping one for a week to get a better picture of where our time goes. Next week we’ll look at how to analyze these logs and how to make a plan for better using our time.
Have you ever kept a time log? What have you found? Did anything surprise you? Do you use any other methods for tracking your time? What works for you? Let us know in the comments!