Imagine that you spend 45 hours per week at the office — 9 am to 6 pm.
You commute 30 minutes each way, leaving home at 8:30 am and returning home at 6:30 pm. You also spend 30 minutes each weekday morning “getting ready” — showering, dressing, brewing coffee.
You spend another 30 minutes on work-related tasks after you return home, like checking email or ironing shirts.
You sleep 8 hours per night. You spend 10 hours per week on chores and errands. You exercise 5 hours per week.
Sounds like a jam-packed schedule, doesn’t it?
But guess what? In the schedule I described above, you still have 42 hours per week of free time.
That’s the equivalent of a full work week.
Like many people, I feel busy and overworked. When people whom I haven’t seen in awhile ask, “How’ve you been?”, my stock response is “Good!” followed by “Busy!”
It’s a canned response; a cliché.
But a few weeks ago, I interviewed author Laura Vanderkam on my podcast. She studied more than 1,000 time diaries logged by working professionals over a 168-hour week.
When we start tracking our time, she says, most people discover that they have more time than they think.
This stopped me in my tracks.
Math is compelling. We can make emotional arguments until sunrise, but math is inviolable. (One of my favorite discoveries about adulthood is that I mostly need 6th-grade arithmetic. Forget calculus; just learn compounding interest.)
Okay, so let’s math this out.
Let’s use the example above. We start with 168 hours per week.
Subtract 56 hours for sleep, 45 hours at the office, 5 hours commuting, 2.5 hours getting ready for work, 2.5 hours working-outside-of-work, 10 hours running errands and taking care of household chores, and 5 hours exercising. That totals 70 hours.
We’ve filled a total of 126 hours. This leaves us with 42 additional hours that we can spend in any way that we choose: hanging out with friends and family, attending worship services, reading, volunteering, enjoying hobbies, or building a side business.
That sounds like a full, satisfying life, despite the 8:30 am – 6:30 pm workdays.
We feel busy, but there’s a disconnect between fact and feeling.
We have abundance. We’re time-rich. And we don’t even know it.
Mind = blown.
The obvious follow-up questions are threefold:
- “How do I spend my time?”
- “What do I value? What are my priorities and goals?”
- “How can I spend my time in a way that reflects these values/priorities/goals?”
These aren’t rhetorical questions. They strike at the core of creating a good life.
In search of these answers, I decided to track my time in 15-minute increments over the span of a week.
Why? My reasoning:
- To save money, track your spending. (Or try the anti-budget.)
- To lose weight, track your food and exercise.
- To find more time, track your hours.
Seems logical, right? I didn’t know if time tracking would be beneficial, but I figured it’s worth a shot.
I Track Every 15 Minutes …
To start this experiment, I printed a three-page, 672-cell spreadsheet. I carried this spreadsheet everywhere for a week. I brought it to the gym. I carried my spreadsheet into the grocery store.
Yes, I’m that weirdo.
I could’ve tracked my time on my phone, but I avoided this for two reasons:
#1: Distraction — If I turn on the screen and notice a Facebook or WhatsApp message, there’s a chance the next 30 minutes might disappear.
#2: Trigger — Developing a new habit requires a trigger, or cue, that precedes the behavior. Looking at my phone won’t remind me to track my time; it’s not a sufficient cue. But carrying around a stupid sheet of paper is an excellent reminder.
I diligently recorded my time over the span of a 168-hour week. Then I spent one hour and 20 minutes manually tallying the total.
The results are embarrassing.
Let’s start with the good news.
Watching TV: 1 hour
During the span of an entire week, I only spent one hour watching TV. Excellent.
Driving: 1 hour
I also spent only one hour in a car. (It was a trip to a grocery store for a heavy load.) I live within walking distance to most places that I go, and I don’t have a commute.
Reading and Planning: 4.5 hours
I devoted 2.5 hours to reading books and two hours to planning my week, both of which I regard as high-value activities.
Sleep: 53.75 hours; Work: 43.25 hours
I slept for an average of 7.5 hours per night and worked for 43.25 hours, both of which are reasonable.
Now let’s look at the dark side of the week.
Here’s a look at the first morning that I tracked:
I spent 15 minutes “getting ready” — brushing my teeth, brushing my hair, getting dressed. That’s reasonable.
I spent 15 minutes eating breakfast and brewing coffee, including tidying my dishes afterwards. That’s also reasonable.
Then, mysteriously, I spent 15 minutes “getting to work.”
Um — I work from home.
My office is adjacent to the kitchen. It’s literally two steps away from the fridge.
How did I spend 15 minutes — the equivalent of a short commute — walking a distance of 10 feet?
This is my first documented example of a “time vortex” — minutes of my life that disappeared with no explanation. Time evaporated into the ether.
I started documenting — and therefore being mindful of — these time vortices. I noticed that I spent most this time distractedly switching from one task to another.
Here’s a typical example:
My laptop battery is low. I’ll start roaming around my condo, looking for the charger.
During that search, I’ll notice a dirty plate in the living room. I’ll carry it to the kitchen sink, which is full, so I’ll load the dishwasher. Then I’ll notice that the houseplants look thirsty. Since I’m standing near the sink anyway (shaky logic, eh?), I’ll water every plant around the home.
There’s a stack of mail next to one of these houseplants. I’ll absentmindedly flip through this stack. Today’s mail includes a paycheck from a client, which reminds me that I ought to get back to work.
I’ll return to my laptop, notice the low battery, and remember — ‘oh yeah, I need to find the charger!’ — kicking off yet another distraction cycle.
And the time vortex begins again.
This time vortex consumed 9.5 hours of my week. That’s an average of 1.3 hours everyday spent “puttering around,” distractedly roaming my home without purpose. I’d pick up a magazine, read a few pages, remember to order something from Amazon, but get distracted by something else first.
It gets worse.
I lost 4.25 hours to internet distractions, mindlessly surfing the web. And, embarrassingly, I lost another 4 hours to hitting the snooze button.
That’s 17.75 hours of wasted time. Gross.
I waste time like it’s a part-time job.
How to Improve Time Management
Armed with this information, what next? How can I replace ‘wasted time’ with worthwhile time?
Here are a few tips I’ve learned (full credit to Vanderkam’s books):
#1: Take breaks
Paradoxically, taking more breaks can lead to better results.
“If you don’t take a real break, your brain will take a fake one,” Vanderkam told me during our podcast interview.
Pausing throughout the day to stretch, eat and walk is better for productivity, health and happiness than mindlessly surfing the web or getting distracted by minutia.
#2: Stop multitasking.
It’s better to focus on one thing at a time, and execute it well, than attempt many things poorly.
#3: Work to the point of diminishing returns.
Imagine that you want to start freelancing. If you devote only one hour per week to launching this side business, you won’t make much progress. Adding the second, third, fourth and fifth hours allow you to make huge strides.
But at a certain point, your energy and attention wane. The 50th hour doesn’t make as big of a splash as the 5th. That’s the point of diminishing returns. It’s time to walk away.
When you’re sitting at your desk, you can delude yourself into thinking that you’re productive — regardless of whether or not that’s true. No points are awarded for zoning out in front of a laptop.
#4: Focus on tasks you cannot outsource.
You cannot outsource exercising, sleeping and calling your mom. Fill your schedule first with tasks you can’t delegate. If there’s time remaining, you can add “outsource-able” tasks to your plate, like changing your HVAC filter and mopping the floor.
This framework forces you to prioritize. Why sacrifice your relationships on the alter of cleaning the gutters?
If you track your time, you might discover that you can easily do both. But if you need to drop one-or-the-other from your schedule, prioritize the tasks that nobody else can handle, like calling your friends to keep those relationships alive and healthy.
(When I mentioned this to one of my best friends, she burst out with: “You should hire someone from a call center to check in with me monthly! That would be hilarious!”)
(As a joke, I might actually do that for her birthday.)
The Bottom Line
I’m not advocating a jam-packed schedule. There’s no glory in a stressful, frenzied attempt at maximizing every minute.
I’m advocating mindfulness.
Time is scarce. We can make more money; we cannot make more time. Time is also desirable.
Value arises when something is both scarce and desirable. Time is, therefore, our most valuable asset.
Spend it wisely.
Want to try this experiment? Below, you can download a free PDF spreadsheet you can use to track your time.
Happy tracking! 🙂
Here’s the book that inspired this experiment, 168 Hours.