Guest post: 3 insights from tracking time

Photo on 16-05-2014 at 11.13 #3(Laura’s note: I’m running some guest posts over the next few weeks. Enjoy!)

by Alison Pike

Almost a year ago I tracked my 168 hours for Laura’s Mosaic project. It was a really valuable experience; I have been more conscious of how I allocate my time ever since. The week I tracked helped me to set up a template for my ideal week, pictured later in this post. Of course life happens, which is why the week pictured is almost 6 months into the future. Still, my hours are reasonably consistent: 33 hours at work, 31 hours primarily looking after the boys, 19 hours of me-time (this includes a chunk of focused work every morning before arriving at work), and 13 hours of family time.

I gained three insights through time tracking:

1. Quality of time is at least as important as quantity. I came to a point where I needed a few more hours each week to work. It was time to bring in some regular babysitting. The obvious thing would have been to put the boys into an after school club on Thursday afternoons, but I love our swimming time! Instead, I looked carefully at my week and thought about when the lowest quality time with my boys takes place. Easy – getting them out the door and walked to school on Thursday and Friday mornings. Luckily our regular babysitter was happy to take this on. This has worked wonderfully. A point of regular friction removed, work time gained, and no “quality” time lost. Money very well spent!

2. Non-work time needs balance, too. I used to focus on “balancing” work time and personal time. But personal time encompasses three distinct categories: time with children, couple time, and me-time. I found it really helpful to code these in different colours, and think about the balance there too. I can now “see” what the trade-offs are, and I’ve become more intentional about it. Although not an introvert in the traditional sense, I need a lot of time to myself in order to be a decent parent, and to be focused and efficient at work. I also need 7.5 – 8 hours of sleep per night. I wish I didn’t, but that’s how I’m built, and I accept it. Many working mothers sacrifice sleep and me-time. Instead, I squeeze family time. Yes, it’s lovely to spend time all together as a family, but I sacrifice some of this in order to have plenty of time for exercise, journaling, meditation, and blogging.

3. Time spent planning the day pays off. Since tracking for Laura, I have actually expanded my morning time at the gym, and am spending less time at work. As part of my morning routine, I spend ten minutes or so reviewing my medium-term goals, and time-blocking my day. This has really helped me to prioritize the important as well as the urgent. I’m getting at least as much done in less time by being more intentional at the outset.

What have you learned from tracking your time?

Alison Pike is an academic psychologist based in the United Kingdom; her research focuses on family relationships. She is also mother to two boys, Harry (7) and Tom (4). Her blog,, explores how academic psychology informs everyday life as a parent, such as why children should not be encouraged to “clean their plate.”

Laura’s note: I love Alison’s point that work/life balance isn’t just about finding the right mix of work and everything else. It’s about finding the right balance between different categories of non-work time, too. What’s the right mix for you? How do you split your non-work time between family time, couple time, personal time? (Please click on Alison’s calendar to see a full-screen version).

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27 thoughts on “Guest post: 3 insights from tracking time

  1. I really like the point about quality vs quantity. There are things that I hate doing that I can ask for help with (or pay for help at home) that would greatly improve my life. And we’re talking like ten minute tasks like fold the laundry and I’ll put it away when I get home (I hate folding laundry).

    1. Right there with you. Best money we spend is on our cleaner, followed closely by babysitter. If you have any regular help, you could always ask! Thankfully not everyone despises the same household tasks…

    2. @Laura – one of the issues people run into with outsourcing is that it’s somewhat more challenging to outsource small frequent tasks than big ones. When I was looking at time logs, I saw that many people who spent more than the study average amount of time on housework/errands (about 10 hours/week) had cleaning services. They’d often mention these as saving them time, but I’m not sure that’s true. A service that comes once every week or two and mops the floors and vacuums all the rugs only saves you time if you would have been mopping floors and vacuuming rugs once a week. If not, you get a more pristine house, but you don’t save time! So a better solution people had was either hiring a 2-3x week/housekeeper or, more practically for many, including some of these tasks with the job description of a regular sitter.

  2. Love your first concept—and am thinking of how that could work out for us. It would be so much more worth it to pay for a sitter during some of the more stressful parenting moments to give ourselves a physical/mental/emotional break rather than when they are sleep so we can go out and fall asleep at the dinner table…

    1. I don’t know why I didn’t mention it in the post itself, but I actually thought to do the morning babysitter after reading Laura’s money book. There was a part where you were supposed to list all the things you would do/buy if you had unlimited funds. That’s when I realised how much I disliked doing the drop-off on my two days of the week, and that I could fix it without having to win the lottery. I did one drop-off before Christmas, and it served to remind me what a great decision this was!

      1. @Alison – out of curiosity, does your co-parent do the other 3 days? Was this an issue to have you outsource your two days (if the other 3 didn’t get outsourced?) I could see this being an issue in some couples in deciding how to allocate funds.

        1. Yes, my partner does the other three days. But, she also only works regularly on Thursdays and Fridays (bits of consultancy thrown in). So, to be honest, I am in a traditional Dad role…but it does not feel the same! However, if I’m ever feeling guilty, I do remind myself of what a fantastic “Dad” I am ;-).

          Anyway, back to the question. It was not an issue. It is not expensive, and comfortable within our budget. I wonder, though, if this is also because I am the breadwinner. I didn’t really think to talk it through. I just sort of decided it would happen. Interesting, I hadn’t thought about that.

          1. I think what’s more amazing (inspiring) about this, is that you felt empowered, even though you only do the drop-off 2 times a week, to outsource that because you recognized it was low quality time. My husband does the majority of drop off and pickups, because the daycare is 5 minutes from his office (vs across town from my work). Yet even as the higher earner in our family I feel guilty sometimes about this and elaborately plan my days so I can leave early to pick them up a couple of days a week (my least favorite time with them—we are all tired and hungry and not in the mood to take the bus home but right now its too cold/icy to walk the 2 miles).

          2. @Ana – yep, I saw this come up a lot. We have certain stories about what parents (often moms) “should” be doing. Pick-up is one. Dinner and bedtime are other biggies. People would rush out in the middle of stuff nightly because mom “should” be home. But there are other options. Maybe mom does breakfast and dad does dinner. Maybe mom works very late 2-3 nights per week and comes home at a reasonable time the other nights.

    2. @Ana – I was thinking of this the other day, that wouldn’t it be fun to have toddler schools that ran from 4-7pm? In the mornings on days I have the kids, I have energy to do stuff. It’s that post nap slot that’s painful.

  3. That was a great read, Alison. Thanks for sharing. The part where you looked for the lowest quality time with your boys was insightful!

  4. I had complicated feelings about this post. My initial reaction was : WOW, what a balanced sounding schedule — I am so amazed.

    Then I realized that her partner was likely doing a lot of the unaccounted for parenting, and now she has stated in the comments that she is actually fulfilling a traditional “dad” role. I agree that she is an awesome dad (or mother!) but I can’t help but feel like this article was not quite fair in some way. It reminds me of when a male MD with GROWN CHILDREN gave a 2 hr work life balance lecture talking about how he outsourced everything at work to his assistants and everything at home to his wife.

    I’d like to see calendars from women working 40-50 hours/week (because really – most breadwinners do), and without partners or spouses that are doing >50% of the childcare. I’m hoping that’s what your book is full of!

    1. Oh this is so interesting! So much to say… I think that your criticism is valid. But here is some more info. I gave birth to our first child, and for those 3 years the way in which I spent my time was not radically different. We both worked full-time, so the difference was that our eldest son had more childcare than does our younger child.

      The other thing that was different was that neither of us prioritised time to ourselves as much as we do now. We were often BOTH at home, and now we do a lot more divide and conquer.

      What has been most interesting to me is that things did not feel equitable before my partner had our second son. I was doing more of everything. Now it feels fair. However, it is her choice not to work full-time. I am absolutely fine with that, but I personally would rather have the cash. But I enjoy my work more! If she did do more paid work, the boys would be in more childcare, and that would be fine with me, but not with her. We would also have a cleaner at least twice per week rather than once, and a laundry service.

      Hope that doesn’t sound too defensive. I am certainly aware that the flexibility my job affords is AMAZING.

      And isn’t it jolting to see how our reactions change when it’s a mum vs dad, etc?

      1. @Alison -it is sometimes jolting! Though I would say, anecdotally, of two-mom or two-dad couples, one party often does wind up being primary breadwinner vs. primary caregiver. The difference is that it has to be more consciously chosen and negotiated, since there aren’t automatic gender roles for people to fall into (though as you noted, there sometimes is the question of who gave birth to the child, which can factor in during early years in two mom couples). I know my husband and I sometimes automatically fall into gender roles with no discussion, because we’ve got various scripts floating around we follow without thinking.

      2. Thanks so much for responding. I agree so much that it can be so hard to let go of expectations about traditional gender roles!

        Your job does sound absolutely amazing!

    2. @Sarah – interesting points. Yes, one’s own work-life balance often depends on what one’s partner is willing or interested in doing with his/her life. This can go both ways. I imagine in some couples, one party winds up working more hours, or doing a different type of work than he/she might like to because the other party is not interested in being in the workforce, or working full-time.

      As for what’s in the book, the women are a mix. I haven’t run numbers, but let’s say of those who have partners, a third have partners who work (or earn) more, a third have similar mixes of hours and earnings as their partners, and a third have partners who work or earn significantly less, or who stay home with their kids. I’d say even among those whose partners stay home with the kids, the childcare split isn’t the same as you’d see with a traditional male breadwinner/SAHM split, but that’s often a function of how women want to (or think they should) interact with their kids.

        1. @gwinne- I think it was about 10%. Most were divorced with primary custody, but a few who’d adopted or had kids on their own, too.

  5. I have followed Alison’s blog from the beginning and have read two of Laura’s books, so I was really excited to read this guest post–and the comments.

    It does sound kind of radical to look for low quality time and try to get rid of that, but it makes SO MUCH SENSE when you then realize you have more good quality time left!

    I also live in the UK. For a long time, our weekend routine included walking 15-20 minutes to the grocery store, then one parent would try to keep our son quiet in the attached coffee shop while the other fought the crowd to buy a week’s worth of groceries. Then we’d walk home, put the groceries away and we’d be exhausted for at least an hour and not feel like playing with our son or doing much of anything.

    In June my husband asked me to try ordering groceries online every week (even though there is a delivery fee, but it’s less than we spent at the coffee shop). I was reluctant to outsource something we could do, but it was so not quality time. It’s been over 6 months now and I’ve admitted repeatedly that he was right. It’s like we’ve gained 2+ hours to relax every weekend! (It only takes me about 20min to order, plus we do it Sunday night to talk about our upcoming week). Something so simple–getting rid of low quality time–is amazing.

    I realize not everyone can order groceries online, but listen to Alison: look for the low quality times and tackle those!

    1. @Jessica – I’m a big fan of outsourcing grocery shopping, especially if it involves walking and carrying stuff. Somehow it seems easier with a car and giant suburban grocery stores. Actually, right now, grocery shopping is kind of my me-time on weekends if I can go with no kids! With the kids – eh.

  6. I love these peeks into other peoples’ lives and schedules. I’m now working about 35 hours a week (the most I have since 2009) and the first 2 weeks of this new thing has been a struggle of figuring out how it’s all going to work.

    +1 to figuring out how to divide the non-work time in a way that’s good for everyone and not just filled with “shoulds”. I have been strategically excising things from our schedule, especially recurring events and really looking at every invitation with a critical eye on whether there’s someone in our family who REALLY wants to do it. So often there are things where we’re all kind of ‘meh’ about them, and now I’m just turning them down left and right 😉

    Also, a friend and I were talking about how cool it would be if there was a safe version of Uber for kids to drop them off places 😉

  7. This was a great post. I really liked point 2, particularly the recognition of the multi-faceted nature of “non-work” part of life. I also always appreciate time makeovers that directly address choices and trade-offs, as you did between “family time” and “me time.”

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