How to count multi-tasking

After taking the 2022 Time Tracking Challenge last week, a number of people have asked me how they should count time spent multi-tasking. If they listened to an audiobook while driving, or exercising, is that reading, or is it one of the other categories? Or if they are cooking dinner while supervising children, what is that?

This seems like it could be quite a conundrum, but on some level it doesn’t have to be. Figuring out categories that are “mutually exclusive and comprehensively exhaustive” only matters if you are trying to create a cool pie chart that adds up exactly to 168 hours. If you are doing that, then you can create separate categories for “reading/driving” vs. “driving” or “reading.”

This can be fun though it can also be really challenging. In many cases, all we really want to know is how many hours we are spending on categories of interest. So, if you are interested in how much time you spend reading, and you note that some reading time was “just” reading and other time was listening to audiobooks while doing something else, you can count it all as reading and congratulate yourself on that number. If you are interested in physical activity, you can note time spent on “pure” exercise and also the walking meetings you set up. You can give yourself credit for all those hours, even though the walking meetings are obviously going to count as work hours too. If you added it all up, it might be more than 168 hours, but it’s OK.

The reason to track specific multi-tasking time is if you feel like this is something you’d like to change. If you’re spending a lot of time working while also supervising children, and it is feeling not terribly efficient, that might be worth tracking, so you can figure out any potential solutions.

What time most often winds up multi-tasked for you?

Photo: From a wintry sunset walk. No multi-tasking on this one! Well, unless you count taking photos for my blog as work…

10 thoughts on “How to count multi-tasking

  1. I have a category called “kids + other” for when I’m supervising one or more children and also doing something else – folding laundry, deleting emails on my phone, watching the snow out the window. This is a LOT of time. It’s not really quality kid time (if such a thing is possible with toddlers) but clearly not quality anything-else time. On the other hand, if I’m going to do housework or scroll my phone, best to have an adorable companion for it.

    1. @Erica – “kids + other” is a good way to put it. I bet a lot of us spend a lot of time on kid + other!

  2. This is exactly what I was wondering tracking my time too! I really wanted to create a cool pie chart at the end (haha) so I wanted my time to be exactly 168 hours.

    For me I decided to count the activity that was my primary attention e.g. would take priority over the other thing. So for example I often have a book open while I’m watching the kids, but if the kids need something they come before the book, so I called it “kid” time on the log. But times when my husband was “on-duty” with the kids but I was also in the same room with a book open, I called it “reading” time on the log because if they asked for a snack/to fix a toy/etc. I would say “go ask Dad!”

    Loved tracking my time…thanks for the nudge! Already made a few tweaks to my schedule since I did it. I try to track a few times a year and my biggest learnings this time around (last time I did it was August) was my overall “wasting time on the internet” was down (good, but would like it to be a tinge better), I want to work a few more hours each week (I was down a few hours since my last tracking, and I have a few ideas of longer-term things I could be working on in those extra hours, which I think I can fit it pretty easily with a bit more focus on it as a goal), and that a doctors appointment is never as fast as I think it will be (it seems like all of Thursday morning was lost to an appointment for something I thought would be quick!).

    Thanks Laura!

    1. @Molly – glad you found it useful! And yes, recording things as the primary category can certainly work well. Doctors appointments always take a lot of time. Even if you’re in and out quickly…It’s the getting ready, the getting there…

    2. @molly I also do the “primary category” strategy and find it helps me focus on what’s most important. For example, maybe I’ll listen to a podcast while out on a walk. Thinking about the category ahead of time, I’ll try to be more mindful of what I’m doing. If I choose exercise, for instance, I’ll try to stay mindful of keeping a constant pace, even if it means I miss bits and pieces of what I’m listening to. Or another good examples is watching TV while doing something on the computer. I’ll get through whatever I’m doing and realize I missed entire chunks of what I was trying to watch, so I’d definitely record that as whatever I’m doing on the computer.

  3. My biggest insight over the past couple years following your work is how to make more time into multi-tasking time if it means I’ll enjoy it more such as walking during mtgs, podcast or audiobook drive time, reading magazines while watching kids. I find it helps me feel better about how I spend my time because so often you have small chunks and I am always looking to make the most of it.

  4. I also wanted to create a pie chart, so I just lumped all the dual tasking together. It was things like car/kids, work/kids, home organization/kids, car/errands. Some of that dual tasking is when I wasn’t solely focused on the task at hand, like work/kids or home organization/kids. But other parts of that piece of the pie are when the time was kind of split – partially in the car alone, partially driving kids to/from school or driving around to run errands. And surely there were some interruptions when I was mostly solely focused on something, like clearly I picked up my phone and read emails while working, but I didn’t count it as personal time unless it went on for a solid chunk of time. But overall, I didn’t find the dual-tasking I was doing to be problematic. It was a necessity to sometimes work while watching the baby because he was home sick so couldn’t go to daycare. And I could entertain the baby well enough to do a home organization project while keeping an eye on him.

    1. @Lisa – some folks really love the pie chart! I get it, I really do 🙂 Hope everyone is feeling better.

  5. I also welcomed the nudge to track my time. I did my best to account for multi-tasking, but I find that when I am multi-tasking it is usually many things at once. Not just 2. For example last night, from roughly 4:30 until 6PM, I was feeding the baby solids, listening to music, prepping dinner, unloading the dishwasher, and eating dinner while watching the older kids/refereeing their squabbles. I just put one or two things in each 30 minute block knowing the whole time was kind of a mess. 🙂

  6. The distinction between helpful multitasking and multitasking that just makes you feel frustrated is a good one. I’ve been taking all calls where I’m just listening on my phone and I take a walk. It ticks two of my boxes for the day. I will also quite happily fold laundry listening to a podcast or run errands with a friend. It’s trying to work and entertain a kid or have a talk with my husband while doing bedtime that feels like time poorly spent.

    I’m experimenting with an admin power hour – dumping any quick emails into a folder and dealing with them from the couch or at a low energy time of day. I used to do this really effectively but fell out of the habit.

    My current conundrum is how to use days when I’m teaching for 2 hours in the am, and then have the rest of the day free. I feel quite exhausted after teaching so am unlikely to get serious writing done but want to use the day well. I figure I’ll take a nice walk and buy a good lunch and then…

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