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I painstakingly tracked everything I did for a month. Here’s what I learned

I recorded everything I did—from client work to showering—in an Excel spreadsheet, broken into 15-minute increments.

I painstakingly tracked everything I did for a month. Here’s what I learned
[Photo: LightFieldStudios/iStock]
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As we slowly and tentatively emerge from the pandemic, many of us are taking stock of what we have learned. What habits, behaviors, and lifestyles (like remote work) do we want to keep, and which should we jettison? What do we actually want our professional lives to look like moving forward?

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To help answer the question, I revisited a useful exercise I’d first deployed two and a half years ago: time tracking. For a month, I recorded everything I did—from client work to showering—in an Excel spreadsheet, broken into 15-minute increments. The process of meticulously chronicling your life is onerous; you can’t keep it up forever, because the process is so boring and annoying.

But for a 30-day period between late November and late December 2020 (avoiding holidays, to ensure a more representative time sample), I forced myself to comply, because I wanted to understand how my time usage had evolved since I’d first done the exercise in February 2018, and how the pandemic might have affected my life.

Tracking our time is useful for a few reasons. First, it enables us to see what we really value through our actions (say, watching TV) as opposed to what we might profess (reading Chaucer). Second, it pierces through our illusions: Author and time management expert Laura Vanderkam reports that many professionals systematically overestimate the amount of time they spend working each week. And finally, especially if we repeat the exercise, time tracking enables us to identify patterns that may be helping us, or holding us back, in our lives. 

Analyzing and comparing my data from 2018 versus 2020 revealed four key insights that will shape how I think about my post-pandemic future, and may be useful as you plan yours, as well. 

Even in a crisis, a lot stays the same

Obviously, in an acute disaster like a hurricane, there’s a lot of short-term disruption. But for many of us lucky ones, the pandemic’s defining characteristic has been its sheer monotony—the same apartment, the same people, the same routine. Between my baseline in 2018 and my new measurement in 2020, my anxiety certainly went up. According to my calculations, my time awake in the middle of the night increased 61%. But the banal realities of daily life stayed remarkably consistent, from client work (1.8 hours per day in 2018, and 1.7 hours per day in 2020) to email (from 1.4 hours per day in 2018 to 1.5 hours per day in 2020).

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The “Matthew effect” is real

In 1968, sociologists Robert K. Merton and Harriet Zuckerman coined the term the “Matthew effect,” from a Biblical story in the Book of Matthew in which (essentially) the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. The pandemic has been a lot like that, too. If you have a family, you probably had way too much family in 2020, with coworking spouses and homeschooled children underfoot. And if you’re single, you were probably way too single, with scared friends opting not to socialize. (Not to mention that the typical venues—restaurants and theaters and bars—were shut down.)

Accordingly, the amount of time I spent on dating decreased 29.5% between my 2018 and 2020 tallies, and the amount of time I spent on meals decreased 39%, because I was wolfing down Chipotle by myself instead of enjoying a leisurely evening out with friends. In February 2018, I spent 19.3 hours per week socializing with friends. I have no number available for December 2020, because—depressingly—there was nothing to track. One of my top imperatives, now that I’m fully vaccinated and hesitant friends are loosening up, is to prioritize reconnection.

You have to create your own meaning

With human connection radically reduced, you have a few choices. One is to work all the time—and indeed, during the pandemic I managed to write a book (my forthcoming The Long Game: How to Be a Long-Term Thinker in a Short-Term World) and create several online courses.

Another choice is to park yourself in front of the television, which I also did. In 2018, I spent 6.3 hours per week consuming “entertainment,” most of which was live theater shows with friends—a joyfully social activity. In 2020, I spent almost the exact same amount of time (6.1 hours per week) watching Netflix by myself, consuming the entirety of eight seasons of Homeland, four of Halt and Catch Fire, three of a German spy show, and much more. It was high-quality TV, but a lonely pursuit.

To avoid living an entirely monochromatic life, I decided to reward myself by becoming immersed in two pastimes that may have gotten short shrift in the pre-pandemic era. First, I started taking a weekly ping-pong lesson (turns out, it’s an inherently socially distant sport), and I also cowrote an entire musical, which consumed a whopping 10.8 hours per week during December 2020, when I was pushing to complete it. My new sport, and finishing a creative project, gave a great deal of meaning to a time that otherwise would have smarted with its sameness.

Make limited choices work for you

One bright spot between 2018 and 2020 was the dramatic increase in the amount of time I allocated to personal health. In 2018, I spent an average of 24 minutes per day working out. That’s decent, but in 2020, with socializing off the table and most forms of entertainment closed, I spiked up to 66 minutes per day, representing a combination of exercise and physical therapy for a banged-up shoulder I had willed myself to ignore in busier times. Thanks to my pandemic regimen, it’s now almost completely healed. As my social calendar has perked up in recent weeks, I’ve already noticed that it’s become harder to maintain this level of discipline, but I’m glad I exerted the effort while it was possible.

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As the world opens up, we’ll likely find ourselves pulled back into old routines. Some will represent a happy return to normalcy (for instance, a weekly movie date with your spouse), and others a necessary grind (a reinstated in-person staff meeting). But in many cases, we have more agency than we might imagine in making choices about what our future looks like. By thinking carefully and consciously about what we liked—and didn’t—about our pandemic lives, we can make better choices about the future we want to create for ourselves.