If you want to spend your time better, the first step is figuring out exactly how you spend it now. While recording a day or two is helpful, I recommend keeping track of your time for a week to get the best picture of life. A week is the cycle of life as people actually live it (what’s a normal day for you? Tuesday or Saturday? They both occur just as often and have the same number of hours, but looking at each of them individually would give a very different picture of life).
There are a number of tools you can use. I use a spreadsheet (sign up to be sent one here). You can use one of many time-tracking apps, or even just a little notebook. The tool is not important. What is important is that you do it, and that is easier said than done. When I suggest people try tracking their time, I sometimes encounter resistance. I suspect it’s the same concept with diets. If you’ve ever tried to lose weight, you know that nutritionists will tell you to keep a food journal, because it works. There is reasonable evidence that people who write down what they’re eating lose more weight than people who don’t. And yet many of us don’t want to do it, because we don’t want to know that we grabbed 4 cookies from the kitchen next to our office over the course of the day (guilty!)
It’s the same with time. We don’t want to know how much time we’re wasting. So let’s get this out of the way: everyone wastes time. I know I do! Keeping a time log is not about figuring out how much time we waste. It is about making sure we are not telling ourselves stories about our lives that are not actually true. When it comes to time, we have all sorts of these stories, and some of them do not serve us well. “I have no time for anything but work” — so when leisure time appears, we are not prepared to seize it. Or, “I’m a working parent so I never see my kids.” A time log will show that this may not be the case — and offer a chance to let go of guilt.
So that’s the reason to keep a time log. The logistics for the paper or spreadsheet versions: write down what you’re doing, as often as you remember, in as much detail as you think will be helpful to you. In the course of tracking my time for a year, I decided to forego some detail in order to keep the project manageable. Try to keep going for a week. We may know our weekday schedules, but weekends are a different beast. After a week, look at your log and add up some of the major categories (e.g. work, sleep, time in the car, housework/errands, reading, TV, exercise, etc.). Then ask yourself a few questions about your schedule:
- What do I like most about my schedule? Hopefully something — and that’s worth celebrating.
- What do I want to do more of with my time?
- What do I want to get off my plate?
The answers are different for everyone, but having a clear sense of where the time goes, and how you feel about it, can help you make choices that get you closer to the life you want.