Two weeks ago David decided to log every single thing he spent time on, from sleeping to waking up, in an effort to identify unproductive, time-wasting habits. The experiment lasted one week, and this is what he discovered.
Well it’s over, and I have been properly schooled. I’ll never look at my time the same way again.
The logs themselves are not that interesting or surprising. I didn’t uncover any insidious habits that have been stealing hours from me every day (though email-checking is definitely taking more than its fair share.)
What I did with my time didn’t really shock me, but I gained some sobering insight into why I do the things I do, and how to make much better use of time. These experiments never deliver exactly what I’m expecting, but that’s good — I get lessons I didn’t even know I needed.
So where does the time go?
Recording everything you do has an interesting effect on the psyche. You realize that by merely doing things with your day, you are spending your life. So it stands to reason that you’d become more concerned with what you’re getting in exchange.
Some interesting discoveries:
It doesn’t really take a long time to make a decision, unless you are avoiding it. Time logging spurs prompt decision-making, because each time you stop doing something you have to decide what to do next. I quickly realized that normally I gravitate towards some gratifying or distracting activity like reading a magazine or checking email rather than just make a decision about what to do. There were a few entries where I spent 8 or 9 minutes “Sitting on bed, thinking about what to do” but for the most part I was able to decide how to spend my time within one minute.
This was a major revelation. I have avoided decisions in the past because I don’t want to take responsibility for the consequences of that decision. Of course, to avoid a making a decision is a decision too, but it isn’t necessarily a conscious one — it’s an unconscious habit.
I didn’t realize I had this habit. From the first day of my experiment log:
I’m already getting an idea of how this going to be. The first thing I notice is that I have to stop to think all the time. Each time I finish doing something, I have to stop and actually decide what to do! I didn’t realize that this is not the normal way I function.
I suspect this is somewhat normal. Does everything you do start with a conscious decision?
I had some completely incorrect conceptions about how much time some things take, and you might too. For example, doing laundry always felt like something that took a good hour and a half: 10 minutes gathering the laundry, 30 minutes in the washer, 40 minutes in the dryer, and 15 minutes folding. In reality, laundry only took 12 minutes: 4 to gather the clothes, take them downstairs, and put them in the washer; 2 minutes to go downstairs and move them over to the dryer; 6 minutes to go get the clothes, fold them and put them away. The rest of it is completely free time. That’s just a simple psychological misperception, but it has a big effect on whether I decide to tackle a certain task on a certain day. Suddenly laundry is a cinch.
On days off I would spend up to two hours preparing and eating meals. I don’t know what’s typical, but that is a good chunk of time that I could certainly whittle down.
It is really easy to “work on something” without really knowing what you’re trying to achieve. There were times when I would spend an hour or two working but didn’t get a lot done. Even if you’ve plunked down to do something specific, attention can still wander, eating up time. The value of time spent depends on two things:
1) Whether you’re aware of what you are actually trying to do (which does not happen automatically)
2) How good you are at returning your attention to what you’re trying to do
This is probably the biggest time-waster of all for me. I let distractions take me away quite often, and I forget the reason I am doing things. Overwhelmingly, the most common distraction was the internet.
Most tasks can be done in much less time if you just decide to do them in less time. Replying to an email can take two minutes or thirty minutes. A shower, including all dressing and undressing, can take six minutes or twenty minutes. Grocery shopping can take seven minutes or twenty-five minutes. Decide how much time you’ll spend to get to the end of it, and like magic, the task shrinks.
Keeping track of your time makes you more relaxed and grateful. When I announced this experiment some people were concerned that I would overlook the importance of relaxing, non-doing, and spontaneity. While having to record everything was a bit cumbersome, I found myself more present in what I was doing. Once I had decided “Okay it’s 9:11 and I’m going to go sit in the common room and chat with people,” I noticed that I really got more out of it than I usually do. There was no nagging feeling of “Maybe I should get busy on something else,” because I’d already mentally approved using my time that way.
Having decided consciously on a particular activity, you become aware of how much you can get out of even just a few minutes, and your mind is less likely to wander to what you’re not doing.
“Not having time” to socialize, exercise or have fun is BS. Quite often I would hole up in my room rather than sit and chat in the common room (I am living in a hostel in New Zealand) under the pretense that I had a lot of work to do. But just five or ten or twenty minutes spent chatting has a big positive effect on the mood and makes my work time a lot more rewarding and productive. Twenty minutes spent playing pool with a friend was way more beneficial to my life than tacking on another twenty minutes to my time spent working. I haven’t done any exercising in the past few months, but I can no longer pretend it’s for lack of time. I just choose to spend all my other time doing other things. Lack of time is never an excuse when it comes to things we think are important. We all have 24 hours to spend, every day.
Main habit changes this experiment suggests
The purpose of this experiment was to identify habits that were getting in the way of my being productive. Time logging made some of them painfully obvious, if they weren’t before. These are the main changes I plan to make as a result of this experiment:
Separate email and social media from everything else I have to do on the computer. We’ve all heard it a million times, but knowing that is not enough if it isn’t yet a habit. These activities become huge time-wasters if you don’t cap the time spent on them daily, or confine them to a routine. I noticed an alarming tendency to check my email, Facebook, Twitter and blog stats every time I sat down to do anything on the computer. When I was logging my time, I wanted to make sure I logged the time separately, and while I was working I kept catching myself clicking over to Facebook or Gmail without even thinking about it. Processing my email/social media once or twice daily is a simple habit that would greatly improve the efficiency of my researching, writing and other online tasks.
Always know what I’m trying to get done while I’m working. During the experiment I had to write down the activity at the time I begun, so this reminded me plainly why I was doing it. I realize now how much of my time is spent without being fully aware of what I’m trying to accomplish. I mean, I’ll remember that I’m supposed to be “working on this project” but I don’t always have the completion of a particular action on my mind.
For example, if I was gathering web articles on a topic I wanted to research for a future post, I’d sometimes forget that my goal was just to gather a bunch of relevant articles. I’d find myself reading them instead, which leads to Tweeting about them or clicking through to other, unrelated (but interesting) articles. Simply reminding myself “Why did I begin this?” kept me much more productive than usual. This is productivity 101, but I’m definitely a novice in this department.
Don’t switch tasks without a good reason. Switching tasks required me to whip out my notepad and write down a new one, so it often begged the question: Why am I deciding to do something else right now? Have I finished this, or am I just at a hard part that I want to avoid?
A hard part is a bad place to stop, because then I have to resume the project by tackling a hard part. Once you’re on a roll it is almost always much more efficient to keep going until you’re done, or until there is a real reason to stop — such as when you need someone else to act on it, or the building is on fire. I found that many of my projects can be done in one go, instead of just moving it forward a bit and jumping to something else.
Live by the 80/20 rule. For those unfamiliar, the 80/20 rule states that 20% of what you do produces 80% of the results. So some activities can be exponentially better time investments than others. There were a number of “monkeys on my back” that I eliminated with just a few minutes of focused action. Updating my resume, sewing a missing button, making a difficult phone call, all very quick and highly beneficial — freedom from many looming to-do’s is often only minutes away.
Tidying my room takes about nine minutes. It completely changes my state of mind while I’m in there, and the change lasts for at least a few days. On the other hand, I took up to half an hour to compose some of my emails, which could be done in far less time and doesn’t often produce a huge benefit other than getting it out of my inbox.
Beware the tendency of one task to bleed into another without actually having decided to do it. My normal routine included eating my breakfast (which usually takes about ten minutes) while checking my email and Facebook on my laptop. For this I would enter “Breakfast/Social-media-email” in my log. There were times when this combination took over an hour, when I know I could have finished my breakfast in 10 minutes, and then processed my correspondence in another 15 or 20 minutes. But when I combined them, each slowed the other down, and checking Facebook turned into playing around on Facebook, and the time slipped by with little to show for it. Because I didn’t sit down with a single, clear purpose, I could never cleanly finish what I was doing, so the time just bled away.
If you want to do this experiment
I definitely recommend it. I certainly will never look at my time the same way again.
The biggest effect is that you are forced to ask yourself “Do I really want to spend my time on this?” so you tend to consider the benefits of it. The normal tendency (for me, maybe you too) is to gravitate towards certain habitual activities, without consciously considering what the benefit is, or how it compares to other things you could do.
From the log:
I haven’t tried to be any more productive this week than usual — that’s not the point of this experiment — but I certainly have been, because I cannot escape the knowledge of where my time is going. Suddenly I feel more responsible for the outcomes in my life, because they are all results of conscious choices, rather than unconscious habits.
A few tips:
Don’t worry about being extra-productive while you do this. Time logging is only to learn about how much time your normal activities take, and changing your habits afterward. If you are trying to suddenly become optimally effective, you’ll get frustrated and quit. You’ll find that you’re more productive anyway, just because you’re more aware of what you’re doing with your time.
Fill in the blanks the moment you notice you forgot to log an activity. You’ll miss some, that’s okay, but you have to get right on it the moment you notice the slip, or it’s doomed. Go from memory, make a best guess, and if you just can’t remember, then call it “unaccounted for” and start from where you are right now. You don’t have to be perfect to benefit from this, but letting it slide will put you back at square one.
Make sure you have a notepad (or a few index cards) and a pen on you at all times. If there is ever a time when you can’t record what you’re doing, you’ll miss too much and never make it through the week. Remember, it’s only a week, so don’t get lazy. Be armed.
Where do we go from here?
Well now that I know the most immediate changes to make, I’ll be implementing them one by one, queued for importance. You will see me do a lot more experiments this year than last year.
The times they are a-changin’
Photo by Libertinus