How (and why) to keep a time log

IMG_0735If 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.


32 thoughts on “How (and why) to keep a time log

  1. I’ve done time tracking before, but I have a bit of a logistic question that has stopped me from doing it as long as I’d like. (Ideally, I’d like to do 4-5 weeks to get the flavour of a month). Here goes: for my job as a partner in an accounting firm, I need to track my time for purposes of billing clients. There is a tool that we use to log our time for work. It’s not super flexible at all, and I obviously don’t want to be logging my Facebook (or LV blog) breaks there. So I find myself having to track things in two locations, which becomes super annoying. And I stop. Thoughts?

    1. @Rinna- That would be annoying to track time two places. I might just decide to call the block of time spent at work “work” on my personal time tracker and not go into the detail of all the breaks. As long as you don’t think it’s excessive, then it may not be worth tracking too closely if it interferes with the larger goal of staying with it for 4 weeks.
      The vast majority of my work entries just say “work.” It is quite possible I got up and went to get a snack or to the bathroom during some of those. However I would not have recorded a quick email check later on as work, even if it was. I’m somewhat assuming these counter each other.

  2. I tracked my time for a few weeks some time ago. Im a stay at home mother to two children now aged 2yr3mths and 10mths. Apart from the massive amount of multitasking which gives the feeling that you’re always going going going but achieving very little, I also noticed that its not so much time I’m missing but self discipline/motivation to do things. A SAHM is a job like any other with pros/cons, good days/bad days, busy periods/low periods, but one thing I miss about office work is that in an office I was often carried along on the general shared motivation. You dont have to spend time thinking about whether you should do the budget now or later…you do it now because theres a deadline. In my current job I neednt even get dressed unless I want to (of course I do though!) Too much of my time goes on decision making that, in my previous jobs, were basically decided for me. I didnt have to decide when to exercise…there was basically one time slot to do it so it was then or never. Now I could potentially do it at several points in the day and I end up procrastinating and not doing it at all! Same for getting up/ready/out in the mornings. Unless I have a fixed appointment I can go now…or in 20 min…or an hour…and I flitter away that time.
    My goal for the summer is to get more disciplined in my daily planning.

    1. @Carol – interesting! I certainly have noticed that on my days with the kids I wind up multi-tasking a lot. I had the opposite experience with exercise this winter, though. There was only one time I could fit it in during the day with the toddler: right after he went down for his nap. I would immediately go hop on the treadmill. Nothing else might get done, but at least that would. So I didn’t have a motivation problem because it was then or never. Maybe if you try making a similar cue for yourself?

    2. If you look through Laura’s blog archives, there’s a “time Makeover” post she wrote about my family when neither my husband nor I was working (I was on mat leave) – about structuring our time better. It had a lot of tips we found helpful 🙂 Unfortunately I tried searching and can’t find it.

  3. Laura, I’ve done time tracking in the past and it’s been eye-opening, but I haven’t done it lately because I don’t think I tell myself any of those “stories,” whether false or true. I feel pretty satisfied with how I’m spending my time, or at least I’m satisfied given current circumstances. Does it sound like I’m in denial, or do you think there are seasons for time-tracking and seasons for letting life live?

    1. @Leanne- certainly no one needs to track time all the time! I keep going with it, but that’s because I write about this for a living 🙂
      I think it’s just like tracking food, or steps. Good to do if you want to check in, great to do if you suspect something is off. But not necessary every day for the rest of life.

  4. Hi,
    I have a logistics question for you – your logs look amazing- do you keep them by pen and paper or type? And how quickly do you write down how you spent your time? Curious as I’m going through some life changes and need to better evaluate how I am spending my time and be more intentional. Thank you, gretchen

    1. @gretchen – I use a basic excel spreadsheet, and type on it. The ones in the photo you saw were printed up. I tend to just write a few words: work, instead of what exactly I was doing. What I lose in detail, I gain in the ability to keep going with this for a year-plus.

  5. Is there an app that you recommend to track time that will automatically add up major categories, etc?

    1. @Krystal – I don’t use an app, because I prefer the spreadsheet format. But I know a number of people have tried free versions of apps like Toggl and found them useful.

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