When I tracked my time for a year, I used spreadsheets. So did most of my subjects in I Know How She Does It. Spreadsheets are simple and straightforward, and show visually what life looks like.
However, they have their downsides. They are imprecise. The tiny cells lead to a lack of nuance. What actually happened during the 30 minute block I called “work”?
Many people have these questions, which explains the plethora of time-tracking apps, but some have better features than others. Anna Winterstein and a few friends “had this feeling that the tools we had to track our time took us more time than we actually gained from them,” she tells me. So she and two partners created an app called Smarter Time (currently in beta; they would love feedback if anyone reading this would like to give it a whirl).
Smarter Time tries to automate the process. For the first week or so you tell the app what you are doing. Then it starts to understand your life, and it makes guesses. If you often read books for an hour at night before going to bed, and the app in your phone senses you are sitting quietly but not sleeping for an hour from 9:00 P.M. to 10:00 P.M., it is going to log that you are reading. The idea is that you then go in once a day, perhaps at the end of the day, and correct the record. The app then learns from that and gets better.
The reason the app’s creators think this works is that life has certain rhythms, particularly for the sorts of people who use time-tracking apps. “I think probably most people who are time conscious have at least a certain level of habit. It goes hand-in-hand with organization,” says Winterstein.
I think it’s a fascinating idea (if it does require that you have your phone with you a lot), but I was also interested to see what Winterstein learned from her time-tracking experiments. Using a time-tracking app, she told me, revealed a level of multi-tasking that manual tracking generally won’t.
She found two types of multi-tasking. One is straightforward: doing something with another activity in the background (e.g. eating while watching TV). For time-tracking purposes, she categorized things as what she decided was the primary activity during that slot.
The second type of multi-tasking, however, is more insidious. She, like all of us, had a tendency to go back and forth between two activities in a very short time. You know how this goes. You are “working” for an hour, but you check social media three times within that hour. It wasn’t long enough to make you feel you were switching activities, and yet you were. “With time-tracking manually, I didn’t realize how much I was doing it. You kind of lie to yourself,” she says. An afternoon of work might feature 45 minutes spent on Facebook on her phone, to say nothing of other distractions. All fine if that’s how she chose to spend it, but 45 minutes is also long enough to chat with a friend, go for a walk, have afternoon tea, or other things that would constitute real, fun, refreshing breaks. “It’s pretty shocking when you realize it,” she says.
The good news? With time-tracking, as with much of life, the truth sets us free. “I think I’ve become better at focusing on the task at hand,” Winterstein says. Seeing the numbers means “I’m more aware of the danger of actually switching back and forth.” When she first started tracking, she spent about 20-25 percent of the time theoretically devoted to one activity doing something else. Now, “I’ve probably cut by half the time I spend doing random things.”
The payoff is more satisfaction with life in general. Now, knowing she has put in a solid afternoon of work with little multi-tasking, she feels fine calling it quits for the evening and going to her singing lessons. Her mindset? “You did well, and now you can live a little,” she says.
In other news: I was fascinated by an article in The New York Times on a study following The Biggest Loser contestants. Of the participants in the 2008 show, by 2014, the vast majority had regained significant weight. Four weighed more than they did at the start of the show. They were also all suffering from this long-term effect: their metabolisms were shot. Most burned several hundred calories less per day than a normal person of their size. It is a sobering look into human biology.
I also appreciated The Frugal Girl’s take on The Atlantic article on “The Shame of the Middle Class.” We should all be so smart and gracious. (If you stick around her site, check out her essay on why she does not write about the bad stuff in her life, even if it would make excellent blog fodder).
Check out Jason Gay’s profile of Taylor Swift from the most recent issue of Vogue. Yes, Swift has been covered endlessly. Yet Gay still managed to make this profile feel a lot more fresh than the standard she-meets-me-in-a-coffee-shop version. The Christmas tree farm? Practicing the toast in the basement before her best friend’s wedding? Sweet. I was reading it Saturday morning as I kept my kids from hitting each other, and then found myself laughing over a Jason Gay fake Q&A in the WSJ about Stephen Curry. So I had to write him about how much I enjoyed reading non-fiction done well. He was gracious enough to write back that I had made his day (which pretty much made my day too).
Photo: Anna’s day in Smarter Time