Last week, I stumbled onto the Time Tracking Challenge from Laura Vanderkam. I had recently enjoyed her wonderful TED talk on “How to gain control of your free time”, so I started following her on Twitter. Of course I’m always willing to try a new habit, especially on a Monday morning when I have all the positivity and promise of the week ahead. I signed up and immediately started tracking what I was doing, in 15-minute increments, for the 7 days.
Laura provided an Excel file you could use to start tracking. Being a Mac and iOS guy, I opened it up in Numbers and saved it to iCloud so I could update the file from either my Mac or my iPhone. It actually worked quite well, though I ended up a couple times with conflicts and had to figure out which file I wanted to keep.
As I got started, I found it was actually easier than I thought it would be. I was already used to tracking during my work day for billable reasons, so really the only thing new was tracking my off hours. I first downloaded an app that could do repeatable 15-minute timers so I could just get a notification on my Apple Watch to remind me to document my time, but I downloaded a trial that would only repeat 4 or 5 times. I stopped using it within a couple hours because I was doing fine remembering without it. I never really went any long stretches without updating my file. At most, maybe 2.5 hours or so passed while doing one or two tasks, and then I would update it with everything I did during that time.
I did notice some interesting things during the week. Similar to how tracking your food intake makes you more accountable for what you put in your mouth, often times I was more motivated to do something productive just because I wanted to write down that I was productive on my timesheet.
I think I also felt less guilty during my leisure times. My wife and I actually took the Tuesday off when Apple announced its latest products, and I felt at ease relaxing and watching the event as well as researching and exploring the new products because I knew I had been pretty productive earlier in the morning and was planning to get back to my to-do list later in the afternoon. It was easy because what I did was written down and viewable from a distance and I could reflect on it.
Laura instructed her participants to organize their time into some general categories. To do this I made a quick legend using colored boxes and decided on 6 categories:
I then went through my spreadsheet and assigned one of those 6 categories to every 15-minute block by color coding the cell. I then figured out the breakdown of just how I utilized my time by percentage as well as how many hours during that week I spent on that task.
So after tracking and analyzing 672 blocks of time spanning 168 hours, what exactly did I learn?
First of all, I was actually more productive than I felt I was in the moment! When you’re in the middle of a hectic week, it’s hard to really see exactly how you’re doing. Reflecting back, I had a higher percentage working on meaningful things than in leisure time, and I think that is a great place to start. This week included a day off of work, but during that day I actually spent a good amount of time on projects at home so it balanced itself out. I’d really need to track additional weeks to see what kind of trends I might see from week to week, but I feel I had a good balance. I got a lot of productive things done, but also had a lot of fun too.
I do feel I was more productive this week than a “normal” week just because I was tracking. If that’s the added bonus to tracking, it could be worth doing on a consistent basis. The following week I had some really unproductive days without tracking. Is it a coincidence? Is my gained productivity worth the expense and hassle of tracking my time? The answer could be yes, but I think I need more weeks under my belt to really decide on that answer.
Averaged out over the week, I really wasn’t stuck in email and organizational tasks that much. I like to keep a clean inbox, but sometimes I feel like it’s a never-ending battle that I just can’t win. Even though I spent more time earlier in the week on email to get it empty, I spent less time towards the end of the week keeping it up. Eight hours of dealing with email and organization tasks during a whole week I think is fairly acceptable.
Learning needs to take a more prominent space in my life. I consider myself a lifelong learner, but viewing this week’s snapshot, I only spent 2 hours learning. I’d like this number to be more like 10 to 15 hours per week. I have so many things I want to learn and do, I need to block off sections ahead of time to make these things happen. Laura advocates keeping a list of “100 Dreams”, which is pretty similar to David Allen’s “Someday/Maybe” list. I have no shortage of dreams I’d like to accomplish, I just need to schedule them in at specific times. Now that I’ve done this tracking for a week, I think it will help me plan ahead and create these windows of time to add in more learning.
I could stand to optimize my Day-to-Day time. I tend to be fairly lazy in the morning getting ready. If I tuned that a bit, I’d have more time to be productive or to do something that is actually fun instead of just browsing Facebook & Twitter. This also took into account time cooking and eating out. I’ve actually been fasting more lately which totally helps lower this section of time. It is nice on days when I’m fasting that I can just skip the trouble of cooking and cleaning and get onto things I really want to do that night. There are a few hours to be gained here, but not that many.
Next time I do this, I think I will break out social media into a separate category. All of us could stand to have less social media and more time playing some board games with friends and family. It was a great experiment that I’m probably going to do very soon, if not this coming week. I could probably use a better tracking system if I do this more often. I know there are some time tracking apps out there that get pretty good reviews, I’m not sure if they would be more or less of a hassle than a simple Excel spreadsheet. I could use what I’ve learned from this week and pre-plan in blocks of time for more of my someday/maybes. It will be easier now that I have experienced a week of it, and I have some baseline numbers to compare against. I think this exercise would be beneficial for anyone who is looking to get more meaningful things accomplished. Thank you to Laura Vanderkam for hosting it and I look forward to doing it again!