Where’s All Your Time Really Going?

At the end of a year, we tend to look back at what we’ve accomplished – and what we want to go on and achieve. I know that in past years, I’ve often wondered where my time went. Do you feel like that, as though you’ve not really managed to do all that much over the past twelve months? Do you feel like you’re constantly busy – but without much to show for it?

We’ve all got twenty-four hours in the day and, like it or not, your time is going somewhere. Here’s how to find out where – and how to make some adjustments to ensure more of your time is being spent on exactly what you want to spend it on.

Time Logging

Known as time logging or time tracking, this is the practice of recording what you do at intervals throughout the day. It might sound like a waste of time – but it’s incredibly good at revealing weaknesses you didn’t know you had. (I know that doesn’t sound terribly enticing!)

There are several ways to do this: find one which is as simple and unobtrusive for you as possible. A couple that work for me are:

  • Use a spreadsheet marked with 15 minute intervals. (8.00, 8.15, 8.30 etc). Record what you were doing at each time (just put ditto marks if you were carrying on with the same activity).
  • Use a notebook and write each activity on a separate line, with its start time. Include any interruptions that cropped up – indent these to make them obvious.

If you do this for a week, you’ll get a very clear picture of exactly how long you’re spending on different tasks. You’ll also be more aware of interruptions and “urgent” tasks which crop up and send your plan off-schedule.

Many people find that tracking their time helps them to stay accountable – just as successful dieters often find that keeping a food diary makes them think twice about that extra cookie.

Task Switching

Whenever you switch between tasks, you take a bit of time to get “into” the next item on the list. If you’re writing a big report and stop to read your email, then start writing an email and stop to answer the phone, then have to go to a meeting, then get back to the report … you can quickly see why you might take a few minutes to figure out where you left off! If you’re doing creative work, switching between tasks can take you out of the “zone” and may even make you forget that great idea which you were starting to form.

If your time log involves a lot of switching between tasks, look and see if you can batch together similar ones. For example, can you write a bunch of emails in a single half-hour, rather than spending several separate five-or-ten-minute periods on them? Can you schedule all your  meetings or calls for the afternoon, leaving the morning free to get on with high-energy work?

Charlie Gilkey puts this very clearly:

So you might have two hour-long calls at 2pm and 4pm. You’ll naturally start to disengage from whatever you’re doing before that 2pm call at around 1:45, and you might have a hard time engaging in anything after that 2pm call until 3:15. But you’ll also disengage at 3:45 for your 4pm call in the same way. If your “work hours” for the afternoon are 1pm to 5:30pm, you’d be hard-pressed to get a lot done that afternoon outside of your calls.

(Charlie Gilkey, The Key to Consistent Creativity and Productivity, Productive Flourishing)

Keeping Focused

Many of us have a problem with focus – both on a macro and a micro level.

On the macro level, we’re often chasing too many goals. Perhaps next year won’t be the year when you finally write a novel, lose 50lbs, start your own business and find your life partner … but it definitely could be the year for one of those. Trying to do too many things at once often means that you don’t see any of them through to completion.

On a micro level, there are a lot of distractions going on that keep us from getting on with the tasks which take us towards our goals. You probably know your particular nemesis: whether it’s television, Facebook, Twitter, or watching funny videos of cats. Focusing on the task at hand doesn’t require great self-discipline: it’s a habit which gets easier the more you practice it – and there are various tricks (like listening to music) which can help you to stay focused.

Have you found out anything about where your time has gone over the past week, month or year? What changes are you going to be making next year to make sure your time goes where YOU want it to?

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