Stop WatchAmerican society is open-ended — an endless number of things to do, be, see, have, and experience. This open endedness creates a sense of time starvation among us — always one more thing to do or accomplish — which, in turn, drives us to seek means and methods to maximize every living nanosecond or to complain endlessly about how other people, corporations, governments, and electronic devices waste our time. While the Zen in me tells me to savor time, live for the moment, and be thankful for my mere existence, I’m still American and personally believe that the key to a fulfilling life is ultimately through a combination of Zen-like thinking and the continuous pursuit of effective, efficient, and productive time use. It’s in principal support of the latter that makes time tracking an indispensable means for discovering more time for life. In this post, I offer several tips for tracking and analyzing your time, irrespective of the tool that you use. (Tools you can use include: BubbleTimer, RescueTime, Freckle, Emergent Task Timing, Activity Log, and ATUS Time-Diary Format.)

Recording your time use. Naturally, start each new day at 12:00 a.m. During wakeful hours, the most accurate way to keep track of your time use is to record what you’re doing every 15 minutes. But at that frequency you’ll just end up perceiving time tracking (64 times per day) as your new #1 daily time waster. The approach that strikes the right balance between accuracy and efficiency is to record your time either right before you go to bed or first thing in the morning, ensuring that whatever activities consumed your day are fresh on your mind.

It also doesn’t make sense to track your time 365 days out of the year, unless you want to reaffirm the law of diminishing returns. Set up a recurring basis such as two weeks every quarter.

Don’t distort the data. In reflecting on your previous day’s time use, be brutally honest with yourself. Don’t record what you “should” have been doing; record what you actually did. Avoid the tendency to record the socially acceptable use of your time — e.g., “worked 8 straight hours” when in reality you only worked 5 hours or “played with kids for 2 hours” when actually watched C-SPAN three-fourths the time. For personal activity data you don’t want anyone to ever see, come up with a secret activity code name such as “studied the Klingon language.”

Remember: garbage in, garbage out.

Test the elasticity of your time by crunching it. The primary purpose of tracking your time is so that you can analyze the data and discover better ways to employ your time. Within the context of your time diary, contemplate the following question:

“Suppose that early on during the time-diary day you discovered that something had come up suddenly. You could tend to it any part of the day or night, but somehow you simply had to find one hour to take care of it before you went to bed again. In a day like the one you had yesterday on (diary day), what things would you have given up to make room for that hour?”

Repeat this question for a 3-hour activity that had to be done, and note what activity you would forgo. Take it further and compress your whole day just to 12 hours. What would you eliminate, reduce, automate, or outsource?

This simple, yet powerful time-crunching technique should reveal some non-essential activities that consume your most precious commodity — time. Sociologists use this clever technique to study people’s time-use perceptions, but you can use it to transform your time-use behavior.

Examining secondary activities. People tend to task-switch with high frequency over short periods of time or undertake multiple overlapping activities at once. (In other words: multi-task.) Given the realities of how people use their time, one important feature of most time-tracking tools is the ability to capture primary and secondary activities. Whether or not a combination of tasks or activities is synergistically productive or counterproductive is highly contextual and individualistic. Much of the current literature on managing your tasks for maximum productivity recommends doing one at a time (single-tasking). Use your time-tracking data to evaluate whether or not undertaking a secondary activity while doing the primary is enhancing or detracting from your productivity (see measuring time-use performance below).

Measuring activity-related satisfaction. The unfortunate reality is that we only have so many hours per day to live satisfactorily. So why then do people fill their days with activities that they actually moderately like, dislike or, worse, loathe? Take for example TV: Numerous social surveys show that TV-watching ranks as one of the least satisfactorily ways to spend free time, yet Americans continue to watch 2.6 hours of it per day. This is somewhat inexplicable to me. Perhaps people just haven’t raised their dissatisfaction with TV-watching to a conscious level, or simply failed to recognize that it represent society’s modern vice slowly killing their time for life.

Whatever the reason, you can use your time diary to measure the degree to which you like or dislike the activities occupying your time. To do this, simply assign a satisfaction/enjoyment rating using a Likert scale from 0 to 10, with 0 being Dislike and 10 being Like. You can use the results of your ratings to identify activities which you might want to consider eliminating, reducing, automating, or outsourcing (anything around or below 7) and those which you should sink more of your life into (anything above 7).

Measuring time-use performance. There are a number of ways to do this, each with varying degrees of complexity. You can gauge your productivity by defining personal output measures. For example, write three 500-word blog posts in 6 hours, or 2 hours per 500-word post. You can measure performance by defining outcome measures such as the three posts average 250 diggs and average 4.0/5.0 quality rating. You can also measure how efficiently you use your time by comparing yourself against others. For example, the average person writes four 500-word posts in 6 hours. The web app RescueTime makes such benchmark comparisons possible by aggregating time-use statistics from its user base through tags and generic activity categories.

All the above are great options. One measurement method that I’m beginning to use, however, is what I call utilizable time efficiency. The idea here is that after you subtract the hours you must spend on personal maintenance (sleeping, eating, and grooming) from 24 hours, you’re left with utilizable time. With your utilizable time, you can spend it in one of two ways: on value-added activities or non-value-added activities. The more time you spend on the former, the better you’re utilizing (or maximizing) your time. The opposite is true for the latter.

Here’s how to use this measurement:

  1. For each activity in your time diary, indicate whether it was a value-added, non-value-added, or neutral (reserved for personal maintenance activities) use of your time.
  2. Add up the time spent on neutral activities and subtract from 24 hours to get your utilizable time. Let’s assume 15 hours for illustration purposes.
  3. Now add up your time spent on value-added vs. non-value-added activities. Let’s assume 10 hours and 5 hours, respectively.
  4. Lastly, calculate your utilizable time efficiency: total time of value-added activities / total utilizable time. 10 / 15 = 67%.

Obviously, what this percentage tells you is that you spent about two-thirds of your utilizable time on activities that (you felt) added something to your life or aligned directly with your personal goals. The other way to think this: you wasted 33% of your life that day. On any given day, the target, although not wholly realistic, is 100%. How you get closer to 100% is in large part what this blog’s about.

There are other tips that I’d like to share relating to time-use goals, time pressures, psychological factors, activity coding, location coding, and improving utilizable time efficiency and correlating with happiness, but I think I’ve said enough for one post. Stay tuned, as some pretty cool stuff that can be measured, learned, and acted upon from time-tracking data.

Image credit: AleksandrL / iStockphoto


- [1] Time for Life: The Surprising Ways Americans Use Their Time