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Where Does The Time Go? — Experiment No. 6


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 Terms

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

Jess April 19, 2010 at 7:08 am

Wow, I think that this will be one of your toughest experiments yet but I am intrigued to see the results. Good luck! :)


David April 19, 2010 at 3:53 pm

Me too. Each of these experiments aims at changing my behavior, and they do, but the most interesting part is always the unexpected things I discover.

Brad April 19, 2010 at 9:04 am

I also have the remarkable ability to make time disappear. I am almost positive that the internet is my sole time waster. If I sit down and read a couple chapters of a book, I feel like I did something. But if I spend an hour (or two) on the internet, the entire span of time can just feel like a series of short breaks. Thus is the scourge of multitasking.

I think I will do this experiment with you. Starting tomorrow. I was going to review my new year’s resolutions this week anyway, and this is a good opportunity to get my bearings.
.-= Brad´s last blog ..World’s Greatest Polyglot =-.

David April 19, 2010 at 3:55 pm

Me too Brad. The internet takes our attention from one thing to the next without ever “running out.” I think I will discover how much of my computer time is wasted.

I look forward to seeing what you discover. Feel free to post your progress in the comments of the experiment log.

Avi April 19, 2010 at 10:24 am

Great idea! Just the other day I decided to write down the time on the clock when I open and close the internet, and the time on the clock when I sit down and get up from doing homework. Maybe this will motivate me to be more productive have more concentration.

David April 19, 2010 at 3:56 pm

Let me know what you find out!

Tina April 20, 2010 at 12:45 am

I actually have to track my productivity at work, so I know I work my full eight hours:P I hope you gain some insight into your time-wasters. It’s always nice to identify culprits and exchange that time for something you really want to do. Enjoy!

David April 20, 2010 at 2:19 am

Time will tell :)

Vincent Nguyen April 20, 2010 at 2:09 am

Definitely a challenging experiment David.
I cannot wait to read about your results and the different insights you will learn during your experiment.

*Don’t forget your pen and notepad*
.-= Vincent Nguyen´s last blog ..How much is your T.I.M.E. worth and how do you make it more valuable? =-.

David April 20, 2010 at 2:20 am

I have been testing this out today, even though I officially start tomorrow, and it is hard to remember to get out the notepad. I don’t wear a watch either so I have to keep digging out my phone. I may buy a cheapo watch to wear this week.

Avi April 20, 2010 at 2:18 am

Aw I just wasted five hours, I’m going to have to take this more seriously.

David April 20, 2010 at 2:21 am

Haha. At least you know how many hours it was.

Kylie April 20, 2010 at 7:14 am

I really enjoy your experiments David, and this one should be particularly interesting. I used to be shockingly unproductive, I have improved the past couple of years and definitely spend my time more consciously, but I could definitely do better. I am still looking for the balance between planning my time and over-scheduling (which normally leads to anxiety and a distinct lack of enjoyment of the process). Perhaps I should join in on this one…

David April 20, 2010 at 5:53 pm

I’ve only been doing it a few hours now but I can already see how this completely changes the game. Definitely worth trying. I have updated the experiment log already.

Josh Lipovetsky April 20, 2010 at 7:57 am


It’s funny because I just started a new habit this morning. I want to write in my journal in the morning, to set the tone for the day, and to write down the most important tasks, and the amount of time I need to spend for each one. I will also write in my journal at night, with a daily recap. I have a bunch of great habits in my life, including a powerful morning routine, evening routine, and bed routine. But my big problem, is the time gaps in between those routines. I waste so many hours every day. I am working on starting a business, and I procrastinated the entire day yesterday.

Every time I try to tackle my efficiency problem, I usually try to schedule my day by hours. This works like a charm, but I never like the general ‘predictability’ and lack of control over your day. I end up relapsing after about 3-4 days. I have tried GTD, OPA, blah blah blah. I have made a bunch of systems for myself, but I still haven’t found the perfect system for me.

But I am always looking to find a system that works for me. I think I am going to participate in the experiment with you, David. It’s going to be a tough week!

Thanks a lot,
Josh Lipovetsky.
.-= Josh Lipovetsky´s last blog ..Surrogates – The Real Impact of Technology =-.

David April 20, 2010 at 5:55 pm

I am still working out a system. I am getting used to GTD but it is not quite habit yet. You may want to try out Leo Babauta’s Zen to Done. It’s only ten dollars and it is a stripped down, easier-to-use system based on GTD. You can make it as simple or complex as you want.

Murugan January 6, 2013 at 6:21 am

Mari, my heart is with you and that poem was wonderful. I metonr a young man with a rare genetic disease in which few live beyond 30. His symptoms are similar to autism. He is now 24. So, I think I understand these feelings more than most. Life is precious. My thoughts and best wishes are with you and your family.

Tim April 20, 2010 at 10:08 am

Do you really think you’ll be able to go the whole week without slipping up? I know you say things like this are unpredictable, and I agree with you. Good luck and happy time hunting.
.-= Tim´s last blog ..Right Now =-.

David April 20, 2010 at 5:58 pm

Hi Tim. No, I don’t expect to be free of mistakes. The key is going to be to minimize their size. It’s one thing to get confused about forty minutes here or there, but to just let it go to pot for the whole afternoon would seriously effect the quality of the data I get from this experiment. So far I’m doing okay.

Melissa April 20, 2010 at 6:54 pm

That’s so weird, I just started a similar project a few days ago. I was increasingly becoming unproductive and decided it was enough. I wrote down ways to get back to my “old self”. I think it was another article on this site that talked about spending time on things that will make you a better person. I realize now that reading random blogs for hours isn’t going to benefit me in any way.

I might have to try this one out if it works out for you. Good luck!

David April 21, 2010 at 12:56 am

Hi Melissa. I’ve been at this experiment for less than twelve hours and it’s already quite revealing. Good luck with your project.

Reading random blogs is not productive. But I will always make sure you get your ten minutes’ worth out of reading a post here ;)
.-= David´s last blog ..Where Does The Time Go? — Experiment No. 6 =-.

Katie April 21, 2010 at 3:14 am

This is a really interesting idea, and I think you’re setting yourself a pretty tough experiment. It’s going to be incredible for you to find out where all your time goes…

But I’d be wary of using that new insight to blindly increase your productivity though!

So many of our conversations (internal, online, interpersonal) are focused on being more productive – like you say, a huge chunk of the blogging world is churning out 1000s of productivity posts daily. There’s a lot of conditioning going into making us want to increase our productivity. But I suspect there are many unexpected, and potentially negative, consequences to mastering the urge to be more productive. And those potential consequences aren’t socially valued like productivity is – being productive boosts our self worth, and our financial worth to society! Being laid back and contented… well, does it make the economy churn the same way?

I suppose I’m comparing two ‘experiments’ of my own, though they haven’t been as formalised as yours. I spent a year backpacking around Australia, being about as undisciplined, unstructured, and unproductive as a person could be (ah bliss, I remember those days). I’m now the complete opposite, my job is very demanding and I really do maximise the work I put in all day, plus I’ve somehow managed to make all of my free time super-productive – my running is aiming for a marathon, my creative writing is aiming for a qualification and then a book, my blogging is aiming for a small business… I do not squander any time at all. I’m pretty damn good at being productive.

But I am not as creative, spontaneous, relaxed or contented. I am not so nice to be around. I easily tip into being a stress-head, because while I can handle all of the above, I’ve little capacity for any unanticipated demands…

The insight you’ll gain from your experiment will be interesting, what you choose to do with that insight will be important.

(Eek, I’ve written half an essay! Sorry…)

David April 21, 2010 at 4:25 am

Good points, and I’ve taken your warnings into account. The goal here is to improve my ability to be more productive — to develop skills and habits I never had, which will allow me to get more done than I ever have. It isn’t about doing as much as possible, just making sure I am actually doing the things that are truly important to me. At the moment, my poor productivity habits are getting in the way of that. Don’t worry, I very much value time in which little gets done, too ;)

Dr. G April 21, 2010 at 6:44 am

Wow! Wishing you all the best for this exciting experiment. Depending on your results, I will try it myself ;-)

I love the Pink Floyd quote. It reminds me of a text I recently found on the web. Just an excerpt:

“To our surprise, by their own judgment, several of them had lived vast parts of their lives below what I’ll now call the success line. For example, Herb, 81, told us, sure, there were great moments, but overall his life had been a colossal disappointment. He hadn’t loved his job, though he’d stayed with it for decades. His long marriage was OK, but he felt he had let his true love get away when he was a young man.

HIS LIFE HAD BEEN WASTED IN MANY WAYS, HE REALIZED, AND IT WAS TOO LATE TO DO ANYTHING ABOUT IT. Herb said that if he had it to do over, he would have focused far more on the people who mattered to him. He would have switched careers to something that would have challenged and stimulated him more. He would have taken more risks and pursued his passions.”

Find the complete article here:


by Ken Dychtwald

Sounds to me like the time to run is NOW!

David April 21, 2010 at 2:34 pm

Yikes. That is what I’m trying to avoid.

Char (PSI Tutor:Mentor) April 22, 2010 at 12:16 am

Ok Mr Productive~happy experimenting. Me hopes you don’t burn your day away being “productive”.

Getting distracted, being “inefficient” is a great way for the psych to shake up your feet; to live in the moment~ to let go.

Unconscious gestation has its place.

Perhaps you do not “get ahead” because that state of being, the ego/attachment that usually comes with it, is not what your Self has set its compass to. Thus, your GTD state would actually be the distraction, would be the “bum the day away” way.

~ anyways, all the best on your adventure!

David April 22, 2010 at 2:19 am

Hi Char. Yes, there is something to be said for letting the mind wander from thing to thing.

I guess I feel like I have all the bumming the day away experience I need, at least for the time being. That used to be my daily M.O. and it didn`t produce the life I wanted.

Letting go has a lot of different meanings, and they aren`t all good. The way I “let go” for years was to duck my responsibilities to myself. And now I am such an expert at that I find it extremely difficult to perform certain basic human operations. I`ve had enough of that self-imposed disability.

I am out of work at the moment, and if I had “let go” today it would be this same hour, and I`d be no closer to finding income. I would have felt awful now, and the days would begin to feel desperate as they ticked by. But my experiment kept me aware of how I was choosing to spend my time, and today I did several difficult things that I would have ducked out on otherwise. I enjoy my day when I spend it taking action, I feel like crap when I spend it following my distractions. I think that`s a pretty reliable compass. I had a good day under unfavorable circumstances, and I`m pleased with myself.

I am seeing a lot of fear of the idea of efficiency and productivity in the comments and emails. Some people go overboard obviously. As usual, there is an enormous, healthy middle ground.

Interesting point in your last paragraph. I will keep it in mind. The big goal I alluded to (and will post about soon) is what my Self needs. Working towards it, no matter how far away it is, makes me feel like I doing right by myself. The endless, fruitless distractions I`ve indulged in for a quarter century are what my ego wants.

Renata January 6, 2013 at 6:26 am

“An agenda of both mirandsy and gun prohibition, what a combination.”I couldn’t possibly have put it any better than that anonymous poster who posted that sentence. More pop-psychological brilliance, delivered up with side orders of anti-male, anti-gun propaganda………….Dr. Wes might be a bit confused that more and more women are choosing to arm themselves.Perhaps he can find some place to theorize why such women are apparently needing their “testosterone” fixes.If Dr. Wes and his wife are ever victims of home invasion, and he is tied up and forced to watch as his wife is raped, his belongings stolen, with his life and his wife’s life threatened, then he will likely experience the need to go out and buy a gun in order to sit and drink Tabasco sauce himself, assuming that he survives the ordeal.

Char (PSI Tutor:Mentor) April 22, 2010 at 6:46 am

I am glad to hear you are following your Heart’s path in what you do.

I guess it’s the regret I hear when I read your words about “fruitless distractions” and “self-imposed disability” that just makes me want to say~ you have not been wasting time; you have not been losing time~ I think of that post you wrote about the thought from your hero…or that seed that exists somewhere on this globe that appears to be dormant for like forever then just freakin blooms but needed that dormancy to get to that point~

I can relate to wanting to be more true to the Self~ it is why I slowed down my seat-of-the-pants urban nomad lifestyle to reno this place and create a sustainable garden and business~ but rejecting one’s Shadow, telling that facet of one’s Self that it is not appreciated will frek with the compass. Shadows are pirates ~;-)

David April 22, 2010 at 3:45 pm

Yeah I think you’re right. I needed to do everything I have done in the way I did it in order to be where I am. But here I am, and my past is telling me to create different habits. A bit of regret is an inevitable byproduct, but it is not my motivation.

John April 23, 2010 at 11:32 am

Just a quick tip:

For sites that constantly try and distract you (Twitter and StumbleUpon for me) try using Leechblock to easily block them. It’s an add-on for Firefox (not sure about Google Chrome).

All it takes is cutting and pasting the url.

Hope this helps, David, to some extent on saving time.
.-= John´s last blog ..Why There’s Nothing Wrong With Trying Something New =-.

David April 23, 2010 at 3:28 pm

Hehe… I am trying not to resort to that. It’s not really specific websites for me, it’s the general impulse to escape any sort of responsibility. There is always somewhere to escape to, I can’t block them all ;)

But if I do develop an unhealthy relationship with any particular site I will try it.

Caitlin April 28, 2010 at 10:53 pm

Reminded me of this quote .I would rather be ashes then dust,
I would rather that my spark should burn out in a brillant blaze than it should be stfiled by dry rot. I would rather be in a superb meteor, every atom of me in a magnificant glow than in a sleepy and permanent planet; the proper function of a man is to live, not to exist; I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them;
I shall USE my time.
– Jack London

davexrobb April 14, 2013 at 12:36 am

I read this post several weeks ago and was inspired to try it. I’ve just reduced my work schedule to 3 days a week and wanted to be sure I didn’t squander away my free time. (I actually did it for 2 whole weeks, which was a bit much. One week was plenty.) You are absolutely right about your main insight, which was that the simple act of logging your time makes you think about what to do next, and it is that mindfulness that makes all the difference. I had a really satisfyingly productive 2 weeks. It was also interesting to see how much time I spent on certain things, but that was secondary. Now that I’ve stopped logging, I have done some backsliding. I try not to be too hard on myself, knowing some down time is essential, but I find that I’m hopeless without some structure. Thanks for the inspiration to do this! I’m writing a blog post about my experience, and I’ll credit you. Peace, Dave.

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