You are young and life is long
And there is time to kill today
And then one day you find
Ten years have got behind you
No one told you when to run
You missed the starting gun
~Pink Floyd, “Time”
Something big is brewing. Life has been telegraphing this particular development for a while now, but last week I was smacked with a stroke of clarity about it, and now it is happening.
I am undertaking a massive goal. It’s the biggest goal I’ve ever had. I have no doubts I will complete it, on time, and that it will change my life dramatically. I’ll save the details of it for an upcoming post, because the whole thing hinges on my ability to overcome one of my lifelong weaknesses. This experiment is the first step towards my huge goal.
You may have noticed a conspicuous absence of posts about personal productivity here on Raptitude. I do write about how to improve your quality of life in all sorts of ways, but I am no authority on getting things done in a timely manner. There are 14 posts in the archives tagged with the topic “Productivity” but they are only peripherally related.
When it comes to personal productivity, I blow. I have had so much spare time this last three weeks that I could have written twenty articles and a book of limericks, but I was able to squander nearly all that time, and just get my bare-bones tasks done. This latest mismanaged stretch of free time is typical.
I am not lazy. That isn’t the problem. I never sleep in, I don’t watch TV, I don’t play video games, I don’t get horizontal on couches. I love doing. I have loads of exciting projects ready to go, and I want to work on them. But I am highly conditioned to get very little purposeful work done. The fact that this website even exists is a small miracle. My inefficiency is so consistent it’s almost comical.
In September I wrote about the problem that has been stifling me since childhood: self-sabotage. Being subconsciously afraid to set high expectations in myself and others, I have inadvertently developed a whole network of habits that constantly undermine any attempt to get ahead. At the first sign of progress, I find myself pulled towards distractions like a moth to a light bulb. The day gets behind me quickly, and often nothing much is accomplished.
Where does the time go?
I have my suspicions, but honestly I’m not entirely sure, and that’s what this experiment is all about. I will track down my lost hours like so many missing dogs.
According to self-improvement wizard Steve Pavlina, I am not alone: the typical office worker only gets one and a half hours of actual work done in an eight-hour day. The rest of the time is spent socializing, shuffling papers, playing Solitaire, reading blogs, poking around in assignments without actually working on them, and checking email.
My work rate is probably in that range, and that’s pathetic, but it also means there is tremendous room for improvement. I could triple or quadruple my productivity if I learn better working habits. If I think of what I’ve accomplished in the last year, and multiply that a few times, that would make a dramatic improvement in my quality of life and prospects for the future.
I have tried many times to “hunker down” and force myself to just “be more productive” (usually starting Mondays) but it never works. The supporting habits aren’t there, and the time slips out from under me anyway.
This is classic jumping of the gun — leaping to the “payoff habit” in what is necessarily a progression of habit changes. Going from hapless time-squanderer to GTD black-belt is not a simple overnight resolution, it’s the development of an entire skillset from scratch.
The first thing to do is just figure out where the time goes. I am going to inventory my time for a whole week and see what dumb habits are eroding away my youth.
The method is simple. Every day, all day, for one week, I will record every activity, and the current time, every time I switch activities. That’s everything — making lunch, checking email, writing, surfing the web, going to the bathroom, reading my book. From those logs I can calculate how much time I spend doing each.
The point is not necessarily to become super-efficient during this time, I just want to see where my sixteen waking hours a day go to. From this valuable information I will derive a list of habits changes that need to be made. Then I will get to work on those one by one.
As with other experiments, I have played around with this idea before. I found two things:
- I was wasting a hell of a lot of time, every single day, and
- Simply being aware of what I’m spending my time on made me much smarter about what I chose to do
I won’t publish my time logs verbatim in the experiment log — as if you want to know how long it takes me to go to the bathroom — but I will report the general trend and any interesting findings, and at the end of the experiment I’ll report the grand totals of productive, unproductive and questionable time use.
The experiment will commence when I wake up on Wednesday, April 21, and conclude on Tuesday, April 27 when I go to bed.
- To become aware of how I spent my time
- To identify what habits will need to be created or broken to in order improve my productivity
- To tell you what I discover about habits and personal productivity (These experiments always yield unpredictable insights)
- I will carry a notepad at all times
- Any time I begin a new activity, I will write down the current time and the activity. This will give me a record of how much time was spent on what
- When the week is over I will tally up how much time I spent doing each of the things I do, and report the results to you
The success of the experiment depends on my consistency in writing down every single activity change I make. If I were to forget to do that for a few hours, it could really undermine the usefulness of the experiment.
But I can’t assume I’ll be perfect, or else the experiment will be a failure as soon as I slip up. So I have contingency plans for those scenarios.
The two biggest dangers are:
1) I will forget to write down some of the activity changes. This is a definite possibility. The first day I will have alarms going off on a regular basis (on my phone and Google Calendar) to remind me to make sure I record everything. If I do miss some time, I will immediately write down the activities I did during that time, and make honest estimates as to when I started each. If I just can’t remember, as a last resort, I will label the time “Unaccounted for.”
2) I will remember to write down the activity change but I will have forgotten my notepad. In this case I will do my best to procure writing utensils immediately. Failing that I will text myself the time and activity, or record myself saying it with my iPod camera. Failing that, I will have to go from memory or label it “Unaccounted for.” My goal is to have no time unaccounted for.
My experiment log can be found here.
So there it is. I am extremely curious about what I’ll discover. If you have been battling chronic inefficiency, this is probably a good place to start.
How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. ~Annie Dillard
Photo by John Morgan