Tracking My Time: How I Found More Hours in My Day

30 August 2016 · 16 comments

Since arriving home to Portland at the end of June, I’ve felt frustrated. There’s so much I want to do but never enough time to do it. At the same time, I feel like a total whiner. I mean, how lucky am I to be in this situation? I have tons of free time, no job, and I’m really able to do whatever I want. I’m damned lucky is what I am.

Yet it feels like I never do what I want. It feels like I’m always doing things I have to do or things for other people.

A couple of weeks ago, I was talking with my friend Paula Pant about this problem. “I wish I could figure out where all of the time is going,” I said.

“You should do a time inventory,” Paula said.

“What’s a time inventory?” I asked.

“Well, you know how the first step to losing weight is tracking calories? And you know how the first step to getting out of debt is logging how much you earn and spend? Well, a time inventory is sort of the same thing. For a certain length of time, you write down exactly how you’re spending your time. Here. I’ll send you a link.”

Paula pointed me to Laura Vanderkam’s website. Vanderkam offers free downloadable PDF forms and spreadsheets to help people track their time in fifteen-minute increments. As you go about your day, you jot down what you’re doing at various intervals.

Paula recently performed this time inventory exercise in her own life and found she was wasting almost eighteen hours a week on mindless stuff. Sounds like a lot, right? Well, last week I logged exactly where my time has been going. I’m afraid my results are worse than Paula’s…

The Good

First up, let’s look at what I’m doing right. The results of this experiment weren’t all bad, after all.

For instance, I’m getting an average of one hour per day of exercise. Last week I went to Crossfit three times, yoga once, and enjoyed a few bike rides. That doesn’t include all of the times I walked to do errands or took the dog for her exercise.

Note: I haven’t mentioned it here, but Kim and I got a dog. Near the end of our trip, we stopped to visit my cousins in Tahlequah, Oklahoma. They had a littler of seven puppies, and Kim fell in love with the runt. We adopted her, named her Tahlequah, and brought her along for the last three weeks in the motorhome. Since returning to Portland, Tally has probably been the dominant theme in our lives. Puppies need a lot of attention.

Speaking of the new dog, Kim and I also adopted two kittens recently. According to my time inventory, I’m spending a full 2-1/2 hours per day with the pets. The cats don’t require much effort, of course (although they’re happy to play with humans), but Tally takes 3-5 hours each day, which Kim and I split between us. She needs two daily walks and plenty of play around the house. So far, we’ve been great about engaging with her. We hope this produces a happy, healthy dog in the long run, one that needs less time. (Fingers crossed!)

Finally, I’ve been averaging one hour per day with family and friends. On paper, that doesn’t actually sound like a lot, but turns out it’s actually quite a bit compared to most people.

The Bad

I wouldn’t be writing this post if I were doing a good job with time management. I’m not. I’m wasting more than thirty hours each week on non-productive activities. Like what?

Like, I spent an average of 2-1/2 hours each day watching TV and movies. Yikes! For a guy who says he doesn’t watch much TV, that’s an awful lot of TV. All told, that’s 17-1/2 hours I could have used for something more rewarding. To be fair, seven of those hours came when Kim and I decided to have a movie night. And two more were devoted to watching my Portland Timbers defeat the Seattle Sounders. But still…

But that’s not all.

I also frittered away thirteen hours and fifteen minutes on what I consider computer-based time-wasters: browsing Reddit, playing Hearthstone, and so on. That’s nearly two hours per day of time lost. Not good.

Aside from thirty hours of total wasted time, I lost hours in other ways.

For example, I spent a total of four hours in the car last week, which is just over half an hour per day. That might not sound like much, but it’s a lot for me. That’s time I’ll never get back.

It took me over eight hours to do chores and errands last week. That seems like a lot. Now part of that was because I did a deep clean of the house on Thursday, it’s true. And another part is because I tend to walk for my errands, which means they take a bit longer. All the same, this seems like a lot of time to have used for menial tasks. Maybe I can find ways to be more efficient?

Finally, I averaged nine hours and twenty minutes of sleep per night. WTF? When did I start hibernating? In the olden days, I was perfectly content with 7-1/2 hours per night. And often I could get by with six hours per night. I’ll bet that I could still get by with less sleep, but I got into the habit of sleeping tons during our roadtrip.

The Ugly

So, that’s where my time is going. And it’s not pretty. But perhaps even worse is where I’m not devoting my energy. My stated number-one goal is to build and promote Money Boss, my new financial blog. But am I doing that? No, I am not.

Last week, I only spent 7-1/2 hours writing material for Money Boss — and most of that came on Sunday morning. I consider this my top priority, yet I’m not treating it as such. This needs to change.

I spent another 7-1/2 hours working on Money Boss business matters last week: answering email, preparing talks, tinkering with the website. That’s a total of fifteen hours devoted to my business. I want to double that. I want to spend 30-40 hours each week on Money Boss and related projects.

Meanwhile, I’m not taking care of me. Over the past seven days, I allocated a mere four hours to personal care and self-improvement — and most of that was stuff like showering and shaving! I did take an hour to practice Spanish mid-week, and I took my usual hour to work on my personal finances on the weekend. But that’s it. This too needs to change.

Time to Change

In order for an exercise like this to be useful, you’ve got to be completely honest about your habits. And you can’t try to make changes during the assessment period. When you initially log your spending, your eating, or your time, your goal is to document what you’re doing in normal day-to-day life. If you try to make changes during the assessment period, you’re defeating the purpose.

Now that the assessment period is over for me, it’s clear what I need to do.

First up, I’d like to find at least two hours more per day to devote to Money Boss. And I’d like that time to be structured so that I know it’s there and I can use it productively. Those are two separate problems.

I feel like there are several ways I can approach the first part of the problem. Just as you should tackle the big things in your household budget before trying to pinch pennies on the smaller line-items, I’m going to start by trying to trim the biggest timesinks.

I can create more time in my day by:

  • Sleeping less. I should be able to easily move to 7-1/2 hours of sleep per night, which would free up nearly two hours per day. Boom! There’s fourteen hours per week — almost the amount I want to find for working on business.
  • I don’t want to eliminate TV, movies, websurfing, and videogames from my life. I like spending a bit of time on those hobbies. But do I need to spend four hours and twenty minutes per day on these things combined? Hell no! If I budget two hours per day for time-wasters, I think that’s plenty.

With these two changes alone, I’d free four hours and fifteen minutes each day to spend on more important things, such as business and personal growth. For instance, if I take three of those hours for Money Boss, that’ll give me 36 hours per week of work. Perfect. And if I use the other hour and a quarter I’ve freed up to work on becoming a better person, that’ll give me nearly two hours a day for self-improvement. Nice.

The second part of the problem is more difficult. Where do I put this time in my schedule? The ideal situation would be to wake early or go to bed late. I like going to bed with Kim, so that means my only option is to wake early. I’ve done well with rising early in the past, but by that I mean 5:30 or 6:00. To do what I want to do, I’m going to have to wake even earlier. I’m going to need to get up at 4:00 or 4:30, make coffee, and get directly to work.

Another option is to wake at 4:30, go to the 5:00 Crossfit class, come home and walk the dog, then sit down to work from eight until noon. Actually, thinking out loud, that’s probably the best option. It’ll suck at first — no question! — but in the long run, I’ll be much more productive.

The Ideal Schedule

So, there you have it. After all that, I’ve arrived at an “ideal schedule”. It looks something like this:

Monday, Wednesday, Friday
04:30 wake
04:45 drive to gym (sorry, Mr. Money Mustache)
05:00 Crossfit
06:15 drive home
06:30 take the dog for a walk
08:00 grab breakfast and sit down to work
13:00 end work, eat lunch (with somebody, if possible)
14:00 personal development
16:00 go into evening mode

Tuesday, Thursday
04:30 wake, grab coffee, start working
06:30 take the dog for a walk
08:00 grab breakfast and resume work
13:00 end work, eat lunch (with somebody, if possible)
14:00 personal development
16:00 go into evening mode

Look at that! With this schedule, I’ve built in 29 hours of work — and that doesn’t count afternoons or weekends. I love it. I’ve also built in ten hours for self-improvement. Yay!

I like this schedule because:

  • I’m free to do as I please after four o’clock every weekday afternoon.
  • Aside from Crossfit on Saturday mornings, my weekends are entirely free.

The challenge for me is to be militant about protecting my mornings. That’s my time. No meetings, no appointments, no errands. Only my priorities. It can be done. (I’ve done it before!)

Today is my second day on this ideal schedule. Yesterday morning, I woke early and went to Crossfit. I didn’t make the 5 a.m. class, but I did make it to the six o’clock session. Then I came home and walked the dog. Then I worked until one. And this morning, Kim and I got up together at 4:45. Here, two hours later, I’m done with this article and ready to take the dog for a walk. (She’s ready too!)

I have high hopes that this ideal schedule will allow me to get stuff done and give me plenty of time left over for play.

Note: By chance, my pal Chris Guillebeau recently published a related article: Eight ways to have more time.

1 Bethany @ Dose of Discovery August 30, 2016 at 07:35

I heard Paula talk about this on her podcast recently and was intrigued by the idea of tracking my time (although maybe frightened is a better word). I might give it a shot after Labor Day! Thanks for sharing your experience!

2 Eileen August 30, 2016 at 09:48

Sometimes blog entries come at the exact right time for the reader. Chalk up the 15 minute “time scanning feedly” to time well spent today.

This is exactly what I need to read this week. Thanks JD!

3 ESI Money August 30, 2016 at 11:34

Check out the book “Miracle Morning” from the library. It tells how to get results by getting up earlier and getting things done.

That said, looks like you already have a great plan for doing that, but you still may enjoy the book.

4 Stian August 31, 2016 at 09:44

Hi JD!
It looks like you set up a super productive plan. I think it looks quite ambitious to overhaul your agenda like that. You’re a mighty man if you pull it off. I’m looking forward to hearing how it goes.
Personally I wouldn’t cut as much sleep as you’re planning. A lot of the western world is under-sleeping and I bet that you were undersleeping as well at 6,5 hours per day. If you can manage to sleep 9 hours, then you are blessed.
Also, even if you are spending many hours in front of the TV that doesn’t necessarily mean it is very bad. Personally I get up at 6:30 in the morning. At 8 in the evening I can no longer do anything productive. I’m so tired I can barely fold laundry. So I could watch TV at that point without it affecting my productivity in any way.
Making notes of how you use your hours is a good first step but even more important is where you put your energy. I have my energy in the mornings, and it seems like you do too. Making sure that I use my mornings effectively is much more important than what I do in the evenings.

Thanks!

5 LennStar September 3, 2016 at 01:21

Be careful with cutting sleep. The worst you can do is cutting sleep you need, because it wakes you worse on EVERYTHING else. (And that is also the worst personal result of our working society imho)
If you need 7,5 or 9,5 only you can know. Feeling sleepy? Or brilliantly wake?

You can test that by not sleeping for a night (or better 2, but then you need someone to wake you all the time and of course dont go out, too dangerous) and then catch that sleep up and THEN you should get your real sleep needs (dont get hung on TV times or other people etc., just you).

We all need our sleep, but how much and when is different. (I would be half dead if I would wake at 4:30 for example, I am an 10:30 – 7:30 type, with 8,5 hours sleep half an hour time to get to sleep – did you substract that time?).

6 Bruce September 3, 2016 at 10:43

When we had our first child I had to reboot my sleep schedule to get more time out of the day. During that first year when I needed to get by on 5 hrs or less sleep per day I shifted to polyphasic sleeping. When things settled down a bit but I still needed more hours in a day I shifted to biphasic sleeping with a 5-6 hour core sleep and then a 20-90 min nap in the afternoon. I found that once I was looking for 5.5 – 7.5 hrs of sleep per day this was a much better solution than just one core sleep per day. Neither a biphasic nor polyphasic sleep schedule would probably be ideal for your current scenario but if you find you need more time in the day still they are worth a shot. I still use them from time to time. Actually, now that both my kids are starting school I may shift to biphasic sleep again since I’ll have time in the afternoon available for a nap.

7 ZJ Thorne September 4, 2016 at 13:02

I would cut tv and scanning the internet before I cut sleep. Bodies and minds need the time to rejuvenate themselves.

8 AnnWilson September 4, 2016 at 21:56

With so much cross-fit, you need lots of sleep for recovery. Are you hydrating? You need to drink almost 100 ounces of water, plain water, every day. Also, you want to win your genetic lottery, so I wouldn’t mess with your sleep schedule. Seriously.
You can gain many hours of self improvement by listening to audio books in the car, or when you are walking the dog. Practice your Spanish then. Also, once or twice a week you could hire a dog walker while you work at your real job. Puppies can’t log a lot of miles, they aren’t ready for it. And let the dog play with the cats. You must be the first person to actually play with a puppy for several hours a day!
Remember that your main purpose in being your own boss was to make time to enjoy your life, which you thought was going to be relatively short. Getting up at 4:30 in the morning, just to get 4-5 hours of work in just seems bizarre. But good luck. Thanks for the tip about the time audit. I need to try it!

9 JP September 6, 2016 at 13:39

Interesting post, have never thought about time management by applying tactics similar to personal finance.

10 PinchThePennies September 7, 2016 at 11:04

HI J.D.,
I think that you could count half the time of walking the dog as exercise – it may not feel like “real” exercise to you, i.e. not in a gym doing crossfit etc., but walking her and throwing sticks or a ball for her to fetch does exercise your body. Just in different ways than in a gym.

The same goes for running errands – if you’re walking in order to do an errand, regardless of what it is you need to do, then again I would count up to half of the time spent on walking under exercise.

With all of that said I would strongly suggest not skimping on sleep whatsoever. The body needs sleep in order to function properly and to “repair” any “damage” inflicted upon it by exercise and lifestyle habits – it does not pay in the long term to not give your body the time required to recover.

All the best, Pinch

11 Kimberly September 8, 2016 at 07:56

Thanks for your thorough writing on the subject! I appreciate all you do, sharing and analyzing and making recommendations.
Time management sounds like it is a look at how you operationalize your goals to meet a vision. When you find that you are doing activities that don’t help you get to your vision, you need to reassess.
One caution to consider…what if a person doesn’t really see the disconnect? I guess they would need to read articles like this to consider what is a value. For example, down time is productive time for me. It is valued, but in balance. Traveling ..driving in particular…might be an opportunity for me to really connect with God, a proven way to destress and be happier.
I know you’ll do well in your new approach. Keep up the good work!

12 Andi Blackwell September 9, 2016 at 15:05

I am going to try this, although I’m disturbed that I’m already aware of what some of the results will be. The one thing that struck me in your audit is if you find that you are still spending too much time cleaning, that might be something good to leverage with a housekeeper?

So how do you keep yourself honest during the week of review? I know that most people never eat as healthily as they do when they have to track it and I’m pretty sure Facebook will cease to exist when I do this. How do you make sure it’s realistic?

And lastly, if you want company on one of those lunches, just send up a flare!

13 El Nerdo September 21, 2016 at 10:23

SLEEP MORE!!! SLEEP MORE!!!

Sleeping less is asking for high cortisol levels, poor concentration, insufficient exercise recovery, accidents, depression, and general doom.

Things I’ve been reading lately indicate that the first 3 hours of work are #1 for productivity and creativity. So why not start every morning working for 3 hours solid, maybe with a pomodoro timer to prevent distractions, and push the drudgery and workouts and whatever laziness for later in the day?

Personally, If I start the morning with a heavy workout then I’m sleepy/can’t concentrate all day. I’m always braindead by the afternoon anyway so that’s a good time to chop wood or go climb hills– then shower, dinner, relax, family time.

Best wishes!

14 Steven Goodwin September 24, 2016 at 18:23

This is great! I actually had already downloaded my time tracking sheet and was going to start tracking my week starting on Monday to see how my week ended up. Then, I will be able to do an evaluation as well! Looking forward to hearing more about your progress!

You are in a different section of life though as I stay at home with my 2 girls (4 and 2) and they are my main priority at this time. I squeeze my blog in secondary at this point. We did just join the gym and I’m trying to go for an hour per day to get out of the house as well as get a break and work on me time! I’ve started listening to podcasts while working out as well to make my time more productive as well! Thanks for posting!

15 derek September 27, 2016 at 14:54

You only apologized to MMM once, that must be some sort of record. ;)

16 Randall Willis June 25, 2017 at 14:54

Good, thought-provoking article that I should have skipped since now I should think about it.

My biggest problem–by far, is doing what a friend calls “shuffling papers; which is a very good term for what I do. My beloved bride says, Use something and then put it back where it belongs (yes, I am one of those guys). I need not contact a

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