As a colleague once said to me, “I don’t know what I did all day, but I spent all day doing it.” That feeling of having been busy but ineffective is common in the modern wired world, and identifying time sinks can be difficult when you’re in the midst of so much multitasking.
As a recent Harvard Business Review article suggests, there’s really only one way to fix it: first, you need to figure out what’s broken. Like any experiment, you need to gather data in a controlled way and then analyse it. In my workshops I recommend good old fashioned time assessment. No apps, no electronic tools – just pen and paper, a watch and a calendar. Here’s how it works:
- On a lined sheet of paper (in my day, it was a loose leaf sheet), number the lines starting at midnight, through 24 hours. Make 14 columns on the page, one for each day of the week for two weeks.
- You need to decide on 3-5 categories that you will allocate your time to. One for sure will be sleep; the others might be driving (if you commute), class and studying (if you’re a student), work, working out – things that you can bucket together, that you already know you spend time at. To each of these, assign a colour – for me, it was black for sleep, green for work, orange for class, yellow for studying. For time and activity that doesn’t fall into these categories, you will leave them colourless and write in (in shorthand) what you do.
- The next is simple – for at least two weeks, keep track of your time in 30 minute increments, colouring or writing in what you’re up to. Keep the sheet or notebook with you all the time, and record your time regularly and often. And don’t change your habits – keep doing what you always do. You need the raw data to figure out where best to make the changes.
- After at least two weeks, review the tracking sheets. Can you see any patterns, with your sleep or your other time? Are there sinks – repeated or extended times that you’re doing something less than productive? Are there opportunities to change your schedule to take advantage of those sinks?
The first time I did this assessment was in school, and I was able to see better ways to schedule study breaks to take advantage of times when I was being…well, less than productive (even in the days before the Internet). By scheduling study time in those sinks, I felt I was being more effective.
Several years later, I did the exercise again. I was frustrated by having so little time to connect and catch up with friends, and felt that I was doing nothing but work. It should have been obvious, but it wasn’t until I looked at it objectively by tracking my time. Turns out, I was spending 14-18 hours a week in the car, commuting between the city and the suburbs. During that time sink, I was doing nothing except get from A to B and back again. Bingo – found time. I got a hands free set for my cell phone (again, a long time before iPhones and Bluetooth ear pieces); now I could talk to people on the way home. I also got some books on CD (again, dating myself…) for the drive, which was more calming, rewarding and entertaining than the radio.
Nowadays, I’m sure I’d see that being online – on Facebook or email – take up chunks of my mornings and evenings. Right now I do think my time is pretty balanced, but I know if or when it does feel unbalanced again, I can redo the experiment and likely tweak things as needed.
One of the advantages of the non-digital and hand-drawn approach is that you can customize the colours, style and categories to work for you. More importantly, you are more likely to be honest and remember things that you write in your own handwriting than things you type or things you record in an app. (For more on this, there's a great article on why you learn more effectively by writing than by typing here).
So, how will you spend your 168 hours this week?