Multi-tasking burns more time than you think, but you can get those hours back.

Anna27thApril2When 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

14 thoughts on “Multi-tasking burns more time than you think, but you can get those hours back.

  1. Oh, thanks so much for linking to my post! I’m honored. 🙂

    My husband and I read the same article about the Biggest Loser contestants. I guess I should re-read the article again, but I was left wondering more about metabolism and how it works. Is the metabolism shot when a person gains weight and then loses it? Or were these people’s metabolisms working against them to start with?

    1. @Kristen – thanks for writing the post!

      About metabolism – what I understood from the study is that at the time the contestants started the Biggest Loser process, all had normal metabolisms for their size. They burned the number of calories per day you would expect, say, a 300 lb person to burn. After dieting down to 200 lbs, their bodies were burning less than you would expect a 200 lb person to burn, which helped push them back up. But their metabolisms never completely recovered, and once back at 300 lbs they were burning, say, 300 fewer calories per day than a 300 lb person who had never lost weight would burn. In other words, they weren’t back where they were started — they were worse off than if they’d never lost all that weight. I think that was the most depressing part of it.

      1. some people are able to stay slim after losing a lot of weight – so per the article it must be horrible for them if their body is fighting them back to gain weight. I had never heard of that way before. Explains a lot for the people who lose the weight only to gain it plus more back. I was surprised the article did not mention green tea for increasing metabolism – I’ve read it does work. It was shocking to read about the man who quit his job and spent his days working out between eating meals – that is crazy sounding, and unsustainable.

        1. @cathy- I think that’s the key part of it. It can be done, but it’s generally unsustainable with any sort of normal life. What did seem interesting is that bariatric surgery was not (as) associated with the same problems — figuring out why might be key to successful obesity treatment.

          1. I will be interested to see this study replicated on those who take a more modest route to weight loss. The measures (both in terms of eating and exercise) are so extreme that it does not seem surprising that the body would “rebel.”

  2. I signed up for the beta. I already want to see if they can connect to smart watches, though, like a Pebble. A lot easier than carrying my phone all around.

    On the weight topic: I’ve seen some info that suggests we all have an “ideal” weight that we can only really move about 20% either way. Much more and the body fights back. I just can’t see that the kind of thing they do for biggest loser is sustainable for the longterm.

    1. Hi Joanna, thank you for signing up, hope you find the app useful!
      Re the smart watches, we are not connected to them yet, partly because we use Wi-Fi for our learning algorithms, and most watches don’t have that. But we do know that’s something we’ll have to tackle in the future.
      I also had trouble keeping my phone with me all the time at the beginning, but I got used to it in the long run – mine is waterproof though, which helps in many situations!

  3. Thank you for linking to Frugal Girl’s post that was a kind take on Neal Gabler. The tone of the article really bugged me. While he may have noted his own choices played a role in his circumstances, it struck me as a deflection and not nearly introspective enough given the circumstances. The line about asking him to make different choices would be akin to asking him to be someone else really got to me. If he had written an article saying he got into his own bind, regretted it, and was looking for ways out, I would be sympathetic. But by tying himself to those who really have fallen into hard times through bad luck and the economy, it made it very hard to do anything but roll my eyes at the article.

  4. Hi Laura,

    I read one of your articles in Verily a couple of weeks ago and loved it! I bought three of your books right after, I just read one and I am reading 168 hours…I am so excited and already being more conscious about the use of my time…I will email you with my progress! I would like to track my time for a week, I tried to download that one but I have an iphone, do you know any other app to track time that you would recommend? Thank you!

    1. @Rocio- Thanks for your comment! And thanks for reading my books – I really appreciate it. A number of people have tried Toggl as a first shot at time-tracking. It’s free for the basic version, and pretty simple. After you try it for a few days you can figure out if you need more bells and whistles and then go into the time-tracking market knowing what you need (which is better than starting blindly and trying to figure out if features like invoice creation or charts matter to you).

  5. When I was in law firms we tracked in 6 minute intervals. We had to state precisely what we did if it was billable. I did that when I did my first time study while reading I KNOW HOW… when I participated in your study earlier this year my week was totally DEAD. Almost no assignments. I may try this app so I can recommend it to folks on the go. I LOVED “How to Think Bigger”–the worst thing that can usually happen in life is “no,” Great stuff.

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