This article was originally published on HBR.org – https://hbr.org/
It’s hard to know if we’re really making efficient use of our time. It seems like we’re working hard — and we’re certainly stressed out. But are we spending our time on the right things? To figure this out, try a time-tracking exercise, logging how you’re actually spending your time for an entire month. Doing so can yield some surprising insights. For example, while multitasking is supposed to be counterproductive, the right kind of multitasking can be transformative. For instance, almost anyone can easily listen to podcasts or audiobooks while exercising, cooking, or commuting to work, which can help you find time for exploring new ideas. And while many people still hold onto the idea that friends and business don’t mix, if you relish what you’re doing, you can make more time for both networking and socializing by combining your friend networks with your business ones. Time tracking might also help you realize that certain hours of the day are especially likely to be “wasted” (like evenings spent scrolling through social media) and that certain tasks carry disproportionate psychological weight (like managing your email). But only by tracking your time can you really figure out if you’re spending it well.
It’s hard to know if we’re really making efficient use of our time. It seems like we’re working hard — and we’re certainly stressed out. But are we spending our time on the right things? That’s the question I set out to solve at the start of this year. I was feeling overwhelmed after spending the fall launching a new book and was finally turning to the litany of tasks I’d neglected in its wake.
Inspired by a colleague, the time management expert Laura Vanderkam, I decided to spend the month of February tracking exactly how I spent my time, down to half-hour increments. It wasn’t high tech — I used an Excel spreadsheet — but even the process of remembering to write things down was arduous. After all, we’re used to living our lives, not recording them. But the insights I gained over the course of a month were extremely useful. In particular, there were four that made me rethink a lot of the conventional wisdom on productivity and time management. While I encourage you to do your own time-tracking exercise, if you don’t have the time for that (ha!), here’s what I learned:
The right kind of multitasking can be transformative. We’ve all heard plenty about the dangers of multitasking — we can’t do multiple things at once effectively, and we’ll always suffer from cognitive switching costs. That’s true for certain activities but — crucially — is irrelevant for others. For instance, almost anyone can easily listen to podcasts or audiobooks while exercising, cooking, or commuting to work, and if you’re dining alone, you can read while you eat.
With a month’s data in hand, I was astonished to discover I averaged almost two hours of reading each day, plus an additional 90 minutes of listening to audio content. “Reading more” is a common aspiration for busy professionals — one poll reported that nearly one in five people claimed it as their New Year’s resolution — and “strategic multitasking” is a surprisingly easy way to fit it in.
There are benefits from combining your personal and professional networks. Many people still hold to the idea that friends and business don’t mix and that you should separate your personal life and professional life. And it’s true that boundaries can be important for work-life balance.
But if you relish what you’re doing, the most interesting friends in the world are often ones with whom you can share both personal matters (discussing hobbies or commiserating about interpersonal relationships) and those related to your business. As I’m writing this article, in fact, I’m on an airplane with one of my closest friends, who nominated me for an elite business consortium that we’re now participating in together. In my time-tracking exercise, I counted my time under multiple categories if it legitimately filled both criteria. Amazingly, this allowed me to have a full 29% more time in my month — 866 hours instead of the typical 672 — which helped me to get more done.
For example, I learned that I spend 19.3 hours per week with friends and 17 hours doing some form of networking. The overlap isn’t perfect, but it’s close, and those relationships have formed the core of my professional success. I might spend more time socializing than some — I live in a city, and I don’t have kids — but the same principle of building overlapping personal and professional circles holds no matter how many hours per week you have to devote.
Certain hours of the day are especially likely to be “wasted.” I don’t waste much time on social media (I define “waste” as time spent scrolling aimlessly through feeds, rather than posting with a professional purpose in mind). In fact, it only came to 2.5 hours during the entire month of February. In the scheme of things, it’s not much, and we don’t need to optimize every minute. But I’d at least like to be deliberate in how I choose to slack off, and social media wouldn’t be my top choice.
During the times when I did fall into the social media rabbit hole, a clear pattern emerged: It almost always occurred between 10 PM and 11 PM. Despite recent questions about the accuracy of Roy Baumeister’s seminal theory of ego depletion, it certainly seemed to be the case for me that I was most susceptible to distraction at that time, when I was worn down from the demands of the day but not tired enough to sleep. Realizing that this time of day is when my defenses are lowest, I can now guard more vigilantly against misspending time.
Certain tasks carry disproportionate psychological weight. Before starting my experiment, my perception was that I was besieged by email, which was crippling my productivity. But the reality was somewhat different. Indeed, I spent about 1.35 hours per day handling messages, which isn’t trifling. But it’s also not overwhelming, and well under the amount of time I allocated each day to pure client work (my top priority), networking and time with friends, and even reading.
However, even recognizing this, email still bothered me the most of any task, and I felt constant psychological pressure when I was “behind” on my response times. It wasn’t so much the frequency of checking email that stressed me out. (Some have experimented with checking email only twice a day, with mixed results.) For me, the anxiety came from the feeling — endemic to the nature of email — that people were awaiting my response and that I was constantly being handed new tasks for my to-do list.
My time-tracking experiment, however, helped me put things into perspective. We may never be able to fully escape feelings of email-related guilt. But I’d much rather accept a minor twinge now because I’m slow in responding to someone’s message (the urgent) than the long-term shame I’d feel looking back and discovering I’d become an email ninja while jettisoning my own strategic priorities (the important).
Time tracking can be onerous. In fact, I assigned the experiment to the mastermind group I run, and several participants just couldn’t finish it. One strategy I used to force myself to log my hours every day was “habit stacking” — tying the new behavior to an existing one. In my case, I left my Excel document open on my computer so that it was the first thing I saw when I returned to work after a break. That prompted me to record whatever I’d been doing in the interval, whether it was sleeping (after an overnight break), taking a meeting, or having lunch.
If you can manage to keep it up, the knowledge gleaned from time tracking can be invaluable. Understanding where you can successfully multitask, essentially giving yourself more hours in the day, can transform your productivity. And recognizing which activities are stressful enables you to make smarter decisions about how to delegate or reshuffle your workflow, so you can optimize for the tasks that suit you best.
Without data, it’s easy to paint an erroneous picture of how we spend our time, whether it’s inadvertently exaggerating the number of hours we work or assuming we’re wasting more time than we really do. My month of time tracking revealed useful insights that have enabled me to become more productive — and if you make an effort to evaluate your schedule, it may highlight ways you can optimize moving forward as well.