Being mindful of the minutes

A number of people are keeping track of their time for a time makeover project I’m doing. I always love seeing what people’s lives look like and the people who are logging their time seem to find it pretty fascinating too. They look at how they spent the previous 168 hours, typed into Excel, and go “wow.”

Some people are surprised by how much time they spend on certain activities (email, Facebook, driving around in the car). Some people are pleasantly surprised to see that they are, in fact, doing activities that they thought they “never” did. The human brain is funny, in that it seems to remember that we “never” do things that, in fact, we just don’t do as often as we’d like. But that is a different matter. Sometimes we’re also bad at recognizing opportunities. Parents will say that they don’t see their kids during the workweek, but the time logs show they’re spending 90 minutes or more together in the morning. Since we’re not accustomed to thinking of morning time as potential quality time, we don’t view it as such. But there’s no reason it couldn’t be.

Anyway, in solidarity, I’ve started tracking my hours again this week, too. Today (Sunday) was reasonably good. So far there’s been church, a YMCA excursion (with running and swimming), a grown-up nap and reading time, and a lightning-fast trip to the zoo. My husband thought it closed at 5 pm; it turned out to close at 4. We got in at 3:35, yet managed to see gorillas, giant tortoises, alligators, crocodiles, boa constrictors, a lion, a snow leopard (up close!) and a tiger before they shut the gates. We had our usual Sunday night hamburgers and hot dogs. The boys (including my husband) are now watching a movie together while I’m typing this and then tackling some work tasks. I hit all three core competency areas (relationships, self, career) during the day!

Yet logging my time makes me aware of how much space is still not being used well. Not in the sense that I should be doing something “productive,” but in that I could be doing something more enjoyable or meaningful than I am.

For instance, I got home from the 8:00 church service before 9 a.m. We were all in the car to go to the YMCA at 9:50. What transpired between 9 and 9:50? I don’t know. There was the usual corralling of children, and getting dressed, and loading everyone into the car. I cleaned out my car at some point in there (someone ate a chocolate doughnut and spilled it all over the backseat. Also, I found a banana, which thankfully was more frozen than rotten). I doubt all of that had to take 50 minutes. And since we didn’t spend as long as we usually do in the pool — because we had hungry and tired children around noon — we probably should have gotten on the road earlier.

My husband and I took a nap, and then I read for a while during out 16-month-old’s nap. I came downstairs at 2:30 p.m. We woke her up (to go to the zoo) at 3. What happened during that half hour? There was a lot of trying to figure out what we were going to do, and fighting with the boys to get them to turn off the TV. They didn’t want to go at all (then had a great time, of course). We should have simply presented this as a done deal at 2:30 and then used that half hour for something else. Like (am I really suggesting a chore??) picking up the basement, which wound up consuming 45 minutes from 6-6:45 — and is still not done. That time could, perhaps, have been better spent playing with the kids. The basement had gotten so bad it was almost impossible to walk through. That’s probably best dealt with by enforcing a 5-10 minute pick-up time each day, rather than losing weekend time blitzing it.

We got out of the car from the zoo at 4:35. I started cooking dinner in earnest at 5:05. The time between 4:35 and 5:05 is pretty much gone with the wind. I had all three kids during this time (my husband had run to the grocery store) but what did I do with them? I have no idea. I think I gave the baby some raisins. I may have checked email. I am pretty sure I did nothing of consequence whatsoever. Even sitting and snuggling more consciously while we watched TV together would have been a better idea.

The good thing about keeping the log is that I’m now mindful, again, of these gaps. I can, over time, try to use them better, and think about what would be more enjoyable than the puttering that can consume many minutes. These minutes add up over time.

What have you learned by tracking your time?

20 thoughts on “Being mindful of the minutes

  1. The first time I did a timetracking exercise that included my home time and not just my work time, I discovered that I spend more time with my kids than I thought and that I spend more time on chores than I thought. The first was a pleasant surprise, the second… well, I’m still trying to find ways to fix that. In my more recent timetracking exercise (which I did for almost 5 months, and have yet to fully analyze) I discovered that even when I hit crunch times at work I don’t put in more than ~40 hours of actual work (web surfing and other breaks not counted). I do still plan to pull some numbers out of that last exercise and write some blog posts, it just hasn’t made it to the top of my to do list yet. I’m also planning to start tracking my time again soon, because I like the way it makes me pay attention to how I use time.

    1. @Cloud- so true that we reach a point of diminishing returns. I just can’t do that much focused writing per day. I can do a lot, but not 8 hours. Fortunately, my work involves various other things too (research, email, editing, etc.) but I’ve realized how quickly I can exhaust one part of my brain.

    2. Funny, my time logs revealed that I spend much LESS time in household chores than I thought I did. Discovering this has made a remarkable change in my attitude. I never complain about housework anymore.

      1. @Carrie- I hate emptying the dishwasher. Fortunately, I have timed it, and I know it takes 5-7 minutes. Somehow knowing it’s only a 5 minute task makes me dread it a lot less.

      2. The thing is, I thought I was outsourcing/minimizing a lot of chores. And then I saw the hours I spent on chores each week and was shocked. I’ve been thinking about how to outsource more chores ever since…. And these are non-kid chores, like laundry and dishes and the like.

        1. @Cloud – curious on the laundry and the dishes. Maybe the cleaning service and can do some loads of laundry? I guess we just don’t cook much…cuts down on dishes!

          1. @Cloud: My son does a lot with the laundry– he can fold it (not well, but who cares) and put it away and since we have front loaders he can even load or change loads (but only because we have front-loaders). He’s also in charge of the silverware (except knives) with the dishes.

          2. @N&M- I’ve really got to work on this with my son (who I don’t think is much younger than yours). The 3-year-old actually likes doing chores and “helping” with stuff, though this is sometimes a mixed blessing if you’re trying to get something done quickly.

  2. Yes! I did the time tracking for a few days last week and was horrified to find all those “lost” 20 minute chunks, most of which were checking email or Facebook or surfing idly because the laptop’s on the kitchen counter. So yeah, definitely trying to fix that. I also need to do one non-preschool day before I send you my logs 🙂

    1. @ARC- looking forward to seeing the logs. Yes, the 20 minute chunks are the worst. They’re just gone, and you didn’t even enjoy yourself. I’m trying to be more mindful of them and at least doing something I’d find fun.

  3. This nuance seems important: “Not in the sense that I should be doing something “productive,” but in that I could be doing something more enjoyable or meaningful than I am.”

    While I agree with you in theory, I do wonder about tracking time in such minute (sorry, couldn’t resist the pun!) quantities. I might spend 4 five minute increments (that same total of 20 you mention above) reading blogs or making cups of tea or on all sorts of small tasks. But as breaks between bigger tasks, those are crucial. I know you don’t say this in any direct way, but the impulse seems to be that ALL ones time should be spent in very deliberate ways…. and I’m not sure I agree. I don’t regret those few frittered moments…I think they’re pretty vital to my sanity. I think if they were “better” spent (say, on reading poems) I wouldn’t ever feel like I was getting a break… That said, I tend to do my dishes while a cup of tea brews…

    1. Gwinne, I agree. While I think time-tracking in general can be quite enlightening (like the examples Laura gave above—I too noticed I was spending TONS of time with my kids before work every morning!), the idea of trying to be deliberate about every single minute is a bit daunting. Sometimes having those few minute increments of unaccounted downtown are times to think, process, or just daydream—and I find that kind of “spacing out” time crucial to my mental health! Not only are those small fragments of time not long enough to do any meaningful work, they aren’t even enough to get into a book, or talk to a friend, or anything traditionally considered as “enjoyable”.

      1. @Ana – I think my issue is I’m not really daydreaming. I’m checking email, or tidying up the mail pile (just moving things around, not actually processing it). Reading a blog post would be a good thing by comparison. Or giving a kid a hug (they’re still young enough to let me…)

  4. I think what I learn every time I track my time (and I do it fairly regularly – about once a year, more at work) is that corralling kids takes forever 🙂 I explained to my husband the other day that our twin dynamic is not just 2 X one kid, because then they feed off one another and both want attention so to even transition from one place to another is a good 15 minutes at least.

    When I time track though, I always become much more productive and stop reading so many blogs (I recently cut down from 109 to 82 – I’m SUPER proud of that) 🙂

    1. @Marcia- 82! Oh my goodness. Yes, the kid dynamic is funny. I am learning not to ask the kids where they want to go for dinner, because if one says “the train diner” (aka Ruby’s diner) the other will decide that the train diner is the last place on earth he would like to eat. At least the third can’t talk.

    2. My Google RSS feed reader is also my Achille’s heel!! I have to set limits with myself. For instance, I only let myself read blogs when I’ve done most of the schoolwork with the kids (I homeschool), during quiet/nap time when I really need a break. I can NOT start my day with my RSS reader or I’ll get nothing done.

      1. @Carrie- blogs are definitely a good break, and a good motivator. I should try to use them more explicitly as such. I’m actually pretty good at setting aside 8-11 or 9-11 as focused time for work on a project that requires focus. If I’m good about matching one such project with each day, it’s a good week. And then there are lots of holes for blog reading in the afternoon. But yes, the days I start with the blogs, it can be trouble.

  5. I actually enjoyed keeping track of my 168 hours, until I realized even though I thought I cut down on TV watching time, I still spent a lot more time watching TV than exercising, hanging with my son, entertainnig my passions (writing, sports). I only went through about 1/2 of my week because I started noticing certain patterns (eat dinner in front of tv, spend way too much time driving/running errands etc) and it really makes you think twice about how you spend your time. I am currently in between jobs and what your book is really making me think twice about is career choices, personal interests and how these can go coexist. I will continue to read and finish the 168 hours book and look forward to reading more. I have 100 ideas as to what to do with my life next, but how do you choose or at least cut the selection down? Hmm…time to start thinking.

    1. @Mario- Thanks for your comment! Yes, it really does make you mindful of how you’re spending your time, and just as logging my food makes me ashamed of eating 6 (six!) cookies, logging my time makes me want to spend it better. For what it’s worth, it is very easy to watch too much TV. It happens to a lot of us, so while it’s a problem, it’s a common one.

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