What Tracking My Time For An Entire Year Taught Me About Productivity

The notion that there just aren't enough hours in the day to find time for yourself may be a big fat lie according to time organization expert Laura Vanderkam.

Photo: Josh Adamski

The best-selling author, whose latest book is called I Know How She Does It: How Successful Women Make the Most of Their Time, is known for her revealing time-log research charting the lives of working moms. Herself a working mother of four, she decided to write down everything she did for each half-hour increment of the 8,784 hours that made up a leap year. What she learned is that while life wasn’t really as crazy busy as she might have believed, knowing where your time is going can help you spend it even more joyfully. Here she shares her top discoveries from logging her days. They might inspire you to find ways to skirt the rules of scheduling in your own life.

Schedule surprise #1. I spent 10 hours less each week working than I thought. You may very well believe that you clock much more time working than you actually do. “Even though I study how people spend their time and know that people overestimate their work weeks, I’ll be darned if I didn’t do it myself,” says Laura. She’d learned from logging random weeks in the past that she had worked 50 hours, and assumed those weeks were representative of her average. However, after logging her work weeks for an entire year, she discovered she actually worked a whole 10 hours less on average than she believed. “My range was huge,” she says. “I had 60-hour weeks, but very, very few of them. And I had 50-hour weeks, but not as many as I thought. And so most of the weeks were closer to 40—and there were enough that were under 40, for various reasons, that it wound up averaging out to right around 40, or 37.4 when factoring in vacations.” Something to ponder: If you discovered that you had 10 more hours a week than you thought, how might you start spending your time differently?

Schedule surprise #2. I do more pleasure reading than I realized—327 hours—and I wish I had chosen better material to make it count. “I was surprised to find that I spent a good chunk of time reading before bed—it’s my way of winding down,” says Laura. “In my mind I wasn’t reading that much. And so I wasn’t planning ahead for it, such as finding novels and more meaty sorts of non-fiction. The vast majority of it was magazines. I love magazines, but I’m not sure I needed to spend 327 hours reading how air-popped popcorn is a great low-calorie snack. I probably read that kind of article 10 times.” The takeaway is that you might be busy, but you’re probably also watching plenty of Netflix. If you understand that there is some downtime in your schedule, you can plan it for doing something that will have the biggest happiness payoff for you.

Schedule surprise #3. I was surprised to see that I logged an average of 7 ½ hours of sleep a night—even with a new baby. “This was a year that I had a very young child who was not really sleeping that well. And so, to my mind, that would have caused less sleep. But it turns out that while it was less orderly sleep than I would have liked, I was making up the hours somewhere.”

Schedule surprise #4. I devoted more time to housework than I thought, about nine hours a week. “But this average number was driven up because I do a lot of entertaining, and so there were weeks that I spent a lot more time cooking and cleaning than I normally did,” says Laura. The opposite is usually true for most women—we tend to over- rather than underestimate the amount of time we spend on household chores. Another interesting thing that comes out a lot of times in my time-tracking research is women often underestimate the amount of time men are doing work around the house, such as inflating a basketball or changing a light bulb, because it’s not what she sees as the most important stuff, so he’s not getting credit,” says Laura.

Schedule surprise #5. Planning your time with intention isn’t about over-scheduling—and there’s a difference. Becoming aware of how you spend your time doesn’t mean you have to map out every minute in your Google calendar. “You can have a rough sense of where the time goes, and think about how you would like to spend it, but that doesn’t mean that I have every activity scheduled down to the minute, and that I live a soulless, ticking-clock existence,” says Laura. “Now I know I have free time. I want do things that I truly love, as opposed to mindlessly watching TV just ’cause it’s easier, and going to social media ’cause it’s there. It’s actually a tool for having a lot more joy in your life.”

Schedule surprise #6. To change your life, the answer might be changing your story—not your time. Our lives are simply the stories we tell ourselves—it’s up to us whether we want to see the positive or the negative. We tend to describe our lives with certain stories, and those stories are about creating a narrative and an identity for ourselves. For many people, that identity is about how busy we are, and so we bring up moments in our lives that are the craziest possible ones, such as being up all night with a baby when you have to leave in the morning for an important business trip. “It’s not that moments such as having four kids with a stomach bug vomiting and having diarrhea simultaneously don’t happen to me,” says Laura. “However, I can choose which stories I’m telling, and I think it’s worth also talking about going out with friends, the fun family moments, or even me-time that I had. Those are worth talking about, too, because they’re no less emblematic of life than the other moments.” You are the author of your own story, so you might try focusing on the happy moments.

Schedule surprise #7. Amazingly, Vanderkam has no elaborate strategy for setting new intentions with her time…just a simple skirt almost akin to Marie Kondo’s incredibly simple “does it spark joy?” filter test. “I just have a paper calendar, and I write in calls and meetings I have, but I can see if the week’s getting too full—like there’s too much crap written in my calendar, then I’m like, ‘Oh, guess I’m not doing anything else, then.'”