I spent a big chunk of my late twenties and early thirties trying to find the perfect time management recipe to lead me to the promised land of the ideal life (before that I was too busy being a slacker). I read books and articles with titles like:
- 17 Habits Of People Who Are Happy, Healthy And Successful!
- If You Want To Be Happy, Healthy And Successful, Start Doing These 10 Things Now!
- 25 Habits Of People Who Are Happy, Healthy & Successful!
- 10 Ways To Live a Happy and Successful Life!
- 10 Habits That Will Help You Be More Happy, Healthy, and Successful!
- 50 Ways Happier, Healthier and More Successful People Live on Their Own Terms!
(Note: all of the above are real articles that I was able to find in under a minute)
And I succeeded in executing a lot of the habits and tactics that the literature recommended. I meditated at least 20 minutes daily for over two years; I trained for and ran a marathon; I learned how to cook for myself; I managed to build a half decent professional career; I launched a side business or two by doing an extra couple of hours of work in the morning.
And then, a little under a year ago, despite having built a life that I’m pretty damn happy with, I stopped doing almost all of those things.
Because these lists must either written by:
a) people who don’t practice what they preach,
b) people who don’t have kids, or
c) people who have kids but have someone else take care of them
The catalyst aka “Baby!”
Last year my wife and I had our first child. And suddenly, I was finding it difficult to find enough time in a day to shower. Let alone find thirty minutes to meditate, or exercise, or write, or read!
Concerned, I took an informal survey, and was reassured to find out that this was absolutely normal for new parents.
Breathing a sigh of relief, I asked the logical follow-up, “So, when do I get my time back?”
Answer: “Right around when your kids go off to college.”
At this point, there’s a group of people reading this who are thinking that I’m just not doing it right. After all, there must be plenty of people who follow all the productivity advice, and as a result are living the “Ideal Life.”
In order to see how that could be feasible, I decided to make a (non-exhaustive) list of all the things I should be doing to lead a happy, healthy and successful life according to the gurus:
- Sleep – because we now know that sleep isn’t just a luxury, it’s important for your health, and will make you more productive
- Meditate – because every book published in the West in the last 10 years mentions meditation as a way to get happier, healthier and more successful
- Exercise – health
- Eat home-cooked meals – health again
- Journal in the morning – to set yourself up for a productive day
- Journal before bed – to express gratitude, a key to happiness
- Wake up early to work on my side hustle – because you can’t be successful if you’re only working on one thing at a time… right?
- Read – because that’s how you get smarter, which helps with health, happiness and success
- Work – because you have to pay for all those meditation classes
- Hygiene – because you still have to shower!
Those are some of the most common habits that get recommended. So, just for fun, I wanted to see how long it would take if I wanted to do all of these things daily:
- Sleep: 8 hours
- Meditate: 30 minutes
- Exercise: 1 hour
- Eat home-cooked meals – including prep, eating and clean-up: 2 hours
- Journal in the morning: 15 minutes
- Journal before bed: 15 minutes
- Wake up early to work on your side hustle: 1 hour
- Read: 30 minutes
- Work (including commuting time): 10 hours
- Hygiene: 30 minutes
Add that all up and I get to… 24 hours! That’s amazing. Everything I need to be happy, healthy and successful fits into a single day. How awesome is that?
But wait, hold on a second. When do I do laundry and clean the house? I guess that’s on the weekend. What about grocery shopping and running errands? Also weekends, I suppose. Walking the dog? I guess that could be part of the hour of exercise. Seeing friends? Again, weekends. Relatives? Holidays, maybe. Quality time with my spouse? I mean, we’re sleeping together for 8 hours a day, so that’s probably enough. Netflix? HAH!
But the real missing piece: Assuming I want to be an actively involved parent, where does that fit?
By now, hopefully you get the point. I couldn’t do it all. Time is finite, and it was clear that I needed to make choices about how I spent it. That meant that if I wanted to do the things on the above list, I would need to make trade-offs. And the currency I was trading in was time.
But in order to make the right choices, I needed to know what I was choosing. There’s a good chance that as you were reading my list above, you were thinking something along the lines of, “8 hours of sleep? What a slacker,” or “Only 10 hours for work and commuting? In what world?” or, “who needs hygiene?”
Okay, hopefully, not that last one. But, the point is that the above numbers will be different from person to person. That said, I didn’t even know what my numbers were. That’s when I started to track my time. And quickly, a few things became clear.
The first was that even though I say that sleep is important to me and that I try to get a minimum of 7 hours per night, the reality is that there are plenty of nights where that number is much lower.
The second, and probably the most important, is that there is a ton of time spent doing things that are really hard to track, and even harder to predict. For example, my phone rings. It’s my mom. She wants to know if we’re coming for Sunday dinner. Also, how’s the baby? The dog? The wife? Maybe the conversation only takes 5 minutes, but if every minute is accounted for in a 24-hour day, where is that 5 minutes coming from? And there are a ton of these tiny little interruptions in everyday life.
I hit a little extra traffic on the way to work. I spilled a cup of coffee and need to clean up the mess. I feel a little sluggish and it takes me an extra five minutes just to get started on the next task. My son doesn’t want to go down for his nap. I get distracted by Twitter and spend ten minutes scrolling the feed.
I once saw a comic strip that illustrated what the TV series 24 would look like if it were a reality show. You’d have an entire episode dedicated to Jack Bauer in a bathroom stall regretting his decision to order the fish on a Monday. Such is real life. No one is productive every minute of the day.
The other advantage of tracking my time was that once I’d begun to do it, I could look back on my week and decide whether I’d spent too much, too little, or just enough time on each area. And even better, I could then make conscious adjustments to how I was spending my time, knowing full well what I was giving up.
If I wanted to spend more time with my son, then I knew I’d need to cut back on something else. Maybe the side hustle had to go. Or maybe I only needed to exercise every second day. Or, heaven forbid, maybe I didn’t have to meditate!
How I Tracked My Time
I went through a few different methods of tracking my time, and ultimately wound up with a system that works for me. Maybe this could work for you, maybe not. But here’s what I did.
1. A running list.
I started in the simplest way possible by creating a running list of everything I did, and next to each item, I wrote the start time and the stop time. I did this on a legal pad, but it could be done in a pocket notebook, on a phone, or even on a napkin.
My lists looked something like:
Feed the baby: 1am-1:30am
Work out: 1 hour
Mediate: 30 minutes
Work on your side project: 30 minutes
Breakfast: 15 minutes
Drive to work: 45 minutes
At the end of the day and week, I’d combine similar items into categories and add up the amount of time spent on each. Eg. Breakfast and dinner would fall into “Meals,” and feeding/changing/putting the baby to sleep would fall into “Family time.”
2. Using a calendar
At some point, I started losing track of all the paper, and so I decided to go digital and started tracking my time using Google calendar. Since GCal pretty much runs my life during business hours, I thought it would make sense to use it for the rest of the day as well. Aside from the tool used, the calendar approach worked the same way as the running list.
Ultimately, though, tracking time in GCal was cumbersome, since outside of work hours, I don’t spend much time in front of a computer, and adding things to a calendar on a smartphone is a pain. Which led me to my preferred method.
3. Using a daily tracker
What I didn’t like about the two previous approaches is that I needed to constantly be noting things down. Also, I would need to spend time at the end of the day or week trying to figure out what category something fits into, and then I needed to remember to stay consistent with those categories.
Instead, I changed my approach and decided to start with a predetermined list of categories or habits that were important to me and that I wanted to measure. Using this list, I created a table with the name of the category in the first column, and the day of the week along the first row. Then, at the end of each day, I would look back on my list of categories and from memory, I would fill in how long I spent on each.
This table could be created a spreadsheet, on a legal pad, or written in a notebook. Ultimately, I used a dedicated habit tracker, which is specifically designed for this use (full disclaimer: if you buy that notebook, I’ll make a few bucks, but on the flip side, you can literally just copy the table for free).
The downside to this approach is that because I’m only noting things once per day, my measurements weren’t going to be as accurate. However, this was a worthwhile trade-off if it meant I was saving the time of religiously noting down timeslots all day long. And besides, the goal here was to get a sense of where my time was going. No one was going to die if I overestimated how long I spent getting to work by five minutes.
The other consequence of this approach was that I invariably ended up with a tally for the day that was less than 24 hours. That’s normal, because as I was saying earlier, there’s a lot of random stuff that goes into a day. So, the difference between the 24 hours and all the habits I was tracking was just the miscellaneous stuff that happens every day.
Reviewing the Week
One habit from all those productivity articles that I still maintain is doing a weekly review. Except, my weekly review is quicker now.
At the end of the week, I sum up the rows of my habit tracker, and see where my time is going in any given week. Then, I compare that to how I think I should be spending my time. I write down a few notes about it, and that’s it.
Tracking vs Planning
Now, if you’re a true productivity junkie, you’re thinking that this is the part where I now go ahead and plan the coming week minute-by-minute to make sure I get closer to my ideal distribution of how I spend my time.
At least that’s what I used to do. That is, until I stopped doing that too.
I found that when I planned my life minute-by-minute, it was too rigid, and the end result was either: I would abandon my plan altogether because it was so rigid I couldn’t stick to it; or I would stick to the plan fanatically, not allowing room in my life for anything spontaneous.
The first outcome is bad for obvious reasons: It’s pointless.
The second outcome is bad because everyone needs room in life for spontaneity. That’s what life is. Sticking too rigidly to a schedule means saying no to serendipity, and opportunities. It also leads to feelings of frustration when things don’t go according to plan, and, if you’re a parent, you know that that’s more often than not.
My solution? I didn’t plan. The simple act of tracking how I spent my time, meant that throughout the week, I always had it in the back of my mind. I would make subtle changes to my behavior, without even realizing it. And over time, my mix of time got closer to what I was striving for. All the while, still leaving me the flexibility to live life.
I didn’t invent this approach. It’s a variation of the principle behind the saying, “what gets measured, gets managed.” Another example of this is action is losing weight simply by tracking your weigh-ins.
The End Result
Am I accomplishing everything I should be accomplishing on a daily or weekly basis? Do I think I’ll ever meet my ideal goal of how I want to spend my time? No. I don’t think life works that way.
I think as soon as you “master” one part of life, you immediately move on to the next, because otherwise, it would be too easy. It would be like playing a video game where you just keep replaying level 1 over and over again.
However, by being intentional about how I spend my time, I gain a sense of empowerment. Now, while I still occasionally feel stressed, and while large portions of my life are still completely outside my control, at least I know that when I look back on my day, I can easily tell whether or not I should feel good about it.