Time management is sort of like keeping a budget. Or staying on top of a diet.
None of us feel like we waste money on things we don’t need. And you probably don’t feel like you’re eating crap everyday.
Until you actually track it.
When it comes to the most important things in life — like our money, our health, or our time — we tend to default into politically correct excuses. I do it too.
I would tell myself things like:
- “I’m not procrastinating, I’m just really busy.” (avoiding the real problem through an excuse that nobody can question)
- “Yeah I know what I have to do, I just have to ‘buckle down’ and do it” (not taking time to uncover the the underlying issues)
But I knew I was full of crap.
Because last year, I said the same stuff about my finances. I told myself that I wasn’t wasting money, “cost of living was just too high.”
Then I tracked my bank statements. I found a whole bunch of subscriptions I didn’t need, and it turns out I ordered way more delivery than I thought.
There was a lot I could do to improve, but there was so much money I left on the table because I never even questioned it before.
So I decided I’d do the same for my time.
I wanted to track where I was spending my time, whether I was putting in as much work on my projects as I thought I was, where the bottlenecks were, and where I could improve.
Tracking where you’re spending your time
The first thing I’m doing is creating a tracking board for my time.
Just like in finances, a budget isn’t something that you necessarily have to stick to.
It’s more of a suggestion than a rule, but it’s good to have one so you have a ballpark of where you should be spending your time.
There are a lot of “time tracking” apps out there. The one that I picked for this is Toggl, only because it was free and it’s something I already had a bit of experience with.
The first thing I did was log all the projects I’m working on everyday after work into the Toggl dashboard.
Using Toggl, I tracked how much time I’m spending on tasks that fall under all of the above “project” categories — including other unproductive stuff I did like watching random YouTube videos:
For the first day, I gave myself permission to slack off and do unproductive when I knew I was supposed to be working.
That’s because on day 1, the point wasn’t to be productive. It was to figure out what all I was spending my time on, and the underlying sources of unproductive behavior.
So far, I’ve only collected one day’s worth of data. I’ll be able to document learnings in about a week when I’ve got seven days worth of patterns to pull from.
But once I’ve got that data, here’s what I plan to do:
Step 1: Identify bottlenecks
A lot of people mistake working long hours for being productive.
So if I see a project or an activity in my time long that’s taking up a particularly large amount of time, I’ll ask myself why.
What are the points of friction keeping me from getting more done in less time? Is there a certain time of day when I’m most productive? Least productive? Are my most important tasks of the day aligned with that?
Step 2: Uncover self sabotaging habits
We all have subconscious “triggers” that lie at the root of procrastination.
But most people don’t take the time to uncover these triggers. So they run their day to day lives on “autopilot” without understanding the real reasons behind why they do what they do.
This is key to overcoming the guilt that comes with not being productive.
Once you realize that 80% of your day is run by unconscious habits, you’ll understand that your actions are just not controllable by sheer “willpower”.
For example, Charles Duhigg (bestselling author of Power of Habit) once had a pretty bad cookie-eating habit.
“Every afternoon, I would go and eat a chocolate chip cookie in the cafeteria and chat with some of my colleagues up there.
What they said was I had to diagnose the cue and the reward…So I started with a cue.
And all cues fall into usually one of five buckets. It’s either a time, a place, a certain emotional state, the presence of other people or the preceding actions that have become habituated.”
So when the urge to eat cookies came up everyday, he wrote down those five things — the time, the place, his emotional state, preceding actions, and who else was there at the time.
He found that the urge always hit sometime between 3:15 and 3:45pm everyday.
Next, he had to figure out what the “reward” of his cookie-eating habit actually was:
“I thought that the reward was that I liked cookies.
Cookies were this blast of sugar. So I started doing these experiments [to test that assumption out].
I would go to the cafeteria and instead of getting a cookie, I’d get a candy bar. And then the next day I got an apple, and the next day I got a cup of coffee, and then the next day, instead of going up to the cafeteria, I’d go for a walk around the block.
I would just change one variable to try and figure out, what satisfied this craving, this urge.”
Turns out, the reward was socialization.
The next day, he changed his routine from eating the cookie to just walking around the office looking for someone to talk to.
“Diagnosing” your habits changes the game.
Step 3: Boil it down to tactics
When it comes to productivity, many people immediately look at tactical solutions. Things like productivity apps, the Pomodoro technique, etc.
That stuff is important — but only after your habits have been uncovered.
Next week, I’ll publish an article detailing what I uncovered after tracking my time for a week, my invisible habits, and what I’ll do going forward to at least 3x my productivity on all my projects.
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