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How I Spent My Life Last Week — Experiment No. 6 Results

clock on a red wall

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

Corin May 4, 2010 at 2:29 am

I love the Pareto principle. I 20/80 everything things and people as well as activities.

The problem I find with making more efficient use of my time doesn’t necessarily mean making more effective use of my time. There’s a saying that goes, when your climbing the ladder to success, make sure it’s leaning against the right wall.

My personality type doesn’t fit well into time constraints. I mitigate my personality preferences by being outcome based instead of goal based. Instead of saying, this is what I need to get done, I ask myself what outcome do I want to achieve. Asking that question sometimes makes me realize that what I’m doing has nothing to do with the outcome I want to achieve.

There’s a quote by Thomas Carlyle: A person usually has two reasons for doing something: a good reason and the real reason.

Focusing on the outcome helps me figure out my real reason. So when I’m eating I ask myself, for this particular meal am I eating to enjoy this meal or am I eating to gain sustenance. Depending on the answer, I’ll end up preparing, cooking and eating for 2 hours vs putting together a sandwich.

No matter how much time I spend, if I complete that outcome, I know I’ve really moved ahead instead of just doing a bunch of stuff to feel like I’m accomplishing something.

David May 4, 2010 at 5:10 am

Hi Corin.

Outcomes are central to David Allen’s GTD doctrine, and that is how I define my projects, as outcomes. This is something I want to get better at. “Seeing the project from beyond the completion date” is a big theme.

I noticed that I often forget the intended outcome while I’m doing something.

Steven Aitchison May 4, 2010 at 7:04 am

David this is great stuff and a lot of learning for me and others.

I am totally with you on the email/social media thing and as much as I catch myself doing it, it’s still a difficult habit to let go of, although i am a lot better.

I also used to constantly switch tasks, in fact I am doing it now :) but again with awareness I have gotten much better on focussing on the here and now and single tasking.

Great post David.
.-= Steven Aitchison´s last blog ..Is The Lefkoe Belief Process a Fraud =-.

David May 4, 2010 at 5:25 pm

Yeah the social media compulsion is going to be a tough one to break. I have links in my toolbar that go right to facebook and email. They are like the buttons rats press in lab experiments to get a piece of cheese. Sometimes there’s no cheese to be had, but I still press the buttons all the time :)

Josh Lipovetsky May 4, 2010 at 8:31 am

David, I am glad that this experiment worked out really well for you! I have been slowly implementing new time management habits, and if I ever slip up again (which is likely), I will conduct this trial. It will be a pretty tough week, but you have to do what it takes!

I am most fascinated by your comments about the laundry, and how significant the time difference is, between how long you think it will take, and how long it actually takes. It’s pretty scary! And it goes to show, that we are living in our heads most of the time. If you leave things floating around in your head, it will be painful. Why is it so hard to break free from the cycle? I saw a cool video on Youtube a couple of days ago, about procrastination. I thought it was really profound, at the end:


Josh Lipovetsky.
.-= Josh Lipovetsky´s last blog ..Cold Souls – The Open Market =-.

David May 4, 2010 at 5:26 pm

We are living in our heads most of the time, I think you hit it on the head :)

That laundry illusion is a perfect example. Laundry is only twelve minutes of work. I don’t have to book off a whole evening for it anymore. I never did, but I always assumed I did.

Kenji Crosland May 4, 2010 at 8:53 am

It just goes to show that the %80 of self-improvement is just keeping track of things. It’s simple, and reveal much about your own habits. Oftentimes knowing that your habits and misconceptions exist are enough to get rid of them. I like your idea of a time log and think it’s a good alternative to swallowing complex productivity systems like GTD whole.
.-= Kenji Crosland´s last blog ..Goldhat: A New Way to Monetize Your Web Content =-.

David May 4, 2010 at 5:29 pm

GTD is brilliant, but real tough to swallow whole. I’m just getting it now, and I’ve been trying to get into it for almost a year.

I didn’t realize why it was so hard until I read Leo Babauta’s Zen to Done. GTD is so hard to jump into because it’s actually about a dozen habits that you’re expected to form at the same time. Forming more than one or two habits at a time is really hard, ten or more is pretty much impossible.

Lisis May 4, 2010 at 9:03 am

Hey, David… I’ve been experiencing something similar ever since I quit the blog. Suddenly I have this new batch of “free time” that was previously accounted for. It would be so easy to just let it all run together, not really paying attention to where that time goes. But I’m consciously choosing several times each day, “What do I want to do now?”

The simple act of choosing and noticing what I’m doing (being mindfully present) makes each activity infinitely more rewarding, and I feel like my days are not “wasted”.

If you’ll humor me with a tangent, I believe this has great implications beyond time-management and productivity. For instance, marriages have a tendency to become stagnant and predictable… the days all start to run together, and each party can become easily distracted.

But if we don’t experience them on “autopilot”, and instead make conscious choices about our marriage each day, then we are more fully present in it, and the experience becomes more rewarding, and less prone to careless mistakes. This sentence says it all:

“Beware the tendency of one task to bleed into another without actually having decided to do it.”

At every moment, in all that we do, we have the power to choose a path that will get us closer to, or further from, the life we want. The key is to exercise our power of choice.

David May 4, 2010 at 5:31 pm

marriages have a tendency to become stagnant and predictable… the days all start to run together, and each party can become easily distracted.

But if we don’t experience them on “autopilot”, and instead make conscious choices about our marriage each day, then we are more fully present in it, and the experience becomes more rewarding, and less prone to careless mistakes.

That makes sense to me. I never thought about relationships that way. I guess what’s missing is conscious thought. This experiment has shown me that for normal people, most decisions are reactions, not conscious choices.

Lisis May 5, 2010 at 6:05 am

That’s exactly it… we tend to react to events and opportunities based on how we feel in the moment, rather than according to something we decide ahead of time. For instance:

The married person *decides* to be faithful, but in the moment reacts to temptation by straying anyway.

The parent *decides* to be loving and patient, but in the moment reacts to the broken lamp with verbal, emotional and/ or physical abuse.

The individual *decides* to be healthy and active, but in the moment reacts to the muscle soreness and crappy weather by skipping the day’s workout… again.

We often decide what we would like to see happen, how we would like our lives to be… we have ambitious plans for ourselves, but then don’t make the choices that support our plans when it comes down to it. We are “fair weather” choosers, if you will. ;)

David May 6, 2010 at 12:42 am

Reactivity strikes again! I guess momentary intentions trump long-term ones, no matter what we do. If only we could get them to match…

Tim May 4, 2010 at 1:00 pm

There are different things I agree with, and some of them don’t agree with each other. I agree with this post; another agreement I have doesn’t quite like it as much.

I’m trying to find as many connections between the two or three or four ideas as I can. Elimination or combination?
.-= Tim´s last blog ..Personal Ghouls ‘N Ghosts =-.

David May 4, 2010 at 5:32 pm

Not sure what you mean. Can you give an example?

Tim May 5, 2010 at 12:24 am

Okay, sorry about being vague with that. Sometimes I just type what I think without really thinking it through. Still, it seemed valid at the time, and it probably still is.

A more clear way to say it is this:

When I hear a point of view or a philosophy, I consider it. If I agree with it, I adopt it into my own views and will hopefully make it into my own later on down the road.

I have done that with Raptitude and various other blogs because what you say rings bells and makes sense. Same with books or other valid life-changing things.

Some of the things that make sense to me don’t make sense with one another. The philosophies don’t match or cooperate together. Should I have to eliminate one or more and just pick one and stick with it? Or should I not give them up, I do have faith and believe in them, and try to reconcile or seek connections between them?

That was what I meant. And the only person with the real answers for me is indeed me. I guess I was just making a reflection using the comments as a portal.

Thanks for asking. It means a lot that you care enough to ask for clarification on something that could’ve been easily overlooked as “one of those” comments.
.-= Tim´s last blog ..Personal Ghouls ‘N Ghosts =-.

David May 6, 2010 at 12:39 am

Ah. Same here. Sometimes a point of view makes sense to me at one time but not another. Often people comment on older posts and say they disagree with what I wrote, and I find I don’t really want to defend my point of view because I don’t quite think of it the same way anymore.

Tom K May 4, 2010 at 4:34 pm

Hi David,

Enjoyed this. One niggle I have is related to word usage that I have a suggestion on: “begged the question” is, although not used improperly per se here, should be “raised the question”.
“Beg the question” is a term involving fallacious logic. See comments here:


Cheerio, chappie.


David May 4, 2010 at 5:42 pm

I gotta say I don’t understand the fallacy. The example they use is kind of dumb.

I understand the frustration of grammar nazis. I am one sometimes. But in this case I just don’t find myself caring. It’s clear what I mean — except, ironically, to academics who insist on “by the book” language.

David May 4, 2010 at 6:03 pm

I took another look and the argument seems to be that the word “question” in the phrase “beg the question” was not originally meant in the way it is commonly used today.

I’m no linguist but I don’t understand why it is necessarily incorrect the way it is commonly used. It does beg (from one) the (following) question: Why is ______?

This is the kind of grammar haughtiness I’m talking about:

To beg the question does not mean “to raise the question.” (e.g. “It begs the question, why is he so dumb?”) This is a common error of usage made by those who mistake the word “question” in the phrase to refer to a literal question. Sadly, the error has grown more and more ubiquitous common with time, such that even journalists, advertisers, and major mass media entities have fallen prey to “BTQ Abuse.”

While descriptivists and other such laissez-faire linguists are content to allow the misconception to fall into the vernacular, it cannot be denied that logic and philosophy stand to lose an important conceptual label should the meaning of BTQ become diluted to the point that we must constantly distinguish between the traditional usage and the erroneous “modern” usage. This is why we fight.


Meaning is defined by common usage, not dictionaries or eggheads in grad school. Language evolves. Hopefully, as it does, this kind of snottiness goes extinct.

“Beg the question” has at least two different applicable contexts: an old one and a new one, not a right one and a wrong one. Both are meaningful, although the one this guy prefers is too antiquated for anything but pretentious, unreadable academic discourse. Look at their examples. Who talks like that, aside from people trying to sound smart?
.-= David´s last blog ..Aliens Exist, and We Should Avoid Them if We Want to Live =-.

Tom K May 4, 2010 at 6:36 pm

Huh! I find it interesting that you use the words: grammar nazis, haughtiness, antiquated, pretentious, unreadable academic discourse, eggheads, snottiness. Frankly, I’m surprised. I happen to know the person to whom you refer and I assure you, he is none of the things you impute. He is passionate about words. I guess you are too. Recognizing that an argument begs the question and using the phrase to spice up and fine tune your prose in pointing it out seem worthwhile, to me. Use BTQ all you want as “raise the question”. I thought you would welcome this extending of word use/knowledge. I did use ‘niggle’ after all. Methinks you doth protest a bit beyond niggle…

David May 4, 2010 at 8:54 pm

Sorry Tom I got out of control. Didn’t mean to reject your good intentions.

Educational elitism is something I do react to when I think I see it. I think I saw it on that page. Others might have a different interpretation.

Wait… “impute”? ;)

Vincent Nguyen May 5, 2010 at 12:20 am

You took great notes of your experiment David.

The one I need to work on as well is overlapping “tasks”, which like you mentioned..slows you down even more instead of thinking by multi-tasking (you are being efficient)….quite the contrary

Good on you to be honest with your results and notes. I learned a lot from your experiment.
Thanks David
.-= Vincent Nguyen´s last blog ..Before I Was Myself, You Made Me, Me =-.

David May 6, 2010 at 12:37 am

Yeah I’m going to make a point of not multitasking. The mind can only really do one thing at once, so multitasking only really works if one of the tasks is mindless, but that still might slow down the other one.

Erin S. May 5, 2010 at 3:45 pm

Very interesting. I know I squeeze goof off time into my morning over coffee. Checking emails for work and home I know takes a bunch of time. Probably more than it should.

I love how you stop and think. You know some people never do that. It isn’t a bad thing (thinking).

I have 2 wine glasses on my dresser that have 75 pieces of colored glass split between them. One represents the years I have already lived and one represents the years I have left. (Assuming I live to be 75 years old). The point is to remind me that time is a finite resource. Hopefully it also reminds me to use the time well that remains.
.-= Erin S.´s last blog ..The Prayer Vigil – Step One of Three in Growth and Rebuilding =-.

David May 6, 2010 at 12:45 am

I think I’ve learned that my morning coffee can be extended indefinitely as long as I mix it with an activity that has no clear end to it, like web-surfing.

Those wine glasses must be a real powerful symbol to see first thing in the morning. Maybe I should do that, as soon as I have a home again.

Lisis May 6, 2010 at 8:23 am

Erin, I *LOVE* the wine glass thing… I am SO stealing that. What a beautiful daily reminder. :)

Char (PSI Tutor:Mentor) May 5, 2010 at 4:20 pm

Your using a dryer!!!! ~:-(

That you sit on your bed thinking of what to do sometimes, had me laughing. That would drive me insane!

On my list of what needs doing in a day I also mention my reward time~ especially, read my book. This morning it was “find article on how to draw rocks” after checking emails. When this comment is posted it will be “make a stove pot coffee”, while it’s boiling I meditate in action putting dishes away and emptying compost.

I think the food prep is one of the places to be spending more time. Taking the time to care about oneself, perhaps the meal will be shared with others, connecting with nature, with what’s going in one’s body, creation time, transformations…

David May 6, 2010 at 12:48 am

I think you are right about food preparation. When I was living at home in my apartment, I always enjoyed making dinner. Living where I’ve been for the last two months (the hostel with the filthy kitchen) I wanted to minimize the amount of time I spent there. I stayed in a different place last night, and was pleased to rediscover how relatively clean an average hostel kitchen is. It was like a luxury suite.

Yes I used a dryer. I have had little success putting clothes on the line. It’s shared by many people, and others always knock my clothes off into the grass.

Char (PSI Tutor:Mentor) May 6, 2010 at 1:10 am

Tells me such people have little respect for themselves~ they must find their lives a chore and a bore; compassion emmenating ~:-)

Ruxandra May 12, 2010 at 3:28 am

Hah! Your blog is in my reader but I only actually check it out from time to time and read a chunk of posts. This was an interesting one. I’ve only just realized that I also partially see time differently since I’ve started logging my time.

Respectively, I’m a trainee lawyer and work-wise I HAVE to log every minute. It’s changed me and I only now realize in how many ways.

Of course, doing it as an experiment with ALL your time is probably more evocative, but time logging does have its benefits.

Thanks for this!

Harsh September 4, 2011 at 9:35 am

Hey David,
So I’m a little late responding to this post but I was wondering if you had any particular reason for jotting what you did w/a pen and paper, instead of using a smartphone or tablet? I’d ask you what you could recommend but I’m pretty sure you’d say that it comes down to my preference. Thanks in advance

David September 4, 2011 at 11:26 am

At the time I was backpacking, so pen and paper was all I have. I still don’t have a smartphone or a tablet.

Harsh September 4, 2011 at 10:43 pm

Ah, thanks for that and for replying so quickly, looking forward to your next experiment. :-)

Tom K May 5, 2010 at 9:52 am

All’s well that ends well. Thanks for your consideration.

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