A month ago, I was feeling completely overwhelmed. We had returned to work after 2 weeks off, which triggered my feelings. Imagine it’s 26 degrees inside, and you step outside to a 28 degree day. It’s a bit warmer, but you adjust quickly. That is my normal working routine. Compare that to stepping outside into 47 degrees. You feel the full force of the sun boring into your scalp, trying to immolate you. That’s what returning to work after having time off felt like.
I decided to complete a time study to see whether I truly didn’t have enough of it. The old saying “work expands to fit the time allotted” definitely applies to my leisure activities as well.
Writing It All Down
There are a plethora of time tracking apps and software available. For this exercise, I decided to stick with what I have and know—Apple Notes on my iPad. I needed to minimise barriers so I would do it consistently. I didn’t want to sign up for/download/learn a new program or system. Simplicity was the key.
Knowing I would be analysing the data, I came up with a recording system I could later use to split text to columns in Excel. This was to place a dash without spaces between the start and end times, and use an asterisk between end time and description. Top Tip: Use an asterisk as the only symbol. Adding the dash just doubled the amount of separating I needed to do.
Recording was surprisingly easy. I rarely forgot until Monday of the fourth week, which is when I decided to stop.
Preparing Data for Analysis
I copied the data from each day’s note into a separate tab in Google Sheets.
While it remains highlighted, Google Sheets displays a “Split Text to Columns” option under the icon at the bottom.
When you first choose this option, Google will decide for itself what you want to split on, and it will split the data then and there. Don’t get frustrated like I did. As soon as you tell it what to really split on, it will follow your instructions.
This is why I said to stick with a single symbol. I had to repeat this task to split by my asterisk. When choosing a symbol, it’s important to make sure it isn’t a character commonly used when typing, such as the comma, period or space above. I could have chosen a semicolon but I am known for dropping those into my everyday writing as well. That’s why an asterisk was best choice.
Time Study Categories
Lastly, I inserted a column at the beginning of the table, and categorised my activities. I didn’t have a preset idea of what to use; I started, then built a master list while I was going.
Finally, there were periods where I performed two tasks at once, such as watching TV while eating dinner, or reading blogs on the train. As I’m more concerned with the amount of TV I watch than the time I spend eating, I recorded TV. In most other cases, I chose the more active task to assign the time to. This meant I had to add a few more rows to each travel line.
So, “06:30-07:40Travel to work & 06:50-7:10write blog & 07:10-07:30*Read blogs” became:
- 06:30 – 06:50 Travel
- 06:50 – 07:10 Write Blog
- 07:10 – 07:30 Read blogs
- 07:30 – 07:40 Travel
Once I’d done this for each day, I copied the whole lot into a single sheet, and then inserted a column to calculate duration. At first, this seemed to be a case of simply subtracting the start time from the finish time, like so:
Easy! Until I came to sleep. For the most part, my sleep extended over midnight—I go to bed before midnight, then I get up after midnight. The subtraction calculation is fine until you try to do further calculations. Then, it generates a large, negative number. I’ll save you all some time, and say the wonderful people of the Interwebs offered up a formula to fix this.
With all the formulas I needed to hand, I added a couple of columns at the beginning of my sheet to identify the day and week number. Then I was off!
Sanity Checking The Data
I started with a few simple pivot tables to get a feel for my data. (If you are reading this in a format where you can’t see the .gif, click on through to the post. It’s hilarious!)
Yeah. A day has 1,440 minutes. Of 21 days, I’d only recorded correctly on four of them! I expected a few mistakes, but not this many, and not by this much. Some days had 1 hour less, some had more than an hour extra.
What was going on? It was sleep (again). If I went to bed at 9pm on Monday night, and woke at 5am Tuesday, I was attributing 8 hours to Monday. What I needed to do instead was to make each day run midnight—midnight. That is, start the day with sleep (0:00-04:50) and end the day with sleep (21:00-0:00). This fixed the majority of the errors. Then it was just a case of using filters on my pivot tables to help find each transaction where I had mis-recorded.
Time Tracking Results
Tracking provided an immediate benefit—as soon as I started, I felt better. I enjoyed doing it. I think it was the ability to see exactly where it was going that helped. Instead of thinking of all the things that I wasn’t doing, I focused on all the things that I was doing, and I actually do a lot!
I acknowledge that the act of tracking changed my behaviour. Like tracking spending or food consumption, awareness means that changes can be made in real time. I’m not worried about this effect—the purpose of my study was to find ways to use the time I have more efficiently, so if it happened a little earlier, I’m fine with that.
One way tracking changed how I used my time was less downtime. Because I knew I’d be tracking, I planned my activities ahead of time. When I finished one, I already knew what I’d be doing next. Since I’ve stopped tracking, I find myself occasionally at a loss for what to do with my time. I’ve got plenty I want and need to do. I just can’t commit to starting anything.
To finish, above is a teaser of how I used my time. Next week I’ll dig in, bury myself and roll around in all the lovely data.
What questions do you think I should ask myself? What would you like to know about how I use my time? Tell me in the comments!