Friday, March 22, 2013

Time Tracking

My first month at Harvard Business School was a turning point for me.  There was simply too much to do.  There were of course classes to attend and schoolwork to do.  There was my wife and young daughter to spend time with.  There were 900 new classmates I wanted to meet - and 900 second year students too.  There were amazing speakers coming to campus.  There were clubs to join and club events to attend and organize.  There were informational events about careers and entrepreneurship.  There was flag football.  There were professors I wanted to get to know.  Of course, I also needed the occasional moment of solitude, and I needed to sleep.

The advice people give you when you're going to HBS is to pick 2-3 things and do them well.  You can't possibly do everything, so don't even try.  You have to prioritize.  I'd heard that advice. I had listened carefully to friends, mentors, admissions people.

But man, that first month at HBS was overwhelming.  I got buried in all the things I could be doing.  I tried to do too much and I crashed.  These two things got me out of the muck:

  • AGGRESSIVE CALENDARING. I sat down on Sunday night and mapped out my week on my calendar.  What time would I get up each day?  What events did I want to go to?  What classes did I have to attend?  How much work was I going to do to prepare for each class and when?  When was I going to spend time with my family?  When did I have time to socialize.  I color-coded my calendar to make sure I had enough time in each of the various buckets.  And I pretty much scheduled my whole week, from when I would wake up to when I would go to bed.  I didn't always follow the schedule minute for minute, but I knew that each decision I made had implications.  If I met someone for lunch instead of having lunch with my scheduled family lunch, that was a clear decision.  If I was socializing with other parents at the playground instead of doing my work, that was a clear decision and the implication was likely that I wasn't going to get as much sleep.  There were always tradeoffs and having things laid out on my calendar made the tradeoffs crystal clear.

  • DILIGENT TIME TRACKING.  The other big thing I did was that I started tracking my time.  I had tracked my time before business school in order to see how much time I was working - and what I was working on.  But when I re-started tracking my time, I took it to a new level.  I tracked everything.  I had a spreadsheet with a column for every day and a row for every 15-minute increment (although I've since simplified to 30-minute blocks) from midnight to midnight.  I kept track of when I was asleep and when I was watching TV.  When I was comforting a baby at 3am and when I was reading for school.  Everything went into the spreadsheet at the end of the day and got categorized into a few big buckets: School, Work, Career, Family, Friends, Sleep, Other.  At the end of every month, I'd look at those big buckets and ask myself, "How do I feel about this?  Am I spending my time on the right things?  How do I want to change this in the coming month?"  Seeing my time laid out in front of me made me feel like I was in control.  I was deciding what was important to me and aligning my actions (my time) with those priorities in an explicit way -- and holding myself accountable.

After I graduated, I stopped tracking my time as diligently for a while, but I started to feel like something was missing.  That I wasn't in control of my time and my life.  I've now been back at it since August of 2011.  I'm approaching 30,000 consecutive half-hour blocks that have been accounted for.  That is a LOT of data about me.

The thing people always ask me after "Are you crazy?" (Yes, I am a little crazy) is "How much time do you spend tracking your time?"  Well, I've gotten pretty fast.  It's only a few minutes at the end of the day, and I'll usually update my spreadsheet once or twice during the day as well.  It's not more than 5-10 minutes per day, and I'll usually spend 60-90 minutes at the end of the month reviewing the last month's results.

And now people ask me, "So what?  What do you do with all that data?"  Like I said, I look at it once a month and set my priorities.  Where do I want to spend my time?  Am I spending my time the way I want to?  Are there any interesting trends in the data that I didn't see when I was living it day-to-day?

My time is more valuable than anything.  How I spend my time defines who I am.  I want to make sure that I'm spending my time in a way that matches up with my priorities.

What about you?  Do you know where your time is going?  Does your time match your priorities?
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