Why does it seem like some people are more productive than others? After all, we each have the same 168 hours a week. Some people make the most of them; others don’t.
Our productivity research, featured in the new book Not Today: The 9 Habits of Extreme Productivity, shows that most people spend an average 4.3 hours per workday on a combination of Empty (wasted) and Mandatory (could be delegated or simply not done) activities.
That’s about half of every workday down the productivity drain.
Productivity has long been seen primarily as a time-management challenge. Learn certain hacks and organize your to-do list the right way, and you’ll get more done. This is true to an extent, but there’s so much more. With the right mindset and tools, you can completely redefine how you spend your time. But first, you need to understand your time habits. Only then can you change them.
To get started right now, keep a time log. This might sound boring. Who wants to spend time all day recording what they do and for how long? What’s not boring is what you’ll see, and how you’ll feel after you log your minutes meticulously for a few days.
The reality is that it doesn’t take that long, and it works. Think about it like keeping a food journal. According to a Kaiser Permanente study of 1,700 people, “those who kept daily food records lost twice as much weight as those who kept no records.”
If you want to maximize your time and spend it in the ways you want, you have to first know where you’re spending it.
4 Tips to Track TIME
Consider TIME in a four-level framework:
|Level 4: Treasured||Time you hold dear||Take some now, maximize your future|
|Level 3: Investment||Time that generates outsized return||Increase: prioritize, calendar, maximize|
|Level 2: Mandatory||Time you feel you must spend||Minimize/outsource|
|Level 1: Empty||Time you waste||Eliminate / minimize|
How you define activities within the TIME framework is deeply personal. It’s also dynamic—it changes depending on where you are and what you need at the moment. The goal is to take Treasured time, increase Investment time, minimize Mandatory time, and eliminate Empty time.
1. Track activity and TIME level
When tracking, always note your activity (e.g., tech support) and your time level—see point #4 below (e.g., Mandatory). Time tracking software and apps (see #3) will allow you to do this fairly easily.
By tracking both, you can see what you’re spending your time on, and you’ll be able to make conscious decisions on how to minimize Mandatory and Empty time and maximize Investment and Treasured time. In the words of Peter Drucker, “What gets measured gets managed.”
2. Use technology and timers best suited to you
Use timers. You can use everything from a stopwatch on a watch, phone or desk, an online timer of which there are many or those built into software like Toggl, RescueTime, TimeCamp, MyHours, or ATracker.
If time tracking software isn’t your thing, you can use a simple timer, and track your time in Excel, Word, a physical notebook, or a note-taking technology like Notes on your phone, Evernote, or OneNote.
The method you use doesn’t matter; what matters is that you’re tracking your activities and TIME categories.
3. Track in periodic, obsessed daily chunks.
It’s impractical to track your time meticulously every single day. Start with a two-day tracking experiment.
Don’t ballpark your time tracking. Recording estimates at the end of the day — “three hours prospecting, two hours meetings, one-and-a-half hours meals and breaks, two hours TV” – is anywhere from a little to extremely inaccurate. People tend to grossly overestimate the time they spend doing anything at work when looking back on activities.
Record the actual minutes.
Your obsessed tracking days should be the workdays and non-workdays you choose to:
- Understand where your time goes using timers and tracking in real-time
- Focus on changing how you spend your time
Choose periodic days to track obsessively. Make it a priority and track in real-time to the minute.
Fun fact: the average adult underestimates the amount of time they spend watching TV by one full hour per day. Most adults watch 30 hours of TV per week—an average of a whopping 4.3 hours a day!—but they think they watch closer to 20 hours a week.
This makes a strong case for obsessively tracking in real-time as opposed to estimating.
4. Set TIME and activity goals
Once you know how you currently spend your time, you can start to think about how you want to be spending your time.
When you know what you want to accomplish on a given day, you can define activities that will get you there. We call these your Greatest Impact Activities (GIAs). Let’s say you’re in sales and you need to fill your pipeline. Your objective today is to generate one meeting with a potential buyer. You can set your GIA goal as, “spend at least four hours obsessively prospecting with no distractions.”
Focus on activity over outcomes. You can control that you spend X number of hours concentrating on a specific activity, but you can’t necessarily control the outcome which, in this case, is how many meetings you set.
The sooner you figure out where your time is going, the sooner you can start maximizing time spent on what’s important to you.
As you track your time, keep the following in mind:
- Be honest. People often lie to themselves when they track time. Don’t like that you got drawn into reading news articles for an hour in the morning at work? Track it now; change it later.
- You can enjoy something without it being Treasured TIME. Some people enjoy aimless social media scrolling, getting ready to go out for forty-five minutes when twenty-five would do, or reading a magazine. When they’re honest with themselves, however, most people trying to drive their careers forward would like to spend less time on these kinds of activities.
- Don’t target zero Empty or Mandatory TIME. You can’t get to zero, and you don’t want to. Sure, you can convert Empty time like commuting into Investment time if you listen to business books or podcasts. Human brains, however, need some downtime. Also, if you target zero Mandatory time, you’ll tend to get angry when you have to do something that you don’t want to. Accept that it happened, do what you must if you must, and make a plan to reduce it in the future.
The first step to finding more time is simply this: start tracking. Don’t wait for the perfect moment, app, or activity. The sooner you figure out where your time is going, the sooner you can start maximizing time spent on what’s truly important to you.
If you want to be extremely productive, change your habits to get the most out of your time.