The number of productivity strategies out there are innumerable. Every day, dozens and perhaps hundreds of articles are published online about how to get more done, both in work and in life generally. It can be downright overwhelming. If I were to spend the time reading all those new articles and books, I’d have no time to get done what’s actually valuable and important. So if you’re feeling overwhelmed — like you don’t have enough time or like you should be getting more done — where’s the best place to start?
Well, why not at the foundation?
To know how to be more productive, you first need to know exactly how you’re spending your minutes and hours of the day. You say you need to get more done or that you don’t have enough time for everything, but when you actually track your time, you realize you’re spending 60 minutes a day on Facebook. From there, the remedy seems pretty obvious.
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I took on this experiment of time tracking, and after a month of doing so, I honestly believe my productivity level to be permanently increased. A light bulb has gone off about how I spend my time, and what to do to make better use of it.
If you’re in a very structured environment where your day is largely dictated by appointments — say as a doctor or lawyer — this activity may not be very helpful for your work hours. But if you feel like your nights and weekends continually slip by in a haze of Netflix and web surfing, and aren’t as edifying, entertaining, and/or enriching as you’d like, you can apply the same principles of time management to getting more from your leisure time. 168 Hours: You Have Mo... Best Price: $7.87 Buy New $10.17 (as of 10:53 UTC - Details)
To take control of your hours rather than being controlled by them and feeling lost at the end of the day, track your time. Below I walk you through the benefits and specific tools to use to conduct this experiment and begin getting more out of life.
Want to Get a Handle on Time? Treat It Like Food
One of the reasons time management is so difficult is that time itself is so nebulous. You can’t see it; it’s abstract; even scientists are still trying to figure out its nature!
To get a better grasp on time, I thus recommend thinking about it like something more concrete: food. The propensity to get distracted is like a craving for junk food. A lack of productivity is like carrying extra pounds around the waist. And the solution? Time tracking, i.e., keeping a food diary.
Multiple studies over the years have confirmed that keeping a food journal over the course of several weeks or even months is one of the most surefire ways to lose weight. In fact, the original study from 2008 showed that those who kept a record — either paper or digital or even photographic — of what they ate in the course of an entire day lost twice as much weight as those who didn’t.
Why is food tracking so effective?
First of all, the simple awareness of what one is eating can come as a shock to those who are overweight. Mindless snacking or regularly ordering dessert doesn’t seem to add up to much…until you document every mouthful of food that crosses your lips.
There’s also an intrinsic accountability that comes with food journaling. When you scarf down a Whopper on the commute home and discard the evidence before walking in the door, the act effectively disappears from your consciousness. Once you write that Whopper down, though, it becomes real. It happened. You’ve got to internally fess up to it.
Awareness and a healthy sense of shame and accountability add up to the fact that food diary keepers lose weight much more effectively than those who do not.
The same exact benefits and reasonings apply to keeping a record of how one spends their hours and minutes. So if you want to start seeing your productivity abs, start tracking your time.
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Tracking your time is not a very sexy method of increasing your productivity. Rather than a shiny new app (or a shiny new smartphone), it requires the meticulous tracking of your minutes and hours throughout the day over the course of a couple weeks or even months. It’s also, ironically enough, a time-consuming task; but this investment up front will reap dividends for the years and decades to come.
Let’s first get into some specific benefits tracking your time has on productivity, and then go into the best ways to actually do it.
1. It Builds a Foundation For Other Productivity Methodologies
“Without becoming aware of how you currently spend your time, it’s hard to reflect on whether you’re acting in ways that match up with what your values and highest-impact tasks are. Keeping a time log is a great way to find your starting point, your base level.” –Chris Bailey, The Productivity Project
You wouldn’t dive into a strength training program without first establishing baselines for what you can lift. The same should be true for when you’re trying to establish new routines in order to get more done. If you don’t have an accurate picture of how your time is being spent and what you’re getting done with that time, how can you possibly establish realistic goals and timelines for accomplishing them?
To use an example from above, if you don’t realize you’re spending 60 minutes a day on Facebook, how can you even know that you need to take steps to alleviate your social media consumption? If you aren’t tracking your hours, it may not even enter into your consciousness, and you’d perhaps simply be thinking that you need a new to-do list system. In reality, you need to block Facebook.
Logging your time allows you to focus on establishing productivity methods that actually apply to your real life versus just what you think you need to do.
Since tracking my time, for example, I’ve realized that if my day isn’t well-planned out with at least 3 important must complete tasks, I end up wasting more time because I’m just sort of floating around trying to figure out what needs doing, and I inevitably try to multi-task. When I plan ahead, though, especially when it’s the day before, I can jump into the morning with a full head of steam, and not waste any time simply trying to figure out what’s on my agenda. Without logging my time, I’m not sure I would have realized that the first 20-30 minutes of my day were largely ineffective due to not having a concrete plan.
2. You’ll Come to Realize You’ve Been Overestimating How Long Certain Things Take…
It seems like everyone these days feels like they’re constantly busy.
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One of the primary reasons that you may think you don’t have enough time for everything is that you likely misjudge how much time certain tasks actually take, and how much time you really spend on them. Author Laura Vanderkam writes about this phenomenon:
“We are prone to over- or underestimate things based on socially desirable perceptions or current emotions. For instance, few of us love the routine aspects of housework or household administration. Emptying the dishwasher or paying bills doesn’t take much time, but we feel like we’re always doing these chores. So if someone asks us how much time we spend on such things, we overestimate — by something on the order of 100 percent for both men and women — compared to the actual numbers recorded in time diaries.”
When it comes to the overestimation part of the equation, the negative effect is that you feel busier than you really are. When you look at your schedule, you inflate how long certain tasks will take, feel artificially swamped, and are discouraged from attempting to work on certain goals or starting a particular hobby. Plus, you may even spend more time on an activity than you actually need to, in order for its duration to match your preconceived estimate; work fills the time, as they say.
A few months ago, I might have said that my daily and weekly maintenance tasks for work (the little things that don’t take much time or effort, or add much value to the bottom line, but need to be done) take me 1-2 hours per day. When I started tracking my time, though, I came to realize that those things really only took me about an hour per day, and sometimes even less than that (down to 30 minutes, occasionally!). I started to dawdle less to fill the time I had previously estimated these tasks would take, and discovered I had more time than I thought, which motivated me to create a more ambitious daily agenda.
Not all tasks only feel time-consuming, of course; some actually are, and you may in fact not have enough time to do all the things you’d like. But chances are high that after tracking your time for a couple weeks, you’ll find some tasks that take less of it than you thought, that you’ve been leaving some good hours on the table and that you can fit more things into your schedule than you’d realized.