Laura Vanderkam shares her strategies for tracking your time

Time management expert and author explains how you have more time than you think.

I wanted to share a few discoveries I have made in my almost two years of logging my time use.

First, it is OK to lose some detail. A lot of people get sidetracked because they aren’t doing any one thing for half an hour, and so they decide to describe each individual minute or activity, and then the whole task becomes overwhelming.

I was up with the toddler at 5:25 a.m. this morning. During the next hour, we read several books, I made coffee, we played a bit, we watched the Olympics, I changed a lovely diaper and so forth. On my log, the 5:30 and 6 slots became “coffee/watch Olympics w/A.” Plenty of weekend slots become “hangout w/family.” I often just write “work” during my work slots, even though I might be on the phone and then on email and then writing something, etc. If I wanted to drill down on work hours in order to boost efficiency there, I might decide to be more granular. If I thought that my multitasking was so bad it was destroying my life, then I might want to track individual distractions. It is a personal choice, though, based on goals.

Second, time tracking is more about landmarks than continuity. I notice that during days I am off my computer, I do a quick glance at the clock occasionally and make a mental note of the time and what I am doing. This then allows me to reconstruct the day later based on these markers. It is kind of like if you were describing how to get to the local library (go out the driveway, turn left at the light, turn right past the fire station, then a left at the stop sign and you’ll see it!). I can generally do a full 24 hours this way. If you are just starting to track time, that will be harder, but you can jot down a few highlights on a sticky note or something and reconstruct the whole thing on a log later.

During days you are near your log sheet, it helps to have some sort of trigger to remember to record your time. A practical one: Every time you take a bathroom break, write down what you did since the last one.

Another reason this becomes easier: People’s lives have certain rhythms. After a few days you will likely notice that you are getting up around the same time and eating around the same time and doing similar things upon returning home. You don’t have to remember as much because you can make an educated guess that if you were showering at 7 a.m. Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, the odds are good you did so on Thursday as well. Weekends can be a free-for-all, which is what makes them harder to track. But it is precisely because weekends are nebulous that it can be enlightening to track them.

I don’t find time tracking onerous, which is why I’ve been doing it for the last 16 months. When I have people reconstruct the previous day in workshops, it seldom takes more than a few minutes. But if you do find it to be a pain, it might help to tell yourself that it is only for seven days. Or even just for three! (Sunday-Monday-Tuesday could give a good picture of many people’s lives). The insights gained from tracking can help you tweak your schedule, and then you never have to do it again if you don’t want to. But you might want to! I find it helpful enough that it’s worth the effort.

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