What I learned from tracking a week of my life in 15 minute increments

This post was written for Entire.Life. You can view the original version here.

It was a Friday night, and I had just left work for a conference event. On my way, I stopped in a coffee shop to color-code my time-tracking spreadsheet for an hour. I had just finished logging all of my time in 15 minute increments for a whole week, and now I needed to chunk my life up into nice little buckets. Daunting.

I ordered a latte and settled down. I wasn’t tracking my time anymore, but I wanted to log my logging time. I felt I was being exceedingly productive. I thought I should get extra credit.


Briana typing on laptop with coffee cup

It looked a little something like this. Same computer, same hand, different latte.

I didn’t finish my time logging analysis in that hour. I hurried off to my next event, late, and not having finished my only task. I became acutely aware that week of how everything takes so much longer than I think it will. Also, I didn’t really want to see the final time tallies. I just knew I would be horrified.

I wasn’t. And I was. And I wasn’t… really. But was I?

This was over two months ago, and I still haven’t figured it out.

I love a good productivity book. Audiobooks in particular get me to enjoy time I might otherwise feel was wasted, like sitting in traffic or folding laundry. (I can’t stand folding laundry.) This time tracking adventure came from the second chapter of Laura Vanderkam’s 168 Hours. In her book, Laura Vanderkam explains that most of us think we spend significantly more time working than we do. She advocates tracking one’s time for an entire week, in order to get a true picture of where it all goes.

It took me a while to convince myself to actually do it. The longer I thought about logging my time, the more I got in my head. A small part of me worried that the observer effect would render the whole experiment useless. A much larger part of me was concerned about what I’d see in this time tracking mirror. How would I feel about myself once I saw that, like those around me, I overestimated how much I worked? How much time was I wasting? Did I really need to know how I was spending every hour of my day? It didn’t help that every friend I mentioned the idea to reacted with only-slightly-feigned alarm. They didn’t want to know how they spent their time either.

What were we all so afraid of?

Eventually, all of those semi-horrified reactions drove me want to find out. I jumped in. I can do almost anything for one week. I didn’t think it would be useful to stop what I was doing every 15 minutes in order to write it down, and it’s near impossible to do that when you’re working in, say, code. Instead, I made notes of how I was spending my time, and plugged them into a spreadsheet a few times throughout the day.

Here’s how my week, in 15-minute increments, broken down. Seven days of a life in a pie chart.

Pie chart of Briana's 168 Hours

My 168 Hours, including sleep

What’s in there?

Work, here defined as what I would call “billable hours”. I do very little client work, but if I did, these are the activities I would be able to bill a client for. It doesn’t include general conversations with coworkers or other things that I wouldn’t put on an invoice. This is a 4-day work week for me, which is abnormal. Total: 34.75 hours, or 5 hours per day (8.25 hours per “work day”)

Commuting, which includes commuting to my office as well as commuting to social gatherings, the gym, and anywhere else I went. Generally augmented with audiobooks and/or podcasts. Total: 8.75 hours, or 1.25 hours per day

Business of being human, which is basically anything related to the care and feeding of my body. Showers, cooking, eating, getting dressed, and exercise go here. Total: 15.5 hours, or 2.2 hours per day

Administrative/chores, which includes things I have to do that are outside of myself. This is where budgeting, doing laundry, installing computer updates, replacing a toilet seat, and cleaning out my closet go. Total: 12 hours, or 1.7 hours per day

Relationships, which includes time spent with friends, family, and loved ones. Phone calls count, texting doesn’t. I try to be fully present for these times. Total: 18.75 hours, or 2.7 hours per day

Sleep, which is mostly self-explanatory, but does not include snooze button time (which I use liberally). Total: 57.25 hours, or 8.2 hours per day

¯\_(ツ)_/¯. This is nicer than the term in my spreadsheet. This is where snooze time goes. It’s where fidgeting with my phone while I binge-watch TV shows I’ve already seen goes. It’s where looking up from my computer and having a sudden realization that I just lost half an hour to who-knows-what goes. Total: 21 hours, or 3 hours per day

Analog alarm clock on table

I have this same clock. I‘ve never used it as an alarm, since it doesn’t have a snooze button. I may start.

What do I think of all this?

First: this was less horrifying than I thought.

I’m pleased with the amount of time I spent sleeping and the amount of time I spent present in my relationships with friends, family, and other loved ones — especially as an introvert. If anything, I may have spent a little too much time socializing. Within the “business of being human” category, I’d like to shift some of the time I spent on slowly getting ready in the morning to something more rewarding, like exercise. The commuting time wasn’t all that bad, given that my typical day also involves going somewhere after I leave the office. I’d like to have spent more focused time working, since I have projects outside of my employment as well. Some of my ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ time likely drained my mental energy for that work.

And that ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ time? I don’t think it’s inherently bad. Having some of that time is part of being a person. It might be letting my mind wander, or decompressing, or getting sucked into a conversation. I don’t think it’s useful to try to eliminate that time entirely. That said, I don’t think I need an average of three hours of it a day, either. Two hours would probably do. Maybe less. But hey, one step at a time.

It’s now a few months later, and I’m trying time tracking out again. I intended to anyway, but I’m part of a community of women who are doing this as a group activity right now, and I know better than to pass up an accountability opportunity. They started on Monday. I’m working on a time delay.

This time:

  • I’m going to spend less time analyzing whether I’m altering my behavior for the time tracking activity, and just be a person instead
  • I’m adding an “entertainment” category, for the times that I’m reading a book, seeing a movie, or watching TV on purpose
  • I may move some focused, personal text message and IM conversations from ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ to relationships, in cases of sustained conversations as opposed to “LOL did you see this tweet”
  • I’m going to spend more time thinking about what I do within each category, and how I might adjust that to better reflect my values
  • I still need to figure out how to deal with times I’m (legitimately) doing two things, like driving and listening to an audiobook. I didn’t give myself enough credit for learning last time, and I’d like to adjust for that this time

I’ll report back after I’ve had time to both track and analyze. Like last time, this isn’t a typical week for me, but I hear that there are no typical weeks.

Want to try this yourself? You can download Laura Vanderkam’s time tracking template here.