Podcast: Why I track time and you should too

Best of Both World podcast with Laura Vanderkam

People sometimes tell me that they want to spend time better. What is the first thing they should do?

My answer is always the same: figure out where the time is going now! Knowing where the time goes means you can make changes based on accurate data. Without accurate data, it’s hard to know if you’re changing the right thing. Maybe something you thought was a problem isn’t. Maybe something you never even considered is taking more time than you imagined.

I have now been tracking my time for three years, and I’ve learned I spend a lot more time in the car than I thought was possible. I have learned that my body has a pretty strong sleep set point: 7.3-7.4 hours per day. I have also learned that I have plenty of time to read, it’s just a question of what I’m filling that time with. Over three years of tracking, I’ve become more intentional about choosing good books.

On the podcast this week, Sarah and I are discussing time tracking. We’re discussing how and why to do it, and what I’ve learned from my logs. Sarah, despite being an Upholder, confesses that she has trouble sticking with time tracking, and we talk about why that might be. We also talk about the journaling aspects of time tracking, and how having these lines on a log can conjure up all sorts of memories.

Then, the Q&A: A listener asked how Sarah handled being sick. When you’ve got a dozen-plus patients waiting for you, taking a sick day is a fairly big deal. We’ve talked in the past about handling kid sick days, but what about grown up illness?

Anyway, please give it a listen. And if you like the podcast, would you consider telling a friend? And rating/reviewing the podcast for iTunes or another site? We appreciate your support!


22 thoughts on “Podcast: Why I track time and you should too

  1. I really enjoyed this podcast. I have tracked my time a little in the past. I am going to start today since it’s the first day of the month! I finished tracking and realized that my “day off” from work was really a lot of chores and puttering! Sometimes we moms need those “catch up” days! Next day off, I will try to do something more fun!

  2. I recently decided to track my time more frequently (I have done a week or two here and there since I first read I Know How She Does It). To SHU’s point, I actually find the accountability piece of things helpful. I am more efficient and get more done the weeks I track my time and I like that. Even If I am not getting an accurate picture of the weeks I don’t track.

    As to calling out sick, I am also a physician. I called out sick for the first time in 8 years this winter. I had the flu and I was out for a full work week. I felt really awful about doing it, but as I explained to all my rescheduled patients, they really didn’t want to see me that week. The big issue was just getting people rescheduled but it all worked out. I also ran into an issue the next Monday when I was overbooked like crazy and my 2 yo was then sick and having respiratory issues requiring nebulizer treatments. The only thing that made me feel better about leaving him with the sitter was that the sitter’s kids had asthma and she was well versed in caring for this type of sick kiddo. I just could not stay home another day, but it was tough to leave him so sick.

    1. @Gillian – yes, the need to reschedule patients, when you know some have made elaborate logistical plans to come see you at a certain time, would certainly make a lot of physicians feel horrible about ever calling in sick! I suppose medical practices could build in more slack to the schedule so that colleagues could cover more easily for each other, but I know there are pressures to see as many patients as possible.

  3. I work in public accounting and am required to track my time during the work day. I am one of those people who would potentially find the results interesting but rebel against the idea of more spreadsheets in my non-work time :). I changed jobs this past year and went from an entire career of tracking time in 15 minute increments to a new place that tracks in 6 minute increments. This has been a frustrating adjustment. Personally, I keep a spreadsheet open all day and just note when I switch from one client to the next, then I total my hours at the end of the day. There is always ‘lost time’ (for instance, I was at work from 8-5 but only noted 8 hours of work) that I can’t reasonably charge to a client, which I record as non-billable time.

    1. @Allison- yep, 40 billable hours definitely requires more than 40 hours of work. Though the proportion can definitely change as one becomes more efficient. Still, 6 minute increments are pretty short!

      I guess my thought for people in billable hour fields is that yes, it would be annoying to have spreadsheets in one’s non-work time. But I’m not saying forever (or even 3 years as I have done). One week is enough to really see a lot of life, and I think that time discipline leads to time freedom. You must know where the time goes in order to transcend the ceasing ticking!

  4. I’m really looking forward to listening to this, probably this weekend, while doing some chores. I tracked my time very intermittently earlier this year, and had some major epiphanies. Like I really don’t spend that much time on chores. It totally changed my perspective on whether we needed to hire cleaners, which we’d recently begun considering seriously. It was an easy no once we realized it wouldn’t save us enough time to be worth the cost. Also, many of our cleaning tasks take fewer than 15 minutes, and even less time that that if we’re consistent. And knowing that we only needed to dedicate 15 minutes to a disliked task made it a lot easier to JUST DO IT and get it over with. And once I take the dread out of the equation, I find I dislike these tasks much less! Go figure.

    1. @Alyce – I think there’s an interesting optimization calculation to be done on how much time a task takes, and how much we dislike it, and how easy it would be to offload. It sounds like you’ve decided that the cost doesn’t justify the level of hatred times the time a task takes!

  5. This was a really fun episode! I have been tracking for the last fortnight, just week days so far. I have transitioned from half time clinic work to full time PhD, based mainly from home. I want to make sure I am aware of the new habits I form, good and bad, so it seemed like a great time to start tracking again.

  6. Love the podcast! Tracking my time as a medical student has been very useful, and I’m thankful to you Laura! I’ve done it faithfully in 15min colorcoded blocks three different times, for 1 to 3 weeks at at time. I did this after listening to I Know How She Does It (audiobook version). The latest was when studying for the USMLE Step 1. Insights: I have a “set point” of 9 focused hours being the amount of work I can consistently do. These hours don’t include the breaks, meals, or time on social media that can bleed into a student’s work day and make one feel like they’ve worked “13 hours/day everyday.” Very different from hospital work, which I can do for many more hours, but which doesn’t require the same intensity of focus.
    This was liberating. Now I schedule more fun in the evenings on study & exam weeks, knowing that I’ll have reached my max. Then, I’m more focused during the day and know I need to get my hours in! My life is just better. Some people do this naturally. For me, logging my time helped give me the proof so that I could shed the expectations that come with “this is the most important test of your life.”
    I think you could do a great book targetted at college/ professional students!

    1. @MS4- I’m so glad you like the podcast, and so glad that time tracking has been helpful for you. I agree that this is one of the counterintuitive upsides. People feel like time-tracking will make them feel bad seeing how much time they’re wasting, which I guess could happen, but sometimes the result is that you see how much time you are devoting to things, and see it is a lot of time! Which makes you feel better about building in time for fun too. If you’ve already studied for 9 hours, why not go out with friends?

    2. Lucky you, for figuring this out sooner rather than later. My undergraduate/law/grad school experiences would have been so completely different if I was more in tune with how I spent my time, and spent it in more meaningful ways. I can only imagine.

  7. Super inspired to try this next week. Printed off a copy and left it on my desk so I remember.

  8. So I’m on day 5 of time tracking and finding it useful. A few initial findings:
    – Tracking my time makes me more productive – I don’t want to write down ‘twitter’ so I’ve been focusing on writing. Two days of long meetings also helped bump up the productive working hours.
    – Pumping is killing my day – I’m a super slow pumper and set-up and clean-up is also a time suck.
    – High sleep needs limits my time – I have an infant and lupus, sleep is both incredibly necessary and in scarce supply. I go to bed fairly shortly after baby does which limits time for socialising, household stuff, etc

    1. @CBS – pumping sucks up a lot of time (oh, the pun too…) I think, with an infant and lupus, if you do anything beyond life maintenance, that’s a cause for celebration. The household stuff can wait 🙂

  9. Hi Laura,

    I have participated in your time tracking challenge earlier and attempted again recently. One issue I face is about quantifying the same slot being used for multiple things. For example, in a 15 minute slot, while I am working on a project and waiting for the document to load or a tool to process something for a couple of minutes, I also finish some ‘errands’ like checking my mail, making some bill payments online etc. Similarly, while I am doing chores, I make phone calls to my parents/siblings etc – so how do I categorize? While I agree unitasking is better for focus, I have taken pride in being a multitasker and I feel am achieving so much…but when I try time tracking I realize I am unable to make out what the time went for. Rather than using free text in your timesheet I have modified it to have defined set of values like Work Projects, House Cleaning, Phone calls with family etc for easy analysis – I feel this is better than how use it with a comma separated set of words.. So, could you suggest how to track time better in the context of multitasking ?

    1. @Krishna – multi-tasking can make time tracking more difficult. I guess that I often don’t try to capture too much of it. If I’m hanging out with the kids but, say, putting things away here and there, I might just write “kids.” If I’m working, but on lots of different projects — emails, blog comments, notes on things — I’ll just put “work.” I will also make liberal use of the slash (/) – as in laundry/podcast or something, To me, the goal is not perfection, it’s just having a rough sense of the time, so I don’t need to capture every minute.

      I will say, though, that three years of time-tracking has encouraged me to stick with things for the full 30 minute block, just to make it easier to record. So if I’m reading from 10:00, and tempted to jump over to email at, say, 10:20, I might read for another 10 minutes to get an even block. This is not a bad thing in life.

  10. How do you deal with time changes while traveling and tracking time? We traveled from Phoenix to Chicago for the weekend and since you travel a lot, I’m curious how you track that time.

    1. @Dominique – good question! I always track in Eastern time. So when I was in Central time yesterday, I woke up at 5:45 a.m., but I recorded that as 6:45 a.m. During the 3 years I’ve tracked, I haven’t spent longer than a week in a different time zone, so it hasn’t been too difficult to just mentally make the switch. For anyone trying it, I’d say declare a “home” time zone for the week you’re tracking and stick with that.

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