Time-tracking: A manifesto

Isaac Watts wrote a great many hymns, including such perennial favorites as “Joy to the World.” One of the cool things about his work is he wouldn’t spend it all in the first verse — you get to parts in the hymns when the congregation is all mumbling and you’ve still got thought-provoking rhymes.

One of my favorites? In “O God, Our Help in Ages Past” a later verse contains these two images: “Time, like an ever-rolling stream, bears all its sons away. They fly, forgotten, as a dream dies at the opening day.”

(Note: Some modern hymnals change the “sons” language to “bears all our years away,” which I think gets at the point even better!)

The more I study time, the more apt I find these two comparisons to be. Time is like moving water. Moving water moves you along with it. It keeps moving no matter what you do. Because of that, it is easy to spend time mindlessly, focused only on the particular rock or eddy hurtling you around at the moment. It is hard to even fathom the water behind you, what is now water under the bridge as they say. This brings up the second image — of fleeting memories no longer quite in our grasps. I dreamed some interesting things last night. Those plots and intrigues are now nothing more than shadows. Same with a great many hours and days that are now in the past.

No one can stop time. No one can even slow it down. But being mindful of those hours as the ever-rolling stream moves along can change the experience of daily life. Documenting hours can also make memories more accessible. They are no longer quite so forgotten.

This brings me to the subject of tracking time. I first began suggesting people track their time when I was writing 168 Hours, my first time management book. I tried tracking my time as well. It was an eye-opening experience — partly because, before writing the book, I didn’t even know there were 168 hours in a week. Most people don’t. We live our lives in a repeating cycle of weeks, estimating proportions without even knowing the denominator. Seeing where those 168 hours went gave me a much more holistic perspective on my time. And while, yes, there were some cringe moments (we all waste time…a lot of time), I found the experience fairly comforting. In 168 hours I generally was making time for a great many things that were important to me. Knowing the size and shape of the canvas, I could experiment more, and make something even more satisfying.

I found time-tracking useful enough that I decided to start tracking my time continuously in April 2015. I’m still at it, now, in November 2021. Those 6.5 years were going to pass anyway, on that ever-rolling stream, but they are not quite as forgotten as my dreams anymore. I can look at a random Tuesday. I can look at the context. A few more specific memories can come to mind.

I don’t expect anyone else to track their time continuously for years (though if you want to, I promise it’s not much of a burden! Three minutes a day, more or less. Like brushing my teeth). But I do think anyone can benefit from tracking a week. You can download the spreadsheet I use (30 minute version), or use an app, or a notebook. Just write down what you’re doing, as often as you remember, in as much detail as you think will be helpful for you. As an example, I record some life-maintenance stuff (like showering/getting ready) but do not record every bathroom trip or snack. If I’m mostly supervising children, I’ll just write “kids, etc.” or something along those lines. There needs to be a balance between detail and feasibility. Being a little more vague has allowed me to keep going for years, which creates a more comprehensive picture of life than if I aimed for perfection…and stopped.

If you’re not in the habit, you’ll probably need to create reminders to check in. It’s pretty easy to remember a few hours during the day, so maybe set 4-5 alarms during a day to stop and record the previous few hours. If you keep going after a week you won’t need to do this, as it becomes a habit and you get better at recollection (I can now record 24 hours in pretty good detail if I want, but I still generally check in three times a day). Weekends tend to be harder than weekdays for new time trackers, but they are definitely worth tracking. This is real time that really happens and it is impossible to get an accurate sense of life without the weekend data too.

After a week, take some time to reflect on your log. If you’d like, you can add up the major categories. How much time did you spend sleeping? Working? In the car or in transit? With family? Doing housework or errands? Watching TV or other screen time? Hobbies? Exercise? Reading? Volunteering? I’d note that unless you’re really intent on creating pie charts, all these categories don’t have to be mutually exclusive and comprehensively exhaustive. If you’re listening to audio books while exercising you can just pat yourself on the back and count these hours as both. If you’re into the pie charts, you’d need to create a category of multi-tasked exercise/reading.

The more important question is how you feel about your time. As you reflect on the week, what did you like? What is working in your life? Celebrate this! You can ask what you’d like to spend more time doing. And, of course, you can figure out what you’d like to spend less time doing as well — with the data in hand to make smart choices. In general, if you want to spend time better, you need to know where it is going now, which is exactly what time-tracking ensures.

Becoming more mindful of time makes time feel more rich and full. The years still roll on. They always do. But since life is lived in hours, being more aware of those hours allows us to be wiser stewards of whatever time we’ve been given. That might seem like a big ask for a spreadsheet, but I promise it is possible!

You can start tracking at any point, but if anyone is looking for a good option, I’ll be hosting my annual time-tracking challenge from January 10-16, 2022. I’ll post my time logs here and if you sign up (I’ll share the link once it’s ready), you can get daily motivational emails from me during that week. Something to mark on the calendar! It’s only a week and I promise it will be useful. So why not give it a whirl?

Photo: A metaphor for time…

8 thoughts on “Time-tracking: A manifesto

  1. I have tried tracking my time a few times and found it interesting but a bit too time consuming. But back at the end of May I bought myself a Fitbit and one of the things it does is track sleep. I would have told you I needed the traditional 8 hours a night and that I often got this. But according to the tracker the highest average week since May was 7 hours 35 minutes and that was a holiday week. Most weeks the average is well under 7 hours and I honestly haven’t felt tired or sleep deprived at all. So I have been telling myself for years that I both need and get 8 hours a night plus and it just isn’t and wasn’t true at all. The power of real time data!

    1. @Katherine B – this was one of the most fascinating things I discovered with time tracking too. My happy spot is 7.3-7.4 hours. If I am getting that consistently I start waking up on my own before the alarm clock. I still get that amount when life is out of whack but I’m getting far less some nights and more some other nights and that disorderly sleep makes it hard to function. I can’t always control this (see: toddler) but when I can it’s great.

  2. “Knowing the size and shape of the canvas, I could experiment more, and make something even more satisfying.” What a wonderful image! And a really helpful way to think of the dimensions and shape of our time. (And yes to the power of Isaac Watts’ poetry! Thanks especially for the reminder of that particular verse, too.)

    1. @Sally – I have found it helpful to think of time this way – a canvas, a mosaic, whatever you want to call it. There is a certain amount of temporal space. I have 168 hours in a week. In general, I am going to be awake for 16.6 hours/day. Knowing those dimensions, I can think about what should go in there, what shouldn’t go in there, and so forth.

  3. “O God, Our Help in Ages Past” is one of my favorite hymns as well, especially the verse you cite above. A good reminder to be wise stewards of our time!

  4. I came across this article the other day, about how the week as a unit of time is sort of messy and unnatural, but it’s how we’ve come to anchor the rhythm of our lives. I thought it was an interesting article because I find that Wednesday is always the day that makes me feel like the week has gone by in a blink because my nine year old has piano lessons on 7am on Wednesday mornings and every Wednesday morning it feels like, “Oh wow, here we are again! How did we get here again so soon?!?” But then I look at my time log and realize that, oh right there has indeed been things happening between Wednesdays and the log helps me remember what they all were. I feel like I’m pretty good at living in the moment, but I’m not great at remembering what those moments are.

    https://www.theatlantic.com/family/archive/2021/11/weeks-seven-days-david-henkin/620712/

  5. The line in that hymn has always reminded me of Thoreau: “Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in. I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains. I would drink deeper; fish in the sky, whose bottom is pebbly with stars.”

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