I think of myself as someone who’s pretty good at sticking to a schedule. I love to schedule out my time down to the minute and get things done efficiently. At the same time, I definitely spend a lot of my time doing… uhhh, something on my phone. I’m not exactly sure what, but I seem to average about four hours a day of screen time and I know that doesn’t all come from finding my next podcast on Spotify. In order to get a better idea of what I really do with my time, I spent one whole day tracking everything I did, and boy, did I learn a lot from that.
First, here’s the breakdown. In total, I was awake for 16 hours and 25 minutes. We’ll break that down into “productive time”, “intentional relaxation time” and “wasted time”. What goes where is ultimately a bit arbitrary, but the difference between intentional relaxation time and wasted time is that intentional relaxation time is time that I spent doing an activity that I find valuable, but that isn’t necessarily “productive”. Wasted time is basically all those times I got accidentally sucked into my phone.
Intentional Relaxation Time:
In case you’re curious about how exactly all of this went down, here’s what I wrote down:
And here is what my calendar looked like for that day:
So what did I learn from all of this?
The biggest thing I learned is actually that I’m much less likely to get on my phone and scroll if I have to write that action down and then tell people about it. I spent about an hour scrolling on my phone when I monitored my day, but I know that I typically average almost four hours of screen time each day. I attribute this change to a couple different things.
The biggest reason that monitoring my time kept me from getting on my phone is that in order to get on my phone, I knew I’d have to take twenty seconds to write down that I was getting on my phone, and that just didn’t seem worth it. Knowing I’d have to write it down made me pause and reconsider whether I actually wanted to be on my phone or if I was just picking it up as a distraction.
Switching tasks already takes a bit of effort, and when I add “write it down” as an additional bit of effort, the total effort of switching tasks was now big enough that I usually decided it was easier to just keep doing whatever I was doing.
Knowing that the record of my time was going to end up on the internet also helped me to limit my scrolling time. I knew that I was recording my time in order to write a post about it, and I didn’t want to have to show up here and tell you all that I spent four hours on Instagram.
I also didn’t like looking at those words on the page, or having to write them down. Knowing that I had to write down that I was getting on Twitter felt like admitting defeat. I had to stop and acknowledge that I was about to do a thing that I know I don’t want to spend time doing. Writing down what I did all day forced me to really face how I was spending my time, which in turn caused me to make better choices.
Aside from that, I was also quite surprised that I spent so much of the evening being productive. Typically I prefer to get the bulk of my work done early in the day because that is when I’m most focused, so it surprised me to see that I spent almost an hour and a half focused and working around 7 p.m. I was not surprised to see that my productivity dropped off a bit in the late afternoon. I have this drop built into my schedule because I know that I’ll hit a slump around 3, and I find a break to be the best way to get my energy back up.
Knowing this, and because of my fiance’s new work schedule that will have him out of the house in the evenings, it’s likely that I’ll intentionally schedule a block of work in the evenings moving forward. I know I can’t do anything that’s too mentally exhausting at that time, because I’m starting to get tired, but it turns out that I can maintain focus well into the evening.
I also noticed that, despite knowing that I am most focused and awake in the morning, I actually spent much of the morning doing random little tasks and didn’t get to work until 10:17. Since I’m mentally at my best in the mornings, I now know that I need to take a look at how I’m scheduling my mornings and try to focus on bigger, harder hitting tasks, instead of wasting time checking emails and posting on social media. Monitoring what I did with my time showed me that I should be scheduling my biggest blocks of work from 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., with a smaller block from 6 to 8 p.m., and a large break in the middle to relax and recharge.
Keeping track of what I was actually doing versus what I was supposed to be doing forced me to keep track of what time it was and what was on the schedule at that time. This helped to keep me a bit more accountable to the schedule I had set for myself. Often, it’s easy to lose track of time doing something I enjoy, or draw out a task for longer than it needs to take. As we know from Parkinson’s Law, “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”.
Something I didn’t do yesterday, but will test out in the future is to restrict the time I give myself for a given task. Often, tasks like writing blog posts, which I know I can do in 60 to 90 minutes, get drawn out into two or three hour marathons because I don’t give myself a time limit. Rather than sitting down for three hours knowing I just need to write, I could instead say, “Okay, I have three hours. That’s enough time for at least two blog posts, so at this end of this three hours, I need to have at least two posts written”.
I learned from tracking what I did every minute that, after my alarm went off the first time, it took me 38 minutes before I finally got out of bed. THIRTY-EIGHT MINUTES! I lost 18 minutes to the snooze button, and another 20 to scrolling on my phone. While I don’t have any desire to spring out of bed the moment my alarm goes off and would be okay with fifteen or twenty total minutes in bed awake in the morning, I haven’t yet figured out how to actually get myself out of bed earlier and stop wasting so much time in the morning. If you’ve got any ideas, hit up the comments.
I have to admit, this was a pretty efficient day. I ate three meals, but two of them were already prepped, and the third was mostly prepared and only took a few minutes to assemble, so I was able to spend only 24 total minutes preparing food. I had set out all of my clothes the night before, so even including a shower, I spent only 52 total minutes getting ready for the gym, the rest of my day after the gym, and for bed at the end of the day.
Moving forward, I’m planning to try this experiment over the course of a week, instead of just a day. Doing this over an entire week will force me to capture the less than ideal bits of time, and give a more holistic picture of my life that includes meal prepping, time with Bennett (who wasn’t home on the day I did this), and the inevitable phone time. I know I won’t be able to keep my scrolling time this low for an entire week, and I can’t hide all the ugly parts of life by pushing them to a different day.
Though monitoring my every move for an entire week will force me to capture the less than ideal moments, it will probably still raise my productivity. My lazy self didn’t want to write in my notebook that I was going to get on Instagram, so I chose to just not get on Instagram. Spread out over a week, I’m sure I won’t always make that decision, but I’ll likely spend less time on my phone than I usually would.
I went into this experiment hoping to learn how I actually spend my time. I did it because I was curious about what actually happens over the course of my day, but the main thing that I learned is that if I’m writing down my actions, I make different decisions about what to do. I make better decisions. I learned not what I spend my time on, but instead a strategy to use to help me make better choices about my time.
If you’re aiming to make better decisions about what you do with your time, or want to stick more closely to your schedule instead of getting distracted and doing whatever pops into your mind, write down how you’re using your time. It’ll force you to pause and face the action you want to take before you actually go and do it, often pushing you to make a better choice. This wasn’t what I expected to learn by doing this experiment, but that’s what ended up happening, and I strongly suspect you’d find the same is true for you.