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Lessons Learned from Tracking (Almost) Every Hour in My Year

How to use detailed time tracking to improve focus and productivity

Willem van Zyl
Aug 16, 2017 · 19 min read

Ever since I discovered the quantified self movement, I’ve been a little obsessed with tracking everything about myself.

For example, I can tell you that it took me 20.43 hours to compile the relevant data and write this article.

Or that I went to 398 different places this year so far and wrote code in coffee shops 12 times.

Or that between December 2016 and April 2017, I spent 91.5 hours driving 3,715 kilometers to capture and relocate 82 snakes from people’s homes, mostly around 14:45 on sunny Thursdays.

Ridiculously detailed measurements aside, the following idea has always resonated with me:

After all, since you have only so many hours in the day, and you can’t make more time for yourself, you can only manage how you’re spending the time you already have.

I sincerely believe that the best way to achieve your goals is to define them based on specific, measurable criteria, and then monitor your progress based on the insights you can get from real, measured data.

Since 2016, I’ve been writing an annual report of how I spent my time and how that compared to the goals I had set for myself during the previous year. You can read my 2016 report here.

Every year, some of this data surprises me, which just goes to show how valuable this kind of self-tracking can be. Without specific, measurable data, it’s far too easy to mislead ourselves into thinking that we’re doing okay or to be blind to opportunities that we should take advantage of.

Let’s dive in!

My Goals for This Experiment

Last year, I wanted to answer some questions using the insights from my report. Several of those apply this year:

  • What am I spending too much time on, and can I delegate those things?
  • What am I not spending enough time on, and where can I find time for these things?
  • Do any activities take up more of my time than I thought?

These are some questions I’ve added for this year:

  • Was I able to grow and diversify my sources of income? (Last year, I had two sources.)
  • What does my time investment look like across my various sources of income?
  • Is there any correlation between days of the week and the types of work I tend to do?
  • Looking at the bigger picture, is my work-life balance reasonable?

Lastly, based on my 2016 insights, I set some goals that I wanted to achieve this year:

  • Did I spend two hours or less per day on my phone?
  • Did I spend less than 200 hours per month on work so I could spend more time with family and friends?
  • Was I able to reduce my software development hours by delegating work that I didn’t specifically need to be involved in?
  • Did I watch less TV and spend more time reading and building up my productivity coaching business?
  • Did I read more books and maintain a 1:1 ratio of fiction versus nonfiction?
  • Did I maintain an average of seven hours of sleep per night?

The Tools I Used

I’ve been using Harvest to track the time I spend on my web development agency for a couple years now, so some of my data came from there.

I used the Eternity Time Log app to track the rest of my time, the Pillow app to track my sleep, and the Moment app to track my smartphone usage.

For my steps, locations, and online productivity, I used the Gyroscope app linked to Moves, Apple Health, and RescueTime.

At the end of this article, I provide some guidelines on how to set up an experiment like this for yourself.

Throughout this article, I provide links to larger versions of the charts and graphs so you can read them more clearly.

What I Measured

This year’s measurements ran from August 1, 2016, to July 31, 2017, and I tracked 8,746 out of the 8,760 hours in the year (an accuracy level of 99 percent).

For work, I separately tracked the time I spent on my various sources of income:

  • Work — BSR: My snake rescue service
  • Work — CLC: My web development agency
  • Work — ECC: My Evernote certified consulting service
  • Work — PNB: My productivity coaching business
  • Work — SVT: My Street View trusted photography service
  • Work — TAG: My app development agency
  • Work — TUT: My software development training service

The specific data points I tracked throughout the year were as follows:

  • Entertainment: Gaming, movies and TV, reading, social media
  • Health: Hiking and walking, meditation, mindful eating, sleep
  • Hobbies: Archery, caving, Google Local Guides, hiking, lock picking, photography
  • Personal: Errands, home maintenance, morning routine, project management, travel
  • Phone: Hours, pickups
  • Social: Family, friends
  • Work — BSR: Capture and relocation, marketing, project management, software development, study and training, travel, video editing, writing
  • Work — CLC: Meetings, networking, project management, server administration, software development, training, travel
  • Work — ECC: Consulting
  • Work — PNB: Networking, marketing, meetings, project management, live coaching, phone coaching, text coaching, travel
  • Work — SVT: Marketing, project management, photography, travel
  • Work — TAG: Marketing, meetings, project management, sales calls, software development, travel
  • Work — TUT: Meetings, online training, project management, travel, video recording

My 2017 Time in Overview

This is an eagle’s-eye view of how I spent my time this year:

Looking at the data another way, this graph shows where I focused that time from month to month:

And this is what a typical day looked like:

As expected, sleep and work tend to dominate during the weekdays, with entertainment, personal time, and socializing being slightly higher over the weekends.

When I dive deeper into these figures, however, some interesting details emerge.

Time Spent on Work

I averaged 209 hours of work per month, an 8 percent decrease from last year’s 228 hours.

I put in an average of 5.4 hours of work over the weekends, a 73 percent decrease from last year’s 20 hours.

Overall, I spent 2,505 hours on work throughout the year. A normal work year consists of 1,920 hours (12 months of 160 hours each), which means that I effectively worked 3.7 extra months, an improvement over last year’s five extra months.

These decreases were expected, since one of my goals from last year was to reallocate more time from work to family, friends, and self-development.

Most of my work time was spent on my web development agency (Work — CLC), followed by my snake rescue service (Work — BSR) and productivity coaching business (Work — PNB).

I don’t expect the snake rescue service to use as much of my time next year. Roughly 39 percent (225 hours) of the time I spent on it was one-off work to build a website and mobile app that help my community easily find contact details for their nearest snake catchers.

As for the specific types of work I did, the majority of my time goes toward software development, followed by project management, coaching, and travel.

Meetings took up about nine hours per month, down from 15 last year.

In my productivity coaching business, I spent an average of six hours a month on phone-based coaching and 13.7 hours on text-based coaching.

I tended to put in most of my work hours on Mondays (an average of 10 hours), which then slowly tapered off toward Fridays (6.8 hours) and the weekends (5.4 hours).

On the weekends, I worked mostly on my snake rescue service, a trend that I expect to see continuing in the future.

Although I do get call-outs for this service during the week, it seems like snakes in my area are spotted most often on the weekends, when people are either at home in their gardens or out doing recreational activities.

Two smaller spikes worth noting in these graphs are the weekend time I spent setting up my Street View trusted photography service and my app development agency.

Based on my experiences setting up additional income streams this year, I can say with confidence that spending an entire weekend, from Friday to Sunday—without the external interruptions weekdays tend to have—to get all the foundations in place is the approach that works best for me.

Like last year, the amount of time I spent on work didn’t seem to have a major effect on the amount of sleep I got.

There was a dip in my work hours during April (down to 145 hours) and May (down to 136 hours) due to annual family vacations, but the amount of daily sleep I logged steadily increased throughout the year.

The time I spent on vacation during this period was significantly less stressful than during previous years, because I had planned for it much better than before. I ensured that no new projects were starting during this time, no ongoing work required my direct input, and my clients knew I would be only intermittently available for a couple weeks.

Time Spent on Sleep

On average, I slept for 7.5 hours per night, went to sleep at 21:00, and woke up at 05:30.

(Larger view)

Time Spent on Socialization

I spent an average of 65 hours per month with family (down from 150) and 20 hours with friends (same as last year).

One of my goals from last year was to spend less time working so I could spend more time with my family, and although I did work fewer hours overall, it seems like that extra time went elsewhere instead of toward family activities.

Time Spent on Personal Activities

I spent personal time mostly on my morning routine (31.8 hours per month), followed by errands (30.5 hours per month), and travel (18.2 hours per month).

My morning routine includes activities like feeding the dogs, having coffee, showering, and getting dressed. I averaged one hour per day for this, which I may be able to bring down even further by optimizing for the next day the night before: setting out clothes and breakfast items, ensuring I get a good night’s rest, etc.

Errands included things like shopping, picking up and dropping off things for friends and family, and the like. Although I didn’t track errands last year, I believe this is where a large percentage of the time went that I gained from working less. I should work on reducing the time I spend on errands in the coming year.

I spent an average of just 4.9 hours on home maintenance per month, but I’m moving out of a rented space into my own house in October, so this number will likely be higher in the coming year.

Time Spent on Entertainment

On average, I spent 1.2 hours a day watching TV (the same as last year), one hour a day reading (up from 0.43 hours last year), and 45 minutes a day on social media (Facebook, YouTube, etc.).

My TV time was allocated to these 22 movies and shows:

My reading time was allocated to these 25 books:

The movies and TV category was much larger than I expected. Although I specifically wanted to watch less TV and read more this year, it seems like the extra reading time came from working less (time that last year’s goal mandated I should have allocated toward family activities).

Time Spent on My Phone

On average, I picked my phone up 42 times per day—slightly higher than last year’s 40 times.

I used the phone for 7.4 hours per day, which is higher than last year’s five hours:

This difference is mostly due to the large amount of video recording, editing, and uploading that I do on my phone for my snake rescue service, as well as the development and testing I do for my app development agency. I will monitor this throughout the coming year.

Daily Steps and Online Productivity

This breakdown shows my steps per day and month, compared to my productive and unproductive computer time:

(Larger view)

Overall, 73 percent of the time I spent on my computer was productive (as measured based on the “nonproductive” and “productive” categories I defined in RescueTime).

It seems like I’m still struggling to break through more than 3,200 average steps per day — far below the generally recommended 10,000.

Unfortunately, I’m stuck behind a desk for a large percentage of every day, and although my snake rescue service results in much more outdoor activity, I should make more effort this coming year to raise that number to 5,000.

I spent almost no time on my hiking and caving hobbies this year, and I can leverage those as well as things like family dog walks to accomplish this increase.

Photo: Sven van der Pluijm (Unsplash.com)

Insights I Gained from This Data

Over the past year, I did worse on some measurements and remained the same on others, but I improved on the key ones that’ll make the next period a success (getting more sleep, building more income streams, and working less).

Specifically, I:

  • Spent the majority of my working time on my web development agency (38%), snake rescue service (23%), and productivity coaching service (20%).
  • Mainly worked on activities related to software development (26%), project management (13%), and training (12%).
  • Improved my average amount of work per month to 209 hours (versus last year’s 228). That’s roughly 52 hours per week, or four extra months of work for the year (versus last year’s six extra months).
  • Worsened my average amount of weekend work to 23.6 (versus last year’s 4.5).
  • Improved my average sleep to 7.5 hours per night (versus last year’s seven).
  • Worsened the average amount of time on my phone per day to 7.4 hours (versus last year’s five hours). However, some of this is attributable to development and testing I need to do for my app development agency, as well as video recording, editing, and uploading work I need to do for my snake rescue service.
  • Worsened my average amount of family time per month to 65 hours (versus last year’s 150).
  • Maintained my average amount of time with friends per month at 20 hours.
  • Maintained my average amount of time watching TV per month at 36.5 hours. That’s 1.2 hours per day, the equivalent of 18.2 full days in the year.
  • Improved my average amount of reading per month to 30.4 hours (versus last year’s 13.2) and read 25 books (versus last year’s eight).

As for answering those questions I set for myself at the start of this article:

What am I spending too much time on, and can I delegate those things?

This year, I spent a lot of time working over the weekends to set up my new income streams. This wasn’t something I could delegate, but in the coming year I should try to keep my weekend work down to five hours maximum.

I’m still spending too much time watching TV. I should reallocate some of this to family time, reading, or other personal activities.

What am I not spending enough time on, and where can I find time for these things?

Last year, I wanted to reduce the amount of time I spent on work so I could spend more time with my family, but that didn’t happen. (Family time actually went down from 150 hours to 65 hours per month.)

Also, my average number of steps per month is far below the generally recommended 10,000.

If I spend less time on TV, social media, and errands, I’ll have more time for family and exercise. There are opportunities to combine these categories, like walking the dogs as a family activity.

Do any activities take up more time than I thought?

I thought I watched less TV this year, but that didn’t turn out to be the case.

The amount of time I spent on non-work-related social media was also much higher than I expected.

Was I able to grow and diversify my sources of income? (Last year I had two sources.)

Last year, my main sources of income were my web development agency and my productivity coaching service.

This year, I received income from seven different sources:

  • Snake rescue service
  • Web development agency
  • Evernote certified consulting service
  • Productivity coaching business
  • Street View trusted photography service
  • App development agency
  • Software development training service

This is enough diversification for now. During the coming year, I should focus on growing these sources instead of adding more.

What does my time investment look like across my various income sources?

The breakdown (see “Time Spent on Work,” above) looks pretty much as I expected.

With the exception of my snake rescue service (where I did a lot of free one-off work to build digital resources for my community), the percentage of work time that went toward each of my businesses correlated well with the percentage of overall income I received from those businesses.

Is there any correlation between days of the week and the types of work that I tend to do?

Software development training hours tended to be higher on Mondays, and my web development agency hours tended to be higher on Tuesdays. These days are when I try to schedule most of the in-person sessions related to these two businesses.

My productivity coaching business tended to receive more hours on Mondays and Thursdays. This correlates well with my coaching pattern where I set goals with my clients at the start of the week, and then start a retrospective on Thursdays while there’s still time to finish the week well.

Thursdays, Saturdays, and Sundays tend to be the days I’m most busy capturing and releasing snakes.

Looking at the bigger picture, is my work-life balance reasonable?

For the most part, I would say yes — it’s certainly better than it was in previous years.

I need to tweak a couple time budgets within the various sub-items, but overall I think the amount of time I spend on each category is reasonable.

Did I spend two hours or less per day on my phone?

No, and given that so much of my work depends on me being constantly in touch with clients via phone, doing testing, and recording/editing videos, this may have been an overly ambitious goal.

Did I spend less than 200 hours per month working so I could spend more time with family and friends?

I did reduce my work hours to almost 200 hours per month, but the time I saved ended up going to reading, social media, and errands instead of family activities.

Was I able to reduce my software development hours by delegating work that I didn’t specifically need to be involved in?

Yes, I reduced the monthly hours I spent on software development to 54.5 (versus last year’s 123).

This was done by setting up a trusted referral network so I could focus my own time on the highest-value clients and projects.

Did I watch less TV and spend more time reading and building up my productivity coaching business?

No, my time spent watching TV remained pretty much the same as last year, and I didn’t grow my productivity coaching business as I originally thought I would.

Instead, the time I reallocated from other categories was used to create five new income streams.

Did I read more books and maintain a 1:1 ratio of fiction versus nonfiction?

I read 25 books this year (versus eight books last year), but only two were nonfiction.

My Amazon wish list is certainly long enough that I don’t have any good excuses to not read more nonfiction. I think the problem is that I ended up using fiction books as a form of relaxation and never scheduled time to read nonfiction books.

Did I maintain an average of seven hours of sleep per night?

I exceeded this goal by getting an average of 7.5 hours, a huge improvement over the 5.3 hours I got at the start of the previous year.

My Goals for Next Year

Based on the insights gained this year, my goals for the 2017–2018 period are as follows:

  • Maintain 7.5 hours of sleep per night and get to bed by 21:00 at the latest.
  • Restrict my work hours to 200 per month.
  • Restrict my weekend work to five hours.
  • Knowing that I tend to get most of my work hours in on Mondays, I should schedule my most difficult work for early in the week and leave administrative tasks to the end of the week.
  • Keeping in mind that I’ll likely spend more time on my software development training service on Mondays, more time on my web development agency on Tuesdays, and more time on my productivity coaching service on Mondays and Thursdays, plan the rest of my work around this.
  • Plan for April and May vacations well in advance by not scheduling any major projects to start during that time and ensuring that everyone knows I’ll be only intermittently available. I should expect to deliver 50 to 60 fewer hours of work during this period.
  • Now that I’ve set up several additional income streams, focus on growing them the coming year instead of setting up more.
  • Keep my phone usage to a maximum of seven hours per day, with most of that time being work-related.
  • Spend less time on errands by saying no more often in personal contexts, or at least delaying personal favors for friends and family until my schedule reasonably allows for them.
  • Spend 100 hours a month on family and 20 hours a month on friends.
  • Be aware that I’ll likely spend 10 to 15 hours on home maintenance after moving into my new house.
  • Spend less than one hour a day watching TV.
  • Spend more than one hour a day reading, and maintain a 1:1 ratio for fiction versus nonfiction books.
  • Walk an average of 5,000 steps per day by spending more time hiking, caving, and walking the dogs. Merge these extra activities with family time (for example, walking the dogs together) whenever possible.

Conclusions

The annual insights I gain from this report are invaluable, and the fact that I make this data available publicly acts as an additional driving force to try to perform well.

Because I use real, measured data instead of assumptions and guesses, the insights are grounded in reality, allowing me to make well-informed decisions on how to proceed during the next year.

Having run this experiment on myself for several years now, I can say with confidence that it’s extremely easy to fool yourself about where your time is going if you don’t measure it, which almost always leads to missing out on huge opportunities.

Image credit Willem Van Zyl

How to Run This Experiment for Yourself

When I collect this kind of quantified-self data, my preference is always to use automated tools that need as little input as possible.

If you’d like to perform a similar experiment on yourself, I recommend starting with the following tools and techniques:

  • Eternity Time Log: Set up a list of activities you want to measure in the app, and then switch your timer between items throughout the day.
  • Pillow: Start a smart alarm every evening when you go to bed.
  • RescueTime: Define your “unproductive” and “productive” categories for apps and websites, and then let the app run on its own.
  • Moves: Check every week or two that the app correctly identified the locations you visited.
  • Moment: Let this app run on its own.
  • Gyroscope: Link this app to the others, and then let it aggregate your data on its own.

Among these apps, only Eternity Time Log, Pillow, and (occasionally) Moves require you to interact with them. The others automatically track your data in the background.

If you’re starting an experiment like this for yourself, remembering to keep Eternity Time Log up to date throughout the day may be difficult at first. I recommend setting a couple reminders throughout the day to update your timer until the habit sets in.

The categories and specific data points I tracked (see “What I Measured,” above) are what made sense to me. You may want to collect data on different things.

However, don’t overdo it! If you try to track too many data points, you’ll spend a lot of time juggling apps and updating your timers, become frustrated, and likely give up.

Rather, think in terms of the broader categories you want to measure the first time you perform this experiment. Even broad data is better than no data at all.

I’d Love to Hear from You!

Do you have any insights into this data that I didn’t mention above?

Is there anything else you think I should start monitoring?

Would you like me to help you set up a similar experiment for yourself?

Leave a comment below or email me on willem@pronotbusy.com, and I’d be happy to discuss this with you.

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most…

Willem van Zyl

Written by

Productivity Coach, Software Developer, Snake Rescuer, Google Local Guide, Street View Photographer from Cape Town, South Africa.

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

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