Thoughts on Off the Clock by Laura Vanderkam and My Time Diary Experiment

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In Off the Clock: Feel Less Busy While Getting More Done by Laura Vanderkam, the author writes about her study of over 900 participants in which she surveys them on how they spent a Monday in March hour by hour and how they felt both about that day and about time in general. She writes:

First, people who feel like they have enough time are exceedingly mindful of their time. They know where the time goes. They accept ownership of their lives and think through their days and weeks ahead of time. They also reflect on their lives, figuring out what worked and what didn’t.

They build adventures into their lives. They do this even on a normal March Monday, knowing that rich memories can expand time both as they are being created and in the rearview mirror.

They scrub their lives of anything that does not belong there. This includes self-imposed time burdens, such as constant connectivity, that clog time for no good reason. Indeed, one of the most striking findings of my survey was the gap in estimated phone checks per hour between people who felt relaxed about time and those who felt anxious.

People who feel like they have enough time know how to linger in moments that deserve their attention; they can stretch the present when the present is worth being stretched.

They spend their resources to maximize happiness, yet when unpleasantness cannot be avoided, they figure out how to cope with and even savor time that others might wish away.

They let go of expectations of perfection and big results in the short run. Instead, they decide that good enough is good enough, knowing that steady progress over the long run is unstoppable. Finally, they know that people are a good use of time. I found that people who spent quality time with friends and family on that March Monday were more likely than people who spent that March Monday watching TV to feel like they had enough time for the things they wanted to do.

These paragraphs sum up nicely what Vanderkam details throughout the book. She provides more examples on how to be mindful with time, the importance of building quality memories, “investing” in different approaches to time that free up schedules for valuable activities, and more. It’s a quick read with a great deal of actionable advice.

My big takeaway from this book was the use of a time diary to record what happens throughout the day. Vanderkam talks about how her time diary was instrumental in showing her that, despite raising four kids, she found that she had time for a number of activities, including exercise, entertainment, and work. I was eager to get some data insights into how I spent my own time and if there were opportunities for improvements.

Over 7 weeks ago, I began to keep a time diary, recording my life in 30-minute increments (Vanderkam suggests either 30 or 15-min intervals; I found the 15-min one a bit too difficult). I built out my own spreadsheet with my own list of categories and have been diligently keeping it updated. I came up with 35 specific sub-categories that roll up to 7 broader categories: Work, Fitness, Personal Time, Eating, In Transit, Life’s Necessities, and Sleep. Looking at 5 weeks’ worth of data (the first one was incomplete and this last week isn’t finished yet), here are some averages per category:

  • Work: 48.3 hours/week, 6.9 hours/day
  • Fitness: 5.4 hours/week, 0.8 hours/day
  • Personal Time: 26.9 hours/week, 3.8 hours/day
  • Eating: 12.1 hours/week, 1.7 hours/day
  • In Transit: 17.7 hours/week, 2.5 hours/day
  • Life’s Necessities: 8 hours/week, 1.1 hours/day
  • Sleep: 49.6 hours/week, 7.1 hours/day

I haven’t come across any major new insights or takeaways, but it’s nice to be able to reflect back on how I’ve spent my time. There are a few observations worth noting:

  • Many activities don’t take up the full 30 minutes. I feel like the 15-minute increment would’ve been much more accurate, but if I happen to do a few different activities within the 30-minute block, I might credit whichever took the longest. If they’re all roughly equal, I might just randomly pick an activity and hope it all evens out in the end. But I’m not too concerned about this time diary being perfect–I think the rough outlines of my activities are good enough.
  • The “In Transit” category includes both my daily commutes to work and any travel. During these five weeks, I flew to Seattle and to Los Angeles on separate occasions, so the numbers may be higher than what’s typical. One thing that doesn’t come through when categorizing a 30-min block under In Transit is the time spent listening to podcasts, reading books and articles, and responding to emails and texts. I feel like a good deal of my weekly reading is done on the subway, which doesn’t really get reflected.
  • 51% of my Personal Time I categorized under “Chilling” (about 1.9 hours/day) but it seems to be a mix of hanging out with Mel or my friends, texting with buddies, watching YouTube, and mindlessly surfing the web. What doesn’t get reflected here is that I tend to check my emails and text about work to my partners during this time. But since I’m in a deliberately “relaxed” mindset during this time, those interactions don’t feel much like work.
  • Life’s Necessities, in case you’re wondering, includes things like washing up, getting ready for bed, haircuts, grocery shopping, and dog walking (a necessity for my dog’s life). Walking the dog takes up about 30% of this category and it’s when I get a good chunk of audiobook and podcast-listening done.
  • I put in a good 4-6 hours of work in each Sunday, and even with that, I’ve been averaging about 7 hours of work per day. The goal is to reduce the amount of time spent on Sundays and to be more efficient with my time on weekdays. During the week, the majority of my time (55%) was spent in meetings, either with clients or with team members, and on calls with clients or prospective clients. Beyond the emails I’ll check and respond to on the fly throughout the day, I spent an additional 0.9 hours/day of more focused time trying to keep up with my inbox.
  • It’s hard to escape the close to 50 hours of sleep per week. I had days when I would get by on 5-6 hours of sleep, but this would mean that I’d probably need an 8-10 hour night later in the week to compensate. If I want to have more time on the weekend, I’ve been forcing myself to get more sleep during the week.
  • I was pretty happy about the amount of time spent with family and my friends during this period. I formed lots of valuable memories and shared a great deal of laughs. Most of these were reflected in the Personal Time and Eating.

Reflecting on the data, I can see that there are definitely opportunities for improvement. A few that I spot right away are:

  • TV: I spent 7.9 hours/week on average watching shows. This could probably be closer to 5. With the rest of the time, I should be reading or writing more.
  • Book reading: It’s hard to say what the aggregate number is because I do try to read when I’m commuting or waiting for something, but in terms of dedicated time blocks to reading, I average just 1.7 hours/week. Would love to see this rise to 5 hours/week. I’m tempted to start buying more physical copies of books because I tend to read for longer with those in hand.
  • Writing: I only averaged 1 hour a week of writing for the 5 weeks. And whenever I look back, I always feel like whatever time I spent writing was worthwhile, even if it’s just thoughts that I might never share with anyone. The disadvantage of the 30-minute increments in the time diary means that none of my journal writing (about 5 to 15 minutes on average) gets captured. I write between 4-5 times a week, so I probably get at least 30 minutes there. Still not anywhere near where I’d like to be. Ideally, I can devote a good 3-4 hours to writing each week and then keep growing from there.

The time diary exercise not only gave me some data, it also made me reflect more often about how I wanted to spend my time. Week after week, I realized that I have 168 hours at my disposal. If I plan far enough in advance, a lot of that can be controlled. I can choose not to take certain meetings at work, I can choose to spend more time with family and friends, and I can choose to get more sleep. Day-to-day, the 30-minute increments move incredibly fast and I often have to take some time at the end of the day to recall all the things I did and categorize them appropriately.

When I first started, I was uncertain how likely it was for me to keep up. I was afraid it would grow to become too much of a hassle and a couple of missed days would lead me to abandon it altogether. However, seven weeks in, I can’t imagine not filling out the time diary. There’s a sense of satisfaction to the activity and also a feeling of clarity about the decisions I’ve made. Also, if I am to believe that time is truly life’s most valuable resource, then it feels good to know that I’m treating it in a mindful way.

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