7 Unexpected Lessons From Tracking Your Time

When you start paying closer attention to how long tasks really take, you can learn how to use it more wisely.

7 Unexpected Lessons From Tracking Your Time
[Photo: Flickr user Joanna Bourne]

Want to use your time better? It’s a common goal for the new year, and fortunately, getting started is straightforward: you need to know how you’re using your time now.


If you track your time for a week (using an app or a basic spreadsheet), you’ll likely discover all kinds of things about your life. Some of my favorite lessons from seeing people take this challenge over the years:

1. Some multi-tasking works better than others

Holly McLoughlin, a writer and copy-editor, tracked her time and “the main thing I learned is that background distraction affects how long I spend doing things.” She tried doing household chores with a video playing in the background, and found that significantly slowed her down. Listening to an audiobook, however, made her work a little faster than no background noise at all. Net result? “I dropped Hulu Plus, the video service I watched least, and now spend that money on Audible, where I get a new audiobook each month.”

2. There’s a reason you’re late to work

Executive coach Jackie Woodside’s new book, Calming the Chaos, recounts a client who sought coaching because he couldn’t get along with his boss. Her beef? He was chronically late to work. Woodside did some investigating and found that, in fact, her client was getting to work about 15 to 30 minutes after the generally expected start time. This should be the easiest coaching case in history. But why was he always late? Her client tracked his time and learned that though he’d always allotted himself 30 minutes to get ready in the morning, it took him 45 to 55 minutes. “He was simply unaware of this discrepancy,” Woodside writes. “He believed so strongly that it took him 30 minutes that he could not even see that it was taking him nearly an hour.”

3. You may work less than you think

I recently had people at a consulting company known for working long hours track their time for seven days straight. Most worked 55 to 65 hours per week. That’s a very long work week, to be sure, but it’s not the “90-hour workweeks” many of their colleagues lamented. Sometimes people get defensive when they do this reality check, but I think the truth sets us free. There are 168 hours in a week, so if you work 65, and sleep 56 (eight per night), that leaves 47 hours for other things. That’s enough time to exercise, enjoy your family, and generally have a life.

4. Your rates are too low

Of course, you may discover that you’re working around the clock. One self-employed accountant who kept a time log for me found out she was working 100 hours a week. She thought that was necessary to support her family, which might have been true, because she hadn’t raised her rates since 1997. She also had one client whose demands, alone, took 40 hours a week. Seeing that, she could renegotiate that relationship and either raise her rates enough to have that client go elsewhere, or pay her the full-time income she deserved.


5. Emptying the dishwasher doesn’t take much time

A surprising number of people list this as one of their most-disliked tasks. I know it’s one of mine. So I timed myself, and found I could generally get everything put away in about five minutes. I empty the dishwasher three to four times per week. So this task takes 15 to 20 minutes weekly. It’s probably not worth getting so irate about. Timing something you dislike can at least put the time cost in perspective.

6. Breaks are worthwhile

When you don’t take real ones, you take unintentional ones, which show up on time logs as a lot of task switching, wandering around the halls, and puttering online. A favorite quote from a time log: “Begin drafting email. Realize I need a shirt for work. Buy two sweaters and clutch at J.Crew online. Decide to walk outside and get lunch.” It might have been a more efficient use of that half hour (and cheaper!) just to go to lunch first.

7. Transitions can be managed

One entrepreneur who mostly worked from home told me she wanted to add exercise into her life. After tracking her time, she saw that she sometimes had a small break here or there between conference calls. The problem was that by the time she’d figured out that could be a good time to exercise, and had gotten into her exercise clothes, that transition could consume much of the break. The solution? Take one five-minute break to get into her workout gear. As long as she didn’t have video calls after that, she could seize any open 20 minutes to exercise instead of checking email. Twenty minutes isn’t enough to train for a marathon, but it’s 20 minutes better than nothing. It was an easy way to build physical activity into her work day.

About the author

Laura Vanderkam is the author of several time management and productivity books, including I Know How She Does It: How Successful Women Make the Most of Their Time (Portfolio, June 9, 2015), What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast (Portfolio, 2013), and 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think (Portfolio, 2010). She blogs at