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Published on October 23, 2017

What I Learnt by Tracking My Time

Once upon a time…well, at least once, I realized that my personal productivity had fallen. I worked long hours but accomplished too little. I felt I don’t have enough time for anything.

A friend helped by making two straightforward questions. For what don’t you have enough time? How, then, do you spend your time? I could forgive myself that I could not answer the first question. When overloaded with work one easily gets lost with targets and priorities. But it was both humiliating and awakening to realize that I don’t know how I spend my precious time.

I started an effort to track my working time, by minute. It only took me a couple of weeks to learn some important lessons about time.

Lesson 1: Eight hours of daily work takes more than ten hours of working time. It soon became very clear to me that if I spend 10 hours at work I can barely do 8 hours of work. The rest I spent on something else: task-switching, moving from a place to another, chatting with people. I knew this happens to “other people” but I had to accept that it happens to me, too. I realized that I can improve the work/work-time ratio simply by tracking my time. If you force yourself to honestly report two hours of useless work-time every day the time you spend on useless things will magically decrease.

Lesson 2: I spend my time elsewhere than I thought. Before starting my tracking exercise, I made an estimate on how I use my working time. The reality was far from my expectations. I had thought that I spend at least two working days per week on administrative stuff that I much dislike. The reality was five hours. Those small but necessary tasks were scattered in small chunks around my week. Obviously, it was not very productive way of organizing my work.

Lesson 3: I need the feeling of accomplishment. In most white-collar jobs you never get anything completed. There is always progress but the feeling of getting things done is rare. I believe most human beings need regularly the feeling of accomplishing something. I realized I can create those feelings for myself by planning my work so that each chunk of work I plan to do has a proper “definition of done”, no matter how small. In reality I may not have accomplished anything more but still the feeling of achieving my “definition of done” energizes much more than the feeling of “having progressed a bit”. This change of planning habits also made me allocate my time in larger chunks. For me, most things that are really worth doing seem to take 60 to 90 minutes of uninterrupted time.

Lesson 4: E-mail and social media steal my time. I receive a lot of e-mail. Being active in social media is part of my work. But those numerous apps that notify me of new events continuously are a major distraction. I changed my working habits. I shut social media feeds down while working on something else. I began reading my e-mail twice a day only. As a peculiar side-effect of dedicating only a fixed part of my day for e-mail the quality of the e-mails I wrote improved. That resulted in improved quality of my e-mail communications in general. And that, obviously, resulted in more efficient and effective use of my time. There is a downside, though. Those e-mails that I cannot process in the daily timeslot I allocate for e-mail are likely to remain unprocessed forever. Luckily, these are usually either matters that are not worth my time anyway or matters that are so complex that e-mail is the wrong forum for them.

Lesson 5: Protect the calendar for surprises. Making your calendar as full as possible is not efficient use of your time. At least for me, the week is full of surprises that I could not have planned in advance. Some of those things are more important than anything I have planned. I learnt to plan my week so that there is time for surprises. It takes some practice and diligence but it is worth it.

Lesson 6: Use your time on what you’re good at. I found there are so many things I do myself just because delegating them would consume so much of my precious time. What a horrible mistake! In my case, these “small things” are usually something I dislike doing and that I don’t do very well. Therefore, I tended to postpone them as long as possible. I was wasting not only my time but the time of other people, too.

Lesson 7: Talk with people. Talking with people wastes a lot of time. I realized that, in order to optimize by efforts, I had minimized the time I spend with people. It turned out to be really stupid. For me, this is the toughest part of personal time management. The more I spend time with other people the the more I am exposed to inefficient chit-chat and the less I have time for my own tasks. But if I don’t spend time with people I alienate myself from them. It gets more and more tedious to find the common thread for the discussion whenever we need to explain, discuss, and decide things together. Discussing important matters regularly with the people you work with builds and maintains a common ground for effective and efficient collaboration.

Lesson 8: Talk about important things only. If you happen to be some sort of manager discuss only things that you believe are important for the success of your business and your team. It happens that, because of your position, anything you talk about will be considered important.