How I Learned To Get The Most Out Of Every Week's 168 Hours

Would you rather flip through a Pottery Barn catalog or train for and run a half-marathon? The secret to time management is all about priorities.

I’ve always loved the phrase "the truth will set you free."

While I’ll admit that objectivity is hard to achieve, when you face reality as head on as possible, you can make better decisions than if you buy into various stories that people tell you, or that you tell yourself.

At least that’s what I discovered when I started writing about time management a few years ago. The first thing I did was keep an honest accounting of a week (168 hours) of my time. As if I were a dieter logging every morsel, I wrote down every activity: every email check, every work distraction, every unnecessary errand. I used a notebook for this, though some time trackers use spreadsheets or apps such as aTimeLogger and TimeTracker.

When I looked over the log, I saw a lot of activity, of course, but I also saw surprising amounts of space. Turns out 168 is a lot of hours. I worked a lower proportion of those hours than I thought. I slept more than I thought, despite the very active toddler I had at the time.

There were hours that disappeared into puttering and web surfing and flipping through magazines I’d already flipped through before. Sometimes I wasn’t even flipping through something as exciting as a magazine. I was flipping through the Pottery Barn catalog when I definitely did not need a sofa.

When I saw that, I realized that if there was anything important I wasn’t doing, it probably wasn’t because I didn’t have time.

It was because it wasn’t a priority.

While that was a jarring realization, ultimately, it was a liberating one as well. I did have time to read the novels I was putting off. I just had to stop reading all those catalogs and swear off political websites. I had time to train for and run a half-marathon if I took my first phone calls a little later one morning per week. I had time for adventures with my kids while logging full-time work hours, too.

When people think about time management, they often think about ways to save a few minutes here and there. Indeed, that’s a question I’m often asked in interviews. How can our readers find 15 extra minutes in their days?

I answer that if they keep track of exactly how they’re spending their time, 15 minutes will seem like nothing. They’ll likely find hours in their weeks—hours lost to activities that aren’t meaningful or enjoyable in any sense. Over the years since I tried tracking my time, I’ve seen hundreds of time logs from people from all walks of life. Everyone has time that could be repurposed. Hours pass whether or not we are aware of where they go. Best to figure out where they go, so time—the ultimate limited resource—can be allocated to what matters, rather than what doesn’t.

Do you keep track of your time? If so, what's your best trick for doing it?

[Image: Flickr user Ant & Carrie Coleman]

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  • Siegfried Lautenbacher

    We have an intersting discussion between our management board. Do we track time or log work?
    What seems to be a small semantic shift turned out to be a big differentiator how employees perceive it. It's not about time tracking - its about work logging!

  • Jan

    Tracking time is definitely beneficial, the issue i see most people having, including myself, is remembering to do it and having a tool that is easy to use. My trick is to stay focused on getting my top 3 things done every day before noon, the rest of the day gets crazy thereafter but I know I've been able to accomplish things. Thx for a great article. 

  • Sridhar Laxman

    Thank you for this important post. IMHO time is the most valuable yet most squandered of resources. You are absolutely spot on in talking about tracking time. Each of my clients have had 'aha' moments when we tracked where their time was being spent.Eyes roll, jaws drop when the awareness is stoked.Minimizing physical and mental clutter, working in capsules, scheduled email activity, avoiding frequent interruptions, setting up reminders and of course prioritization have helped me and my clients manage time better. 

  • Angela Tanudjaja

    Time tracking is a great way to analyze the time you spent in the past, but the problem is that not only does time tracking takes time, it also takes up mental resources. A person has to constantly remember to pull out their phone/notebook after every single activity. Another approach would be time planning. I list the goals I plan to accomplish in a month, then break them into weeks and days. I'd plug all the activities into my iCal with alerts set up. So as long as I've accomplished all those activities, I'm free to do whatever I want at the time in between. 

  • guest

    Time tracking and planning are not the same thing. Yes, time tracking does take time, but for a one week period, it is very eye opening if the tracker is honest. It allows the tracker to evaluate her/his choices and make decisions. It is the difference between having a budget and balancing the check book.

  • Bill Tkach

    I like it when my book is full of checks, it makes me feel like I've accomplished many things! Nothing makes you feel more positive than a check! An A+ is even better.

  • Mmrtech

    I've tried to make a rule for myself that I'm not allowed to say "I didn't have time", and I instead have to say "that didn't make it to the top of my priority list yet."

  • Julie Gray

    I think time tracking is a very eye-opening exercise. In my experience you can get the same time awareness from rigidly tracking your time with apps and constant monitoring as you can from loosely tracking your time. And at some point the constant monitoring can it and of itself become a time suck.

    Either way you are still going to find time that gets spent without intention which is helpful if you would like to reallocate to another priority in your life.

    A simple piece of paper and pen will do. Setting a timer to remind yourself to track can also be helpful.

  • Christoph Hewett

    I have also been time tracking all of my adult life and believe it to be an essential skill - it gives me so much more control over my daily/life choices. I use Google Calendar and GTimeReport as I then have a diarised account of my activities, not just the aggregate.

    I'm curious to know how you could track "every email check, every work distraction, every unnecessary errand". That is hugely ineffective - can you really report on how long you were distracted at work?
    I'm surprised that you emphasise eradicating downtime (web surfing / magazines). Evidence shows, and it has certainly held true for me, that downtime is essential for productive functioning. By not doing so you become obsessive over "maximum busyness", which is a huge stressor and will lead to burn out. I've found that the biggest benefit of timetracking is discovering how much downtime I need to function at my best, and what time of day it best suits me.The other great learning is priory-shifting rather than priority-stacking. You can't go around life just adding priorities, it's contrary to what priorities are. Instead when you choose to add a priority you have to decide which other priority you are going to drop, and the order of you priorities. This value based approach to time makes decision making much easier.

  • Willemijn

     Totally agree, I also think this so-called 'downtime' is necessary to process the information in your head. It is impossible to fill every minute with productive work.

  • eshriner

    Great article.

    When you tracked, did you do an overview or did you track every minutia of you day? Did you find that the act of tracking interfered with the what was going on? For example, when you tracked "flipping through a magazine", did you find that you stopped because you realized it was a time suck?

  • Lia

    Did you just use a notebook? spreadsheet? The thought of doing this is intriguing but daunting....