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Dive 41: Are you spending time wisely?
Hey, it’s Alvin!
The other day I was scrolling through Twitter, and someone (let’s call him, “John”) was concerned he may not be spending time wisely. John was warning the reader, “you, too, should make sure you’re not wasting your time.”
John’s suggestion was to get some time tracking apps or a spreadsheet to track how many hours you spend on each activity you do each day. Then, analyze the data to figure out what you should spend less (and more) time on.
I have a personal disdain for time tracking.
Ever since I started working as a full-time software developer more than a decade ago, my employers have asked me to track my time on timesheets. Every task I did in every project I worked on had to be tracked by the half-hour. And, sometimes, my manager questioned me about how I allocated my time. “You spent HOW many hours styling a dropdown list?”
The conceit of time tracking is that if you have multiple things competing for time in each 24-hour day, you can divide your time in optimal proportions. So, each one gets no more and no less than the time you feel it deserves relative to everything else. The problem is: the more things there are competing for your time, the less time each thing gets, so the harder it becomes to proportion everything properly.
Following a tight schedule also means setting alarms or checking the time constantly. I’m a person who can’t comfortably get into a flow state while constantly being worried about being late for my next appointment. And I’m someone who enjoys getting lost in the activities I love.
I don’t want to be owned by the clock.
So, the thought of applying the stressful corporate artifact of time tracking to my personal life is completely unappealing to me. It all sounds like a whole lot of work, brainpower and time that could be spent more… wisely.
The Origins of Time Tracking
Our ancestors led meaningful lives. And for centuries, they relied mainly on the sun’s movement across the sky to mark the passage of time. Our relationship with time changed drastically in the mid-1700s at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.
That’s when factories needed their workers to show up at the same time of day to coordinate activities on factory floors. That’s when railways set timetables so passengers wouldn’t miss their trains to get to work. That’s when we started tracking our own time down to minutes and seconds.
These conventions stuck around. It’s a major reason modern corporations continue to track time. And it’s only in the last few decades that companies started introducing flex hours, so workers no longer had to show up at 9am sharp.
These are modern conceptions of time. And there’s no reason you need to live your life like a factory or railway to live a meaningful life.
You don’t need time tracking to spend your time wisely.
Think about the last time you were doing something you loved. You were in the flow. You were immersed in and enjoying the process. Was there any point when you asked yourself, “am I spending my time wisely?”
That question only pops into my mind when I’m disengaged from my work. It happens when I’m doing something, but my mind isn’t fully focused on it. It’s wandering. And eventually, it wanders to the questions, “What am I doing? Am I spending my time wisely?”
The answer to this question is not to start tracking time. Instead, treat it as a sign to reflect on why you’re doing what you’re doing. Then, prioritize.
Here’s what I mean:
Minimum Time Commitments
The first thing you need to do is ask yourself: “Would I rather spend less time on more commitments, or more time on fewer commitments that are more meaningful to me?”
For me, it’s the latter. If it’s the same for you, then the next step is to look at all your commitments and understand why you’re committed to them.
Everything I do, I do with purpose. I know why I’m doing what I’m doing. And I’m always working on things I consider most important to me at the time.
Right now, I have a few ongoing personal projects. This newsletter is one of them. For each project, I have a sense of the Minimum Time Commitment (MTC) I need or want to spend on it every day, week, etc. This could be a concrete number, but for me, it’s just a gut feeling.
So, for every new project I’m considering, I ask myself:
How important to me is this new project compared to everything else I’m doing right now?
Given the importance of everything, what are the top commitments I can take on without breaking the MTC for each one?
Then, I set aside everything else.
The actual time committed to a task could always be greater than the MTC. You might even commit so much time to one task that you don’t have time for a less important one. So be it. Of course, this is assuming the less important task is optional. No one else is forcing me to work on my side projects.
As an example, I thought about starting this newsletter a few months earlier than I did. But I had other more important commitments. As I fulfilled those other commitments, then I found time to make this newsletter. Now, there are other ideas that have taken a back seat.
Because I’m always working on things that are most important to me at the moment, there’s no doubt in my mind that my time is well spent. It doesn’t matter what it looks like in hindsight—I already explored why in my dive about regret.
If you devote all your time to the few things that matter most to you and learn to say “no” to everything else, you won’t need to track your time. At least, you won’t need a spreadsheet.
So when someone asks you, “are you spending your time wisely?”
You can answer with confidence, “yes, of course.” Without a doubt.
Own your time. Don’t let your time own you.
I hope you enjoyed this dive Below the Surface of spending time wisely. Reply to email@example.com if you have questions or comments. Let me know how you manage your time. I’d love to hear from you.
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Thank you for reading. Have a wonderful day. And I’ll see you in the next one.