Do you really know how you use your time?

Some things I learned from tracking my work time.

When I was working as a school teacher I was very clear about how I used my work time. From 8.45am until 3.30pm I was in the classroom, and there was an expectation that we teach a certain number of lessons in each subject each week. Then I had a predictable level of marking every day. The remaining time was limited, so I had to be incredibly disciplined about how I did my planning.

As I moved through my career and into different types of jobs, how I used my time became much less clear to me. I had lots of different types of work to do, usually for multiple different projects at the same time, plus a bunch of ‘compulsory’ things like team meetings and the like. I moved into a space that while I was usually relatively effective at getting things done, but I didn’t have a really clear view of how I was spending my time.

Then I started using my electronic calendar as a to-do list of sorts. I find I have a tendency to make very long ‘everything bucket’ to do lists. I note down everything I need to do and the list inflates to huge proportions and moves way beyond being a useful organising tool.

So I moved to trying to put things I needed to do in my calendar as events, estimating the chunk of time I would need to complete them. Keeping this up to date, and changing the events based on how long it actually took me to do things, I started to get a better handle on how long tasks really take to complete. This approach also encouraged1 me to work on just one thing at once and avoid distractions.

Some time later I had a meeting with my team where a conversation developed about the number of meetings they seemed to have in their diaries and the balance between this and getting focused work done. Inspired by a conversation I’d had with a friend in consultancy who lives by ‘billable hours’ of work for clients, I suggested we try logging how we spent all our time for a week.

This sounds onerous, but with what I was doing already (and some of my team had started doing too) it wasn’t much more effort – just the time to colour code the events in the diary by category and then tally each of these up at the end of the week. Some of us did this, others totted things up with a spreadsheet. I said that we should have no expectation of sharing the detail of all this with each other, as that was a bit too much like surveillance to me. But we did commit to sharing what we learned from doing it for a week.

The results were really interesting. Everyone seemed to come to our next team meeting with a different understanding of how they used their time. Being researchers, most of us had worked out the percentage of time we spent in certain types of meetings, considered which things were non negotiable and which we had more control of, and all with some resolutions to spend less time on some things and more on others. As a team leader often responsible for the time-sucking meetings I took a long hard look at the meetings I was putting in as regular events that we defaulted to. I also looked at their duration, and tried to shorted them as much as I could so that they were kept to the bare essentials.

Now I’m not going to suggest that we should all track every minute of our days all the time. And I do think that requiring this info to be shared in detail in a work setting could be problematic and potentially constitute undue surveillance. However, as a personal exercise it is pretty interesting to see how you really use your time, because I think many of us don’t have complete clarity of how this most valuable resource gets used.

If you’ve ever thought ‘where did this week go?’, asked why you seem to spend so much time in meetings, or found tasks taking way longer (or shorter) to achieve than you estimated, then perhaps it might be useful for you to do a ‘deep dive’ on your use of time and get the real picture of how it’s being spent.

You might not have control of all of it, but if you are able to open up a conversation, for example, about spending upwards of 30% of your time in information giving meetings-that-could-be-an-email, you might find they are as concerned about the impact on productivity this is having as you are…

The clearer the understanding we all have of how we are spending our time, the more intentional we can be about this.

Thanks for continuing to follow my newsletter. It’s been very affirming to read your positive comments about this rebooted newsletter, to see that so many of you continue to read it, and so few of you have unsubscribed despite the long hiatus.

You might be interested to know I’ve got back into writing my weeknotes each week over at I’m writing these more for myself than an audience, but if you’re interested in what I’m doing work and other projects wise they are there to read.


‘Encouraged’ being the word… this is still a massive challenge for all of us I think!






4 responses to “Do you really know how you use your time?”

  1. Julia Skinner Avatar
    Julia Skinner

    Have you got a camera in my study? Trying to utilise my time more efficiently has been the focs of most of it in recent days. It is more difficult when it is ‘for yourself’ & not directed by others I think.
    I suspect I may take more time writing out the various lists that completing the tasks but I’ll let you know!

    1. Oliver Quinlan Avatar
      Oliver Quinlan

      In a way I think it’s easier when you are doing projects that you have complete ownership of, but in a way it’s also harder as there’s less structure from other people! I do a similar thing with projects outside of my day job – blocking time on the calendar etc and try to review how much spent on each.

      Lots of these are more creative projects that could take as much time as I give them so I have tried allocating how much time I want to spend on them per week based on their value to me, and then stick to that and then whatever I have created has to be ‘good enough’.

      I’ve done that with this newsletter – I have one block of time each week to write, and another to edit and schedule a bit later. Interestingly the one post I put out that was ‘good enough’ but really didn’t feel was as good as the previous ones has so far had the most traffic! Sometimes it’s good to just stop being self critical and stick to time!

      Do let me know how you approach this!

  2. Aaron Avatar

    Another interesting piece Oliver. I always cringe when people are asked in meetings to provide an estimate about how long something will take or how much time they have spent on a particular task. I always feel like we over / under estimate such situations, especially if there is not a requirement to bill the hours.

    Working in a role where I wear multiple hats, support, development and testing I really struggle to keep track of where my time goes. I wonder if the challenge is not only being aware, but also being in control of your time? I think this goes for both home and work.

    I’ve read things like Cal Newport’s piece on getting things done and tried things like batching emails and responses. The problem I have every time I try such strategies is to get others onboard.

    I am left with a question, how much of time is a shared resource? As you suggest, maybe I need to have a go a logging my hours.

    1. Oliver Quinlan Avatar
      Oliver Quinlan

      Time as a shared resource – that’s a really interesting mental model. Perhaps what I am suggesting is underpinned by accepting that and starting to talk about it and open up that negotiation with others about how time is used.

      This can be so different in different contexts, such as different organisations, and it’s often unsaid. In more hierarchical organisations other people can have much more control of your time than in more democratic ones, but it’s rarely stated explicitly how much this is the case. At least in my experience. I’ve definitely experienced different contexts in terms of how much control I’ve had over my time. I have to say the more control I have the happier I seem to feel. Even if I am super busy, if I am in control of how that manifests then I much prefer it.

      Thinking about it I am realising how much of the language we use about our time reinforces an individualistic way of thinking about it as a resource.

      So often trying to work productively, efficiently, or even with some kind of work-life balance can be seen as an individual endeavour. Really interesting to see it as a community one.

      Thanks for provoking my thoughts on this!

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