“You can’t change what you don’t measure.” I’ve read this quote, or something very similar to it, in all kinds of contexts—running, professional, budgeting, eating, etc. This post will look at the statement in the context of time management.
In What Would You Do If You Had More Time, I wrote “The first step in optimizing your time is to find out where all your time goes… Keep a time log for at least a week… Success in any endeavor always begins with assessment of where you are right now… Discover your time leaks, your time stealers, to get rid of them.”
You can download a printable or a digital (Excel) time log from Laura Vanderkam’s website (author of 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think). Since I am on the computer most of the day anyway, the Excel version was best for me. Vanderkam suggests updating your time log every time you take a bathroom break.
When I started tracking my time, I was looking for ways to streamline my morning routine. As I wrote in Be Your Own Guinea Pig, the rhythm of my morning was “off.” I was committed to focusing on the most important things (MITs) first, but I still felt like I was spinning my wheels. It seemed that no matter how early I got up, I didn’t progress beyond my MIT list until 10 a.m. i.e., I was not even starting my daily to-do’s until that time. I really wanted to make a significant dent in my day before noon. And so I downloaded the time log and started recording my activities in earnest. I would account for every activity that took at least five minutes (If you use the time log from Vanderkam’s website, this requires some “tweaking,” as that time log is broken down into 30-minute increments; still, it is a good starting place).
The first thing you’ll discover when you start to log the use of your time is that you have to categorize the different things you do on a regular basis. Here’s a few of the categories I came up with:
- Waking Up (the time between “getting up” and “getting going”)
- Personal Care (showering, dressing, eating, makeup, making bed, etc.)
- Exercise (for those days that I run at the park, I have to include travel time)
- Bible Study (includes review of teaching notes)
- Housework (time spent cleaning, inside and outside)
- Real Estate (anything to do with my business)
- Errands (time spent doing non-business-related things that require travel)
- Email/Web (reading/responding to email, web surfing, Facebook, etc.)
- Blog (time writing or researching for blog)
- Busy work (includes all kinds of little errands, mostly email/computer related, done in my morning “prime time”)
I had other categories, but these are the ones that most people will relate to and the ones that have the most to do with my goals in the time-log experiment; remember, this was not just a exercise in minutia, but a means of tracking where my time was going—especially in the morning. Right off the bat, I realized I had to assign a category to “waking up,” and as you can see in the list, I defined it as the time between getting up and getting going (that makes me smile). I don’t hop out of the bed and start to work right away. I hop out of bed and make coffee (very important!). Next, I get dressed for exercise. In my case, that means getting dressed for running about half of my mornings, which includes wrapping one of my feet with athletic tape—which takes time. Then I take care of the bare essential grooming requirements (brush teeth, brush hair, etc.). When it was all said and recorded, I was surprised to learn that this ritual, which I can nearly do in my sleep, was taking me 15 minutes of morning time! Truly, a surprise. I shaved about five minutes off that process my second morning by making my coffee the night before and setting the timer. Not only did it save me the five minutes, but the sound of the coffee making had the secondary benefit of waking me up gently before my alarm went off. Nice! I’ve been sticking with this routine ever since. Check! First thing learned from the time-log.
You’ll note that in the category “Personal Care” I include making my bed. I know that’s a weird place for it, as it is really a household chore, but I was developing a nice habit of making my bed as soon as I finished getting ready for my day—and we all know how important it is to make your bed! When you start keeping a time log, you become keenly aware of the minutes required to do lots of your regular tasks. I learned that it takes a mere 1 minute 41 seconds to make my bed. Knowing that information and having a routine to attach it to (like my daily grooming) pretty much guarantees that I’ll make this a lifelong habit.
The two other categories that I want to highlight are “Email/Web” and “Busy Work.” Since these look so similar, I want to explain the difference; this is fundamental to my time-log experiment.
Like so many people, I spend hours a day on the computer. I am on the computer right now writing this blog post. Before I was writing this post, I was reading and responding to emails. At some point today, I have been or will be on the web reading the news, reading an article in my Google Reader subscriptions, browsing Facebook, doing some kind of research, etc. Needless to say, I LOVE technology—in the right time and place. I had a sneaking suspicion that the easy availability of all this techno-info was sabotaging my mornings and making me less productive. I had seen the suggestion somewhere to avoid email first thing in the morning and concentrate on your MITs instead. However, this is easier said than done. Over time, I have developed a pretty ingrained habit of looking over my email first thing just to make sure there was nothing that might affect my schedule that day. From that point, my “quick check” goes something like the following (the italicized comments are my thoughts):
- I’m just going to take a second and delete all this junk email. Start deleting…
- As I’m deleting, a headline in one of the emails catches my attention. I’ll just take a quick look at this one. There might be something beneficial in here. Start reading the email… See an interesting link… I’ll just read this real quickly so I can go ahead and delete this email… Read linked article. Nothing beneficial at all. Delete the email. Return to inbox and continue deleting unimportant emails so I can get on to my MITs (the reason I get up so early in the first place).
- Continue deleting emails. Wait; here’s an email from someone who needs an answer to a quick question. It’ll just take a minute, so I’ll answer it now so I can go ahead and file that email away and clear out my inbox…
And so the process goes. Every morning I was getting sucked into this same ritual in the mundane. Even though I knew it was happening, I continued to do it thinking “this time” I’ll not go down the same path. I was wrong.
I categorized this time-sucking process “Busy Work.” The truth is, at the right time—any time other than when I am supposed to be taking care of my MITs—I would do all that stuff anyway. In the right time, it would be considered “Email/Web” in my time log. But the precious morning hours that are quiet and peaceful and perfect for setting the stage for the rest of my day (and over time, for the rest of my life!), I don’t want to fritter away on deleting or reading worthless emails and web articles.
My first morning with the time log I was less-than-delighted to calculate that I spent 80 minutes on “busy work.” All those “just a second” and “just a minute” “quick reads” stole over an hour of my morning time that was meant for something so much more lofty. Was I disappointed? Yes. Did learning that make any difference? The next morning I spent 10 minutes on busy work. I continue to make progress—sometimes not to the degree I made on Day 2, but that is my goal. I have realized that the only way to start my day is to avoid email—and the computer, in general—first thing in the morning (except for taking notes on what I am reading).
The time-log experiment was very beneficial for me. It gave me proof of where my time-leaks were. Once armed with that knowledge, I could then strategize to seal up the leaks (which is the purpose of the “no morning email/computer” rule).
Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom. Psalm 90:12
Have you ever kept a time log? Are you happy with the way you spend your time? Can you share a strategy you have developed for beating a time-leak? Please do share in the comments. I’m very interested!