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Spend an Hour, Save a Week: Tracking What You Do

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Sometimes we learn important things in an unexpected setting. On a four-hour hike in the mountain with friends, Pat Brans learned a healthy, easy, and life-changing technique that anyone can use.
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I met my friend Bill in 2005. I had been living in Grenoble, France, for eight years; Bill had been transferred there for a two-year stint with his job at Hewlett-Packard. We hit it off right away. Bill and I shared a variety of interests, such as hiking in the Alps, playing guitar, and trying to discover the meaning of life over a bottle of red wine.

Bill's job required him to travel all around the world. One month he'd go to Silicon Valley for a week; the next month he'd jet off to Tokyo, Singapore, or Hong Kong. On weeks when he didn't travel to another continent, he made short trips to cities like Stockholm, London, or Madrid.

Waking up at five in the morning to catch a flight to a place nine or ten time zones away can take a lot out of a person, but Bill never seemed tired. He kept in shape by hiking, climbing, or cycling. He was married, had two kids in primary school, and he developed a rich social life during his two years in Grenoble.

One Sunday afternoon in the spring, Bill and I went on a four-hour hike with another friend, Philippe, who was a native of Grenoble. Our destination was a beautiful lake at the top of a small mountain. The water was like a cold dip you find in many gyms these days.

After two hours of walking, it felt good to dive in and spend about 30 seconds in the chilly lake. After drying off, we opened a bottle of Côtes Du Rhône and sat around chatting, as we liked to do. Because it was a Sunday afternoon, the conversation soon turned to the workweek that would start the following morning.

Philippe complained about how overwhelmed he felt. He couldn't find time to do the things he liked. Though Bill had a much heavier professional workload, and he and his family had to deal with the complexities of living in a foreign country, it seemed easier for him than for Philippe to find time for friends and hobbies.

Bill spent the next hour explaining his system.

Spotting Lost Time

Every few months, to get an objective view of how he spent his day, Bill noted everything he did that took longer than five minutes. Because he worked in a high-technology field, he used a smartphone to note activities as they happened. In the worst case, he might wait until the end of the morning and take down what he remembered having done over the previous four hours.

Next, Bill transferred his notes to a spreadsheet, where he listed how he spent each hour. Knowing that every day was a little different, he took readings on three separate days to find repeating patterns.

The first time he did this, my friend was really surprised at how much time he wasted. He estimated that he spent over half his time "spinning his wheels," as he put it.

Bill saw that he tended to work on email several times each morning, and he rarely spent more than 15 minutes focusing on a single task. After lunch, he had the habit of walking around trying to strike up conversations with colleagues. When meetings started late or finished early, Bill rarely found something useful to do to fill the gap.

The first thing he did when he got home from work was turn on the television set and "veg out" for at least half an hour. While he was mentally occupied by the TV, his kids would beg for his attention. His staying glued to the television caused enough frustration to dampen the mood for the rest of the evening.

Based on what he learned through this tracking procedure, Bill changed how he planned his day. It took some time to develop new habits, and it wasn't easy. Whenever he needed motivation, he went back to his spreadsheet to remind himself how much time a person could waste.

Bill found that he could put the reasons for lost time into three categories. One cause for waste was waiting for something. Another was that he didn't always order his activities in an optimal way. As his mood changed, depending on what he was doing, he felt more or less motivated to do the next thing. In the third category were the cases where he could have killed two birds with one stone, but failed to do so.

Organizing Tasks by Context

A big improvement came when Bill figured out how to group his activities based on context, where context could be a type of work, a state of mind, or a physical location.

He decided to maintain a list of people to call, so that whenever he took the time to make one phone call, he could stay in "calling mode" and take care of all his calls at once. Similarly, as he thought of anyone he needed to contact via email, he would jot down the person's initials. Resolving to use email at most three times a day, once he was using his email software, he would go through his list and send all the messages in one sitting.

Bill grouped the tasks requiring focus, trying to fit them into a one- or two-hour slot starting around 10:00 in the morning, because that's the time of day when his concentration is strongest. He minimized distractions and focused on the work in front of him during this time.

Finally, Bill kept lists of things to do in each the locations where he traveled. When in Palo Alto, for example, he made the most of his time by taking care of all those things that needed to be done in that part of the world. When in Singapore, he knocked out all activities involving his colleagues and partners there.

Instead of doing things at the moment when the idea occurred to him, Bill would jot down one or two words to remind himself of what needed to be done when he was in the appropriate context. He explained to Philippe and me that organizing tasks in this ways has several advantages:

  • It minimizes attention fragmentation that results from switching from one frame of mind to another.
  • It lowers stress you feel when you don't make a clean break between activities.
  • It enhances satisfaction by allowing you to finish several tasks in one sitting.
  • It allows you to take full advantage of being in a given physical location.

Improving Slowly and Steadily

Always careful to set aside appropriate amounts of time for family, exercise, friends, and hobbies, Bill kept this conversation light, as fitting to the context of our hike in the mountains. As we emptied the bottle of Côtes du Rhône, he told us how this technique for spotting lost time had helped him in the long haul. Because his work and personal life changed over time (as did his biorhythms), he wanted to take a fresh snapshot two or three times a year, so he repeated the whole exercise every few months.

Bill told us that he wasn't a disciplined person by nature. Rather than trying to monitor what he was doing every day, he worked on habits. Whenever he tracked his time in this way, he found out something new, and he tried hard to make changes accordingly.

My friend never did achieve perfection (and never will). However, in the space of just a few years, Bill had already developed into the efficient person Philippe and I saw that spring afternoon next to the lake. Since then, Philippe and I have both put Bill's technique to use, and it's made a huge difference in both our lives. It's amazing how much time we've saved, all thanks to an hour spent chatting with a friend on a Sunday afternoon hike.

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