Time Unbound

What I leaned by My Experiment

Laura Vanderkam’s book Off the Clock opens with her describing how as the mother of four small children, her time feels severely constrained, a comment that immediately excited me to read the rest of her brief book. The thesis of the book can be summed up as “time freedom stems from time discipline.” In order to be able to enjoy time, one must understand it, to be, in the words of Peter Drucker, “the master of time instead of its whipping boy.”

At work for several years, I have intermittently tracked my time to direct it to the highest value activities I can contribute to building Carbon Lighthouse. What Off the Clock argues is one should apply such accountability to your whole life. Where was I spending time that I didn’t need to? Or want to? The answers demanded self-honesty and self-reflection and offered me the reward of data-based insight into how I spent my most precious resource. This seemed worth the mild tedium of recording and coding every activity I did for a year.

And it was.

What I learned from my experiment of accounting for all 8,760 hours of my year, firmed up the lofty views I had already held about life and time. In particular,

1) I am putting time into the activities in my life I most want to and

2) With deliberateness, I can still shift time from one activity to another.

In other words, I can be and am the master of time. Despite grumbling I may do to the contrary or how harried I feel more often than I’d like. Even so, I am dictating what to do with time, not suffering under some yoke the removal of which is beyond my ken. Even for people like me who claim to be exceptionally busy or have exceptionally limited bandwidth—including what I consider to be the most fundamental and inescapable commitments I have made, helping young children survive and teaching them right from wrong—even for such people, time is theirs to mold.

I learned this at least by my time experiment, that if every day one holds oneself accountable to time and uses one’s hours to deliberately choose activities that yield happiness and meaning, he is indeed likely to reap those rewards and perhaps even exceed his imagination.

And to quote rather than further paraphrase Thoreau, “If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost, that is where they should be; not put the foundations under them.” If the foundation is who I wish to be then perhaps time tracking is the inspection of that foundation, the lab report on the blend of the concrete mixture, the measurements of the steel’s tensile strength. Time tracking answers the question: am I directing my time to the achievement of my dreams.

Or do I let it fritter and fade, and stamp and pound sand.

We all wish for more.

But we get what we get.

What follows are the results of my experiment, an analysis of every hour of my time spent in the last 12 months and the lessons I learned from it.

For those who wish to benefit from my learnings, I share these thoughts.

 

The Unchanging

  1. Time with my wife: very consistently we make 45 minutes per day, every day to talk to each other. Along with self-care and reflection, this is a basic piece of my foundation.
  2. Personal Reflection (Prayer, Journaling, Gratitude, Reading old Journals, etc): This also happens nearly every day for an average of about 45 minutes. It also fluctuates naturally, a couple months I’d spend 30 minutes per day, then a couple months an hour per day, then back to 30 minutes for another couple months. In other words, it follows the natural cycles of what I need to take care of myself. It brought me joy to look at the data and see this basic piece of my foundation consistently practiced.
  3. Organizing my tasks for the day: I consistently spend about 10 minutes per work day organizing my tasks and picking the most important things to get done. This is high-leverage time. Picking the right things to do matters hugely for making progress towards larger goals. As Vanderkam suggests, imagine that your computer suddenly dies at 11 am, what did you wish you got done right away that day? Then do that thing.
  4. Sleep: I know I feel good with about 7.5 hours of sleep per night. I have timed my REM cycles (thanks to the training of infant interruptions in particular) to know they’re about 1.5 hours and so 7.5 hours lets me complete the cycles I need. What’s fun to see in the data is that month after month, I always catch up on sleep. Sometimes I push myself working late for a couple nights, but I inevitably catch up, usually within that week. My body is good at self-regulating, and I am good at listening to it. Naps cuddled up with a kid on Saturday afternoon are an added joyful bonus to sleep’s intrinsic reward.
  5. Chores: Every day there is about 1 hour of chores to do. When I travel there is far less. I cannot compress my chore time. When I try to, it usually leads to minor injury or stress.
  6. Personal hygiene: Always an average of 30 minutes per day: teeth, shower, etc. I cannot compress this time either.
  7. Work Email: Email at work consistently takes about 1 hour per work day. When on vacation, I catch up quicker, meaning I’m doing less since the total volume of email is about the same. I did not succeed this past year in meaningfully reducing total time, and I aspire to keep this lower. One has some control over what email lists one subscribes to or bothers to read, and I have quit almost all but the most critical work ones.
  8. Work Small tasks: these usually come from email and take between 2-5 minutes each (any email less than two minutes I deal with right away as per Getting Things Done guidance). I spend 45 minutes per day on small tasks. This too I did not succeed in compressing. Delegating more of my day-to-day responsibilities at work is one way I intend to reduce this time going forward, but doing so takes time and quality inspections and also is not a luxury available to everyone.
  9. Personal Email & Small Tasks: Other than arranging time with family and friends, there is nothing I want out of my personal email, so keeping this time minimal is a priority of mine. At the start of the year I was spending about 15 minutes per day on this, and by the end of the year I was consistently keeping it to 10 minutes per day, but couldn’t cut it lower than that. While this is an improvement, five minutes per day swing is not a major change. The important thing is I don’t want this to be a large amount of time, and it’s not.
  10. Travel dead time: I spent 80 hours this year in what I termed Travel dead time: almost entirely walking to or from or idling in BART stations or passing through airport security or boarding planes on work trips. It’s about 1% of the year, which is unfortunate, but it happens in such small increments that other than try to transport myself from one place to the next as little as needed, there’s not much I chose to do about it. Other than not worry about it. Which itself is freeing, another liberating factor of time tracking.
  11. Restlessness: Over the course of the year, I spent about 12 minutes per day worrying in bed unable to fall asleep. This happened both at the end of the night, or lying in bed in the morning fretting about the day ahead. Twelve minutes per day is more than I want, and it’s also fully 0.8% of my year, but knowing it’s not going to go away has largely freed me. And when the late night thoughts come, I just stop worrying about it, which appropriately enough, makes it easier for me to go sleep and waste less time.

 

The Malleable

Most parts of life fluctuated significantly month to month. And hearteningly, those things I wanted to change, I was able to change. Specifically:

  1. Reading books: I was sad to find I was only reading books for 15 minutes per day on average. I tripled it to 45 minutes a day in June and thereafter have kept it at more than 30 minutes per day. This brings me lots of joy. As part of this push, I was able, among other things, at long last to read The Spirit of the Laws by Montesquieu, justly an enduring classic of political insight. I’ve also read a mixture of parenting books, business books, and fiction. The good books are knowledge and self-improvement wonders, and 30 minutes a day gives me sufficient time to learn from them.
  2. Watching TV or Movies: I spent about 45 minutes/day for most of October through March watching TV, and that rose to 1 hour/day in April, and I found myself dissatisfied. While entertaining, TV in excess felt anti-creative and anti-proactive and more like merely an effort to escape from stress rather than enjoying life. So in May, I set out to reduce it, and I’ve kept TV to no more than 30 minutes/day since then. Thirty minutes a day is meaningful time savings, and the satisfaction of being more deliberate time is its own reward. The second reward is that I appear in general to have been plowing this created time back into reading which enlightens my soul. Others may find even deeper savings here. The average person supposedly watches about 3 hours/day, and the average American about 5 hours/day. That’s huge sums of time one could reapply to deliberate satisfactions.
  3. Time with Direct Reports: My direct reports at work are one of my highest forms of managerial leverage (see Andy Grove’s High Output Management) to making Carbon Lighthouse achieve its environmental mission. As such, I want to be putting lots of time into supporting them. To my delight, while earlier in the year I was spending about 30 minutes per work day supporting them, I increased that to about 1 hour per work day. As a result of deliberate effort, I tripled the amount of time I spent focusing on my immediate team from 6 hours per month to 20 hours per month.
  4. Strategic Work: This is work that is Important to do to build the future of Carbon Lighthouse, but is easy to neglect. In Stephen Covey’s language it is “Quadrant II, Important, Non-urgent work.” It is work that any leader of any effort, no matter how big or small, ought to get done and is usually the first to be jettisoned when time is crunched. For me this was the case. Some months, I spent 15 minutes per work day on these tasks, while others I spent more than 2 hours per work day. In the first half of the year, I allowed the crunch of day-to-day duties to crowd out strategic work. Midway through the year, dismayed that time was being crowded out here, I became much more pro-active here, spending less time and doing a worse job on other activities asked of me in order to better prioritize leading the company.
  5. Time with Siblings and Parents: My time with my parents and siblings is lower than I want and spikes dramatically with family vacations. Even though much of family vacations felt like childcare, in fact I was spending 4x the hours with my siblings and parents in the months where I took a family vacation. Those vacations mattered.
  6. Time with Friends: I averaged 30 minutes per day hanging out with friends. But this amount varied greatly. In the two months where I averaged an hour plus per day with friends, were months where I rated my happiness highest. (I rate every day whether it’s overall happy/relaxed/playful, etc. or not. My goal for the year is 85%. As of this writing I’m at 86%). Friends are both an instant and enduring source of joy so this connection makes sense, but the data is a little bit misleading in that my happiness is also pretty stable over time and only took a meaningful dip in June when our cat fell ill and died within two weeks.
  7. Wasted time. For me wasted time is time I spent not enjoying activities. If I still used social media, this would likely be time spent looking at other people’s joys rather than living my own. For me, wasted time primarily takes the bizarre form of guilty pleasure Wikipedia reading about old battles or biographies for far too long into the evening, past the point of enjoyment, my refusing to let the day end. For the first two months of my time tracking, I wasted nearly four hours per month, or about 8 minutes per day. Upon seeing that, I cut it one hour per month, or 2 minutes per day for the rest of the year. That’s close enough to zero that I felt great about it.
  8. Writing Fiction: I love to write fiction and, I did, 70 times in the year, for a total of 83 hours. This is far less than I would like, a mere 0.9% of my year given how much joy and meaning writing brings to my life, but it’s encouraging to see that I did it 70 times! That’s a lot of deliberate effort executed. And I enjoyed each instance.

 

The Time Break out over the Year – Kids & Work Predominate

I worked 2,025 hours on Carbon Lighthouse in 12 months, about 23% of my year. I take a large amount of vacation for Jewish Holidays and/or spending time with family. Factoring that in, and the small amount of time I spend working on vacation, this comes out to about 43 hours of work per work week. This number is great: while I love to work hard, I do not want to be neglecting the most important relationships in my life: self, spouse, children, family, close friends. This number of hours is also humbling: many are the nights where I find myself grinding until midnight to make sure to advance critical balls in our efforts to serve the planet—and yet, it adds up to a standard work week. The data show that the 16-hour grind days I work while traveling end up being balanced by the time I spend walking my kids to school or going to their doctor appointments or going to their parent teacher conferences or staying home when they are sick. Children indeed demand a lot of time, and even though I often dislike it in the moment, it’s time that in retrospect I mostly cherish. And so the explanation for why I’m not working as many hours as I imagine I am is simple: I am spending it on my children.

Which brings me to one of the questions I most wanted to understand from my time tracking: how much time goes to my children? The answer: the same as to work. 1,993 hours. I dedicate the same amount of the year, 23%, to them as I do to work. Given that 32% of my year I spend blissfully unconscious curled up beside my wife and my pets, this means that of my waking life, I spend fully two-thirds of it directly caring for my children or indirectly trying to provide for their future (through work I provide for my children in the immediate and hopefully for their and others’ future by creating a more sustainable environment). Work of course is also meaningful and satisfying and challenging to me as an individual, but that aside, it stuns me to think how much of my time is spent foundation building for a better world. It doesn’t make their whining about food or their shoving to be first in the door or their clandestine kicks and punches to one another any more enjoyable, but it does remind me that that time too is sacred.

I spend about 10 hours per day on vacation and weekends and 3 hours per day on weekdays with my children. I’ve recently cut weekend time to 8 hours/day, trying to force more time for myself by having kids watch more TV, which is great. But about 3 hours per day on weekdays feels about right as long as I’m not too exhausted from work to be impatient with them which happens more than I’d like (an area for growth!). I used to—and sometimes still do—resent doing a hundred little things for my children. I remember it dawning on me the moment we drove our first-born home from the hospital, with shocking clarity, exactly how much of my time spent with my own parents had been them doing things for me: driving me to school, making food for me, reading with me. And now it was my turn to pay it forward.

Among the most useful lessons I’ve learned is that all time with children is created equal. I learned this in part because when I first sought to track my time, I thought about categorizing my time as “Fun time with Kids” and “Time Taking Care of Kids” but these divisions immediately revealed themselves as not worth making. Trying to get the kids out the door to the swimming pool was miserable, then they did something funny on the walk there, then they ran alongside the pool blatantly disregarding my entire safety speech a minute before, then we were in the pool playing adventure games moving from handrail to handrail, then they were whining, then they were splashing in cute ways, then they were splashing in mean ways, etc. All within a twenty minutes span (and the smallest unit of time I bothered tracking was ten minutes). So I never bothered to separate out enjoyable time from frustrating time. They are too closely packed together. It is how I handle myself that determines whether I linger on the bad or ready myself to enjoy the good. Some days we’d be in a grassy park on a sunny day but I’d have a lousy time because one kid was whining and I couldn’t get past it. Other times, we’d be trapped inside for hours with kids constantly starting fights but then I’d get to watch them be thoughtful to each other, come up with solutions, solve their problems with words instead of violence, and then help each other dress up as super heroes and play an imagination game with me. Right after the muck, was the glory. Over and over. There is only time.

 

Conclusion

There is no magic to time tracking, only discipline. Fortunately for me, I have spent thirty years disciplining myself to get things done on time. I have spent the last twenty years building myself into someone who takes great joy in day-to-day life. My time tracking exercise was an inspection of that joy. Were my foundations solid?

I found not only that they were, but that they could be made still stronger, and that everything I believed about those foundations were true.

By calling attention to time, time tracking further rooted habits foundational to joy. “To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts.” This art must begin with awareness of the day’s limited nature and a determination to shape it. I journal about myself to keep myself in balance. I journal about my children to savor the good moments for all time. I rate every day for its joyfulness to not let happiness slip from my mind. Like all of these, time tracking is a constant alert to be cognizant of time, to be aware of the steady stream of moments, our awareness of which is how we remember, and how we forget.

Ultimately, all divisions of time are arbitrary. It’s worth repeating: all divisions of time are arbitrary. There is only time. There is no bed time, nor meal time, nor party time. We make those impositions on time by choice. We may not realize it but almost always we are choosing what to do with time—we just forget that we made those choices. Judaism provides me with many illustrations of how to be deliberate about time, since it insists on sanctifying time: the sabbath is a deliberate act to sanctify a day of the week. Jewish holidays (and all holidays) deliberately sanctify a day out of the year. Daily prayer (or daily meditation or daily exercise) is a wrestling down of time by will, every day.

I suspected before undertaking my experiment that there is far more to do in a day than I could possibly hope to do. This proved true. My life indeed feels packed to bursting and there is (very close to) zero wasted time. Kids & work crowd out many things as they are immense responsibilities and time commitments. I chose both and I’m fortunate to love both (most of the time). But to make time between those two and outside of those two requires acts of will. Time tracking shows the way. It has given me confidence to know that five or ten minutes here or there never matter, but I should indeed lionize what an hour may hold. Especially an hour spent on an activity I love, such as writing. Time tracking calls us to arms: do it! Do it now!

There is only time. I refuse to be its whipping boy. We should go where we want to go and be who we want to be.

Or as King Solomon put it, “Enjoy life with your spouse and your loved ones all your ephemeral days under the sun. And everything you can do with your strength—do.”

 

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