Unexpected insights from tracking time

photo-251I sometimes sound like a broken record in suggesting people try tracking their time. So I’m working on a piece on why. What comes out of doing this? (If you’d like to share your experience and be quoted, please let me know: lvanderkam at yahoo dot com).

I read recently in Jackie Woodside’s new book, Calming the Chaos, of a man who wanted coaching because he couldn’t get along with his boss. After Woodside inquired, it turned out this tension came because the boss thought he was chronically late for work. Woodside did some more digging and found that, in fact, her client was getting there 20-30 minutes after the generally expected start of work hours. So, his boss was technically right. Easy case. But why, exactly, was her client getting there late? She had him track his time, and it turned out that he “knew,” from years of experience, that getting ready in the morning took half an hour. Except it didn’t. It took 50 minutes. Which was why he was always late. Sometimes we just have blind spots that can lead to all sorts of problems because we are looking at what we “know,” rather than reality.

I noticed this while we loaded up the car to drive to Indiana over the holidays. My husband and I were awake by 7 a.m. We pulled out of the driveway at 8:45 a.m. This time gap happened despite our having packed 90 percent of our things the night before, and even setting them by the door to the garage. I pointed out the time to my husband, because I’m pretty sure we both think that getting out the door for a family road trip takes about an hour. As he noted, we weren’t pushing and rushing. So we probably could have done it faster. But we weren’t trying to go slowly either. These things just take time. (Mercifully, our car’s GPS system estimate on time turned out to be totally wrong: it said 11 hours and 45 minutes to Indianapolis, but Google said 10 hours. We did, in fact, make it in 10 hours).

Another lesson I’ve learned: I do exercise regularly, but I think I spend more total time on it than I do. Why? The transition costs are often notable. I decide to go for a run, a mental process that takes time on its own (do I feel like it now? do I have enough time?). I mosey up from my home office to get changed, but this “break” from what I’m doing can trigger a round of other stuff. Did I put stamps on the letters that are going out to the mailbox? Once I’m up in my bedroom, I might put stuff away. Then I come downstairs, and I’ve been away from my desk for a few minutes, which, if I then walk into the home office, triggers the cycle of checking my email, etc. It can take a while to get out the door. So I’ve been trying to follow the advice I gave someone else who worked at home: get ready in a quick, 5 minute slot between calls. Then actually go run on another break. This separating of the getting ready from the working out seems to minimize the puttering factor.

Sometimes, you get more profound insights. One of my favorite, from years ago, came from the woman working the longest hours I’ve ever seen in a time log (about 100 hours a week). She was self-employed. She was supporting her family, but if she couldn’t support her family working, say, 50 hours a week, I wondered if there was a flaw in her business model. This turned out to be the case. She hadn’t raised her rates since 1997. She also had one client taking way too much of her time (nearly 40 hours by itself). Those were both problems she could do something about.

What insights have you gained from keeping track of your time?

17 thoughts on “Unexpected insights from tracking time

  1. The pesky snooze button provides too much temptation. It is easy for me to lose more than 30 minutes in the morning. I am building my discipline and have improved my resolve in my morning routines. I have gone from snoozing everyday to snoozing only 1 or 2 days in a week.

    Definitely need to nip those 2 days!

    1. @Rinna – all our family is out in the midwest! I figured it would be harder to travel next year with a cranky 11-month-old facing backwards in a car seat for 10 hours. Next year they come to us. This year, we soldiered through…

  2. You know I am a fellow time tracking devotee. But I’m finding it hard to decide what my biggest insight from the practice would be. Maybe that if I don’t take a break at lunch, I’ll take it piecemeal during the afternoon, so I might as well take the break and do what I really want.

    1. @Melanie – I see this on a lot of logs. People “work” through lunch, then spend the afternoon drifting from project to project. Conscious breaks basically manufacture time. You get back as much as you lose, and then some.

  3. When I tracked my time I was shocked to see how little time I spent doing my son’s preschool pick-up, which was a dreaded task for me. (It involved a baby in the bjorn and gathering my son and his friend on different floors of the school. Along with a couple hundred other parents. I just hated it.) It only took up 40 minutes of my week, if I remember correctly. I had probably devoted hours of my week dreading it. I did labor and delivery (for my secondborn) in 70 minutes. I can handle 40 minutes of exasperation.

    1. @Katherine – I feel this way about emptying the dishwasher. I hate it. And yet I probably do it only 3-4 times per week, and it takes me 5 minutes. So a 15 to 20-minute ordeal is not exactly worth getting irate about.

      1. I had the exact same revelation about the dishwasher when I actually timed it, and now I hate it a lot less (and have stopped leaving it for my poor husband to do every day). Its amazing how much I overestimate time for certain chores, yet grossly underestimate how long it takes us to get out of the house, for example.
        When I tracked my time at work, I was surprised to see how much of my day was spent walking from one location to the next. As a “junior” person, I generally have to meet more senior people in their offices, which are sometimes 15 minutes away! Some days I spend 30-45 minutes just getting from one place to another. I’ve been trying to specifically use that time to think through tough problems, since walking always helps. Of course, then I’m completely spaced out and don’t notice my colleagues to say hi in the elevator, which isn’t ideal…

        1. @Ana- no wonder you have no problem hitting 15,000 steps. We’ve been somewhat sedentary on vacation. I have been wearing the step counter and sneaking in walks to hit 10k…

      2. This is one of my most hated tasks and is currently 70% outsourced to the kids as I made the effort to move all of their dishes and our bowls to a cabinet they could reach.

        However, timing it makes a huge difference – I can typically clear half of it in the time it takes to microwave water for tea and that’s just a couple of minutes. So I’m trying to just get it done while I’m waiting for the kids to eat or heating up something rather than dreading it as a chore for later.

  4. By far the biggest insight I got from tracking time was how much I was wasting on social media. I always think it’s “just a few minutes” but in reality it was closer to HOURS once I added all those little breaks up, especially before I started my consulting gig.

  5. I recently bought a word-count tracking app that also happened to have a timing feature. I tried it out, and I found out that writing 1,000 words takes a lot LESS time than I thought, in a typical focused session. Now I have no excuse to hit that goal every day! It’s amazing what untruths our mind tells us about time.

    1. @Leanne – this is one of the major things I discovered in NaNoWriMo. Hitting 1700 words/day did not actually take nearly as much time as I thought it would. Indeed, the normal bits of time in a day could translate into that if I tried. This is both good to know and somewhat eye-opening. Given that I don’t normally crank out a 50k novel draft in a month, what have I been doing with myself?

  6. I just started reading your 168 hours book and I think it will help me a lot. Where can I find the time tracker online? Thanks!

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