There are a million and one resources to read to become more productive. It can be overwhelming. Plus, even if you managed to read all the great books and blogs, you’d still have millions of podcasts, audiobooks, videos, and courses waiting. Ironically, some people spend so much time consuming information from productivity gurus they actually become less productive.
You don’t need to be overwhelmed. Overwhelmed means busy. Busy is not productive. The best work/life balance comes from getting to work, efficiently crushing your most important tasks, followed by leaving the office.
Fortunately, shifting from busy bee to efficient entrepreneur is easy with the use of one simple strategy — time logging.
Why You Should Keep a Time Log
It’s impossible to manage your time without knowing how you currently spend it. This is why a time log is the foundational tool to being more productive. A time log is a essentially a journal detailing how you spend your time on a minute to minute basis.
A time log allows you to easily diagnose the biggest time sucks in your life. You may be surprised to know you spend 31 minutes a day just on Twitter! In addition, keeping a time log will allow you to become aware of the unconscious time wasters in your life. This in itself is often enough to encourage you to spend your time more effectively.
Keeping a time log will also provide you with motivation. How would you feel writing that you just spent 1.5 hours watching television? Just knowing you’ll have to record how you’ve spent your evening is often enough accountability to steer you towards better uses of your time.
How to Keep a Time Log
Keeping a time log is an incredibly simple process. We can break it down into just 5 steps.
#1 record every activity you do during the day.
#2 Use a stopwatch or other timer to measure how long you spend doing each activity.
#3 Details are important. You should include small miscellaneous activities in your list — those 7 minutes you spent reading your favorite forum, the countless “2 minute” rapid email sessions, the 11 minutes it takes commuting from your workplace to your favorite restaurant, etc.
#4 You’ll typically find you have 35-75 logs at the end of the day.
#5 You’ll gain insights into how you spend your time after just a single day. For optimal results, however, maintain your time log for at least a week.
Interpreting Your Results
Once you’ve finished recording your log entries, it’s incredibly beneficial to categorize them. Consider the following categories: life maintenance, commute, work, learning, rejuvenation, sleep. I encourage you to borrow from my list and adjust it to your liking.
For advanced time loggers, you can even categorize your logs within each category. Life maintenance → exercise → strength training or learning → programming → front-end development → teamtreehouse tutorials.
Once you’ve categorized your time, examine how much of it was actually spent doing deep work. We can borrow Cal Newport’s definition of deep work as focusing on cognitively demanding tasks without being distracted. For ideal results, this deep work should be something that will move your business forward and that cannot be effectively outsourced.
After tallying up your time log, you’ll likely be surprised how little time you actually spend doing deep work. The average office worker, for example, reports that they’re only productive 2 hours and 53 minutes per day. Even this is likely an exaggeration of how productive the average person is, however, as the cited study was based on participants self-reporting how much time they’d spent working (nobody wants to admit they’re only productive 75 minutes per day).
Regardless of the specifics, you’ll likely find a significant percentage of your “working hours” aren’t actually spent working. Between excessive email checking, taking long snack breaks, and checking your favorite blogs, you could easily be wasting half the hours in your office (or coworking space).
Become a More Productive Worker
If you haven’t already, calculate how efficient you are. This can be done with the following formula: efficiency = hours of deep work/total number of hours working.
Here’s an example. 25 hours of deep work/50 hours in the office = 50% efficiency.
Once you’ve obtained an efficiency percentage, there are two options for you to get more real work done.
Option A: Work more hours. Continuing with the previous example, if you wanted 30 hours of deep work you could theoretically increase your number of office hours to 60. Generally, I don’t recommend using option A, as you’re still being inefficient. It’s also easy to enter workaholic territory using this approach (which leads to burnout and increasing inefficiency).
Option B. Increase your ratio of efficiency. This can be done first by consciously crafting your work environment and creating new rules for yourself. X minutes for lunch, no forum browsing or games during work hours, etc. Going further, a counterintuitive measure to become more productive is to spend less hours in the office.
Parkinson’s law states that work expands to fill the time you allocate to it. By limiting your office hours, your brain will see work time as a scarce resource. Your brain then naturally tries to make the most of its working hours. Time constraints and deadlines lead to efficient work. A lack of urgency makes it too easy to be lackadaisical. By working with Parkinson’s law rather than against it, you’ll find your efficiency increases.
You’ll also find your motivation increases. Decreasing the amount of time you work gives you more time to do activities that rejuvenate you. The positive anticipation these enjoyable activities offer will make it far easier for you to remain focused during your work hours.
Over time, it’s probable unconscious habits will sneak back into your working hours. Unfortunately, this means some upkeep is required to maintain the gains you’ve earned from time logging. You don’t necessarily need to maintain a time log everyday of the year (though doing so can be beneficial and many high performers do.
It is recommended, however, that you keep a time log for at least the first week of every quarter. This will allow you to easily nip resurfacing unconscious habits and maintain peak efficiency. Best of all, your time logs will offer you an incredible ROI as you’ll be spending just a few minutes each quarter logging new entries.
In my 1.5 years of time logging I’ve stumbled onto several resources regarding time logging. Here are the best things I’ve found:
This is a printable PDF you can use for recording your time. Broken up into fifteen minute increments, it’s easy to record the smallest details of your day with this worksheet.
RescueTime allows you to easily see how much time you spend on different websites during your day. For example, RescueTime may report you’ve spent 11 minutes on coworker.com, 7 minutes on Airbnb, 37 minutes on Facebook, etc.
While recording how much time you spent on each website would likely feel excessive if you had to do so manually, RescueTime does all the calculating for you. The only thing you have to do is interpret the results.
Eternity is easily the most useful app on my iPhone. I highly recommend you get it too — now. This app allows you to easily record and customize your time logs. Plus, it will even produce charts to give you a visual representation of how you spend your time. No other app will give you such tremendous insights into how you spend your time.
Keeping a time log is the most simple, yet effective productivity hack I’ve ever found. Five minutes a week (averaged over the course of the year), easily has the potential to save you at least five hours of time each week. \