What I’ve learned after 10 years of quantifying myself

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I read this book when I was a student and it changed my life. It wasn’t the Bible, an Ayn Rand novel or Carnegie’s handbook on winning friends. It was a short book about some strange and not so famous Russian scientist Alexandr Lubyschev.

Once he had a thought that life is too short and time is irreversible and a man has so many things to achieve to feel good at the end. So he began to count every minute to be sure that he didn’t spend these minutes aimlessly.

When he worked for an hour he made a note that he worked for an hour. When he was interrupted by a phone call and spent 10 minutes talking, he made a note that he spent 10 minutes talking.

He wrote daily, weekly, monthly and yearly reviews of his time spent over many decades.

He even quantified the time he spent on quantifying his time. He sent copies of the reviews to his friends and provided them with comments and notes.

In a modern western world it’s a common thing to count work hours to bill a client, but Lubyschev took a much more complicated approach. He tried to squeeze out more hours from his life because he wanted to do a lot in his field. He was a pioneer of the “quantify self” movement.

He had done maybe half of what he planned. It was an obvious failure. But after he died, Daniil Granin, a writer and World War II veteran, published a book about Lyubischev’s strange way of living and the philosophy at the heart of it. A lot of people in Russia learned that a man can make his life count and started to use Lubyschev’s «system» on a regular basis. So did I.

I’ve been quantifying how I spend my time for more than ten years now. I suppose, for me it was much easier with handheld devices and smartphones than for Lyubischev with a pen and paper. Still, sometimes I made interruptions for weeks or months, but always went back to the system.

So here is the list of things I’ve learned during these years.

1. You can only count on 5 working hours a day

You probably know a lot of people claiming that they work 10, 12 and even 16 hours a day. They are fooling you — and maybe they are fooling themselves. Because aimlessly surfing the Internet is not work. Hanging out on Facebook is not work. Chatting with a peer on Skype or at the cooler is not work. Smoking outside is not work. Staring out the window is not work. Even working with your beautiful to do list for a half an hour is not work either, although it definitely may look like it. Save the bragging for your boss. If you are honest with yourself you have to face the cruel reality: if you are a knowledge worker then on average you can do your job for only 5 hours a day. On bad days it will be 2–3 hours. On the days of super efficiency it would only be 7 — and at the end you will feel totally exhausted. My experience proves that overworking always backfires — the next day after a super day will be much less productive. So at the end of the week you will have the same 25 hours — or 30 if you work 6 days a week as I often do. The same you can say about the weeks: you can do better one week, but another you will be down. “Those who work much do not work hard”, said Henry Thoreau. I totally agree.

2. You can borrow time from your sleep — but for a high price only

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If you are an overachiever you are probably also a victim of the “I-don’t-sleep-at-all” cult. People who claim that they work 16 hours a day often say that they sleep 4, 5 or at best 6 hours a night on a regular basis. When you hear something like that, your natural reaction would be to hang your head in shame.

How could you waste your life in a warm, cosy bed when other people are awake already or still doing so many nice things for their future?

I don’t know if all the overachievers are lying, but I do know that you cannot significantly reduce your natural sleep time (for me it’s around 7 hours a day) without having really nasty side-effects. When you try to do it, you are faced with a decline in your daily productivity and another night backfires when your body tries to compensate for the lack of sleep by adding a few more hours to your natural sleep cycle. For over 10 years I have tried everything to learn how to sleep less. I slept on the floor. I got up before dawn. I used smart alarms. I practiced yoga. I had a nap before lunch. Did anything work? Nope.

3. Your imaginary priorities aren’t your real ones

It’s easy to make a decision about life changes. For example, you may decide to spend 30 minutes a day learning some new language. But then you will face the pressure of real life. You have kids to raise. You have a house to keep in order. You have a job to do. You have a list of books to read… And you will have to admit that you don’t make huge progress in your studying because you don’t have enough time and your decision was just unrealistic in the first place, right? Wrong. If you track time you will see that while you don’t do something important, you almost always do something stupid or at least not so important and so you waste a huge amount of time. It’s a strong incentive to ask yourself: is your so-called super important task in reality so significant for you?

4. News is a dangerous addiction

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News is a drug, maybe more powerful and dangerous than drugs that you smoke, snuff or inject. Because it’s free. And it’s everywhere available 24 hours a day. On television. In the newspapers. On the Internet. On the screen of your smartphone… It’s so easy to get caught up into it and so damn hard to get away. Most people don’t realise how much time they spend on news and how stupid it is. You have to know what’s going on in the world, right? That’s for sure. But should you spend so much time on things that you can’t change sacrificing something that can really make a difference in your life? News addiction is a particular and very unfortunate case of the mess in the priorities, described above. Often you spend time reading something online twice more than you spend on something that you decided was very important for you. I used to waste 4–5 hours a week on the news. Being an addict I have managed to reduce this number to 2 hours.

5. Long-term stats are not so important

When I started to track my time I thought that it would be really helpful to gather a lot of stats about myself. It turns out that it isn’t. During all these years I never tried to analyse my “big data”. It just doesn’t seem to be important. I can launch my time app (I use Eternity) and learn how much time I spend, for example, on the last book (I’m a writer). But what should I do with this number? It doesn’t matter if it is 350 hours or 335. But how I did today matters — and how I did this week. So usually I check only the daily and weekly reports. But they’ve become really valuable for me especially since two years ago I quit my job and started my freelance career. I work from home and since I am a family man with a lot of responsibilities it’s often hard to say how much time I spend actually working. Tracking time helps to solve this problem.

6. Stats are not so important — but gathering them is

You can skip even the daily and weekly analytics and still benefit from time tracking. First of all when you start quantifying your time you need to come up with some system of categories for how you spend your time. It leads to a lot of useful thinking. For example, if you have a lunch, how will you categorize it? For me the answer depends on the situation.

If I eat with my wife I will consider it a family meal, so it’s my family time. If I eat alone, it would be chores.

Making decisions how to qualify your time helps you understand your life, your values — and focus on them every minute. Time tracking forces you to answer a simple but tricky question: what are you doing right now? Are you working, resting, learning, socialising, doing chores? It helps to get the most value from your time. Granin thought that it was the most important part of Lyubishev’s system. It turns out that he was totally right.

7. Eventually you will give up. It’s inevitable

It doesn’t matter how strong your willpower is. Eventually you will break. Someday you will feel that you can’t bear the responsibility for your time any more. You will quit — for days and maybe weeks if not months. It’s ok. It doesn’t mean that the system is bad or ineffective. It doesn’t mean that there is something wrong with you. On the contrary: you are 100% normal. It’s just too damn hard to be alert 24 hours a day. Because it means that you are not free. You are a prisoner of your goals and your values. Why do you want to make every minute count? Because your number of minutes at your disposal is limited because you will die. But someday your subconsciousness will seize the power to state to the Universe that your soul is immortal and you will live forever. But you won’t.

Maxim Kotin,
a writer
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