What On Earth Am I Doing With My Time?

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One of the reasons people hear about this site is that they’re looking to use their time better. Our lives are lived in hours; the way we spend our hours determines what our lives will look like. And yet many of us spend massive numbers of hours on things that just don’t matter much to us, that aren’t fulfilling or meaningful for ourselves or those we care about, or that we think we “have” to do.

I believe we can build the lives we want in the time we’ve got. We all have 168 hours per week, and we can allocate these in a way that helps us move our lives forward personally and professionally. Of course, the million dollar question is how do I do that?

The first step to using your time better is to know exactly how you’re using it now. I recommend keeping a time log for at least a few days, or a week (168 hours) if you can. You can download Excel or PDF files from this page of my website here, or you can just use a word document, or you can use one of the growing number of apps available (TimeTracker, Xerox’s Business Of Your Brain, etc.). Write down what you’re doing as often as you remember in as much detail as you find useful. You can see examples of my time logs here and here.

Then what? Look at the raw data and start categorizing. How many hours do you work? How much of that is spent on planning and prospecting and thinking, and how much is spent in meetings that didn’t need to happen (be honest!) How many hours do you sleep? How many hours do you spend with family? Are those spent doing enjoyable activities together? Are you interacting with each other or are you all watching separate TV shows? Do you exercise? When? What kinds of personal passions find their way into your life? (during the school year, I sing in a choir that meets on Tuesday nights, for instance, so that’s a fun component of a few of my 168 hours).

Ask yourself a few questions:

1. What do I like most about my schedule?

2. What do I want to do more of? If you’re stumped, try brainstorming a list of anything you might want to do or have in your life, personally and professionally. You can see my List of 100 Dreams here.

3. What do I want off my plate? Maybe it’s as small as emptying the dishwasher. Or maybe you hate your job and want a different one. I’m not here to judge.

4. Fill in the blank: I spend way too much time on _____.

When you have these answers in mind, you can start figuring out ways to spend your time differently. Look at the things you want to do more of. Where can you start blocking these into your schedule? Early mornings? Evenings after your kids go to bed? Over your lunch hour twice a week? Can you carve out strategic thinking time at work? Can you spend time at night thinking through how you’re going to get a different job? Can you trade off kid time with your partner so you can create space to exercise, or can you find an activity the whole family can do together?

As for things you want to do less of, we have three options: ignore, minimize, outsource. Usually there is some combo of the three that will make whatever it is take fewer of your 168 hours. All of this is a process. But like any investment, it will pay off over time.

If you have tracked your time and tried to make changes, please tell me how it went in the comments.

Note: I’m working on a piece for Fortune.com on when people experience a point of diminishing returns with hours worked. 40? 50? 60? Please email me (lvanderkam at yahoo dot com) if you’d like to talk about it. I am specifically looking for managers at larger companies, and need to use real names. Thanks!


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