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What You Can Learn from Obsessing Over Your Own Time Use

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Obsessing Over Time

I tracked my time for one day and here’s what happened.

No, not even one whole day. One afternoon.

  • [1:08][1:18] Email editor.
  • [1:19][1:22] Twitter.
  • [1:23][1:32] Find & install a syncing note app.
  • [1:33][1:38] Go to email. Need article info for next piece. See new reply from editor. Get distracted putting deadlines on next week’s calendar. Turn music on. Find email with needed info & jot it down in notebook so I don’t have to chase it again.
  • [1:29][2:17] Start research. Sources found, saved. Write rough (handwritten, broad) outline.
  • [2:18][2:29] Email editor with description of direction I’m going in before I put any more work into it. Deal with other emails.
  • [2:30][2:39] Break.
  • [2:40][3:04] Go sit outside and write outlines for 2 posts.
  • [3:05][3:10] Get water, serve ice cream for the kids, put steak in marinade for dinner.
  • [3:11][3:16] Start writing next article due, get interrupted by youngest child awaking from nap EARLY. Get her some ice cream.
  • [3:17][4:04] Write 2,420 words. This is how desperation works. Six different questions come in from four different children. I ignore them all until I’m interrupted by 2nd youngest coming in with the serious cry. Calm him down, start writing again.
  • [4:15][4:17] Interrupted by phone call.
  • [4:17] – 27 Write another 476 words, then Joe comes home… talk to him for a few minutes.
  • [4:31] – Back to writing. Someone comes to the office door and I give them narrowed angry eyes and they run away…
  • [4:58] – Friends stop by. I’ve gotten to just over 1000 words since [4:17], so I go outside to say hi and I’m pretty much done for the day anyway.

What We Think We Know

What We Think We Know

Laura Vanderkam, one of my favorite writers, has done extensive research and writing on time-use. Something she’s noticed is how skewed our own perceptions become: what we think we’re doing with our time is not what we’re actually doing.

We think we’re working 70 or 80 hours a week, but we’re not. We think we’re not getting enough sleep, but often we are. We misjudge our own time use constantly, and it can lead us to misidentify problems and remain stuck and frustrated.

Here are two things I’ve learned from this little afternoon time-tracking experiment:

  1. My biggest time-waster is not what I thought it was.
  2. I’ve been overlooking a clear way to handle all the interruptions.

My Biggest Time-Waster

I would have guessed my biggest time-waster to be social media because that’s what I notice myself doing when I’m procrastinating on the real work. However, I’ve set a time limit in my browser for those sites. I’ve removed Facebook from my phone.

I haven’t, however, really noticed or done anything to deal with the way I let email eat my time. Since I use it to communicate with editors and clients, it’s not something I can block or remove. It’s necessary. However, I can change how I use this tool so that it’s a useful tool rather than an obstacle to doing the work I need to do.

What I’ve Overlooked

I feel a special kind of self-pity sometimes: not just a Mom, but a work-at-home Mom. A homeschooling work-at-home Mom. With four kids. Under age nine.

I mean: even these other work-at-home parents get to send their kids off to school for 6+ hours a day, but me? Oh no. Not even that. And working at home means I can’t get away from distractions like laundry and dinner and neighbors and the cat and the quart of Haagen Daz in the freezer.

But what I’ve been missing is the key to handling it all.

Here it is. It’s not rocket science. It’s totally obvious.

All these interruptions exist in my life because I have chosen to put them there. I have chosen them, allowed them, even welcomed them.

Now this changes things a bit, in two very different ways.

Perspective Change

Perspective Change

The first change is a perspective change. I work at home because I want to work at home. I have four kids because I chose to have four kids. I homeschool my kids because I want to do so. I have made all of these choices based on my priorities and desires.

This is a huge freedom, an enormous blessing, and all I am doing is complaining about the interruptions that my house and my kids are causing me?

Wrong perspective. Wrong attitude. I can change that, though. I can remember. I can reflect. I can choose gratitude instead of frustration.

Behavior Change

The second change is a behavioral change. It’s twofold. First, I need to identify the most common sources of interruption and decide on the best response to each one. Second, I need to standardize that “best response” until it becomes my habitual behavior.

For example, one common interruption is the kids asking for a snack, and then needing help with some aspect of it.

Best response? Set a snack time. They can read the clock (I mean, hello, it’s digital). And I can choose some easy snack foods, put them in an accessible place, and let the kids choose their own snack. This is all well within their capabilities.

Another common interruption is a child getting hurt. They often play outside while I work; I can sit at my desk and watch them from the window. But they often get hurt: minor injuries like a stubbed toe or a scratch, but major for them. How can I handle this? What’s the best response? I decided that compassion is more important than productivity. If one of my children comes in crying, I will stop my work, give a hug and kiss and band-aid and sympathy, and get back to work only once said child is ready to go play again.

This is a small decision, but it removes the angst of being interrupted in this way. I’ve chosen to respond with a little time and a lot of sympathy. It’s my choice, not an outside force I can’t control. I’ve set my priorities and I’m training myself to behave in accordance with them.

The truth is that each little incident takes 4 or 5 minutes, tops. Sure, there’s lost concentration and a bit of lag to get back into whatever I was doing, but it’s worth it. This particular season of parenting is short.

The Particular Futility of Self-Pity


Interruptions to work are universal. Responsibility is the only antidote.

Self-pity is useless. We all indulge in it to some degree. Sometimes it’s good to realize you’re putting in a lot of effort and other people are making it harder. But staying in self-pity simply locks you down. Responsibility gives you freedom.

The person with the responsibility is the person with the power to change things. When I complain about being interrupted, I’m giving all power to change away.

Self-pity is only valid when we can blame an outside force for the issue. In order to quit blaming, and start taking responsibility, I have to let go of feeling sorry for myself.

This is surprisingly difficult to do sometimes.

But if I manage to set it aside, and take responsibility for what I allow to happen in my life, then suddenly everything shifts. My world tilts, and I hold the power over myself, my choices, my time, my space.

Certainly I will be affected by others and by situations beyond my control.

But my responses are always mine to choose.

Benefits of Time-Use Obsession

Time Obsession

I used to hate cleaning up the kitchen after a big meal. It seemed to take so long. I love cooking, and entertaining, but the clean-up?

Then I timed myself. It took thirty minutes for me – alone – to clean up a big meal for 8 people: clear the table, put away food, load dishwasher, wash dishes, wipe down surfaces.

A measly half of an hour. Not so bad, really.

Emptying the dishwasher was my least favorite chore. I put it off and let dishes pile up in the sink, getting aggravated everytime I walked by the kitchen.

Then I timed myself. Four minutes to empty the thing. Really? Only four minutes? Not so bad.

Much of my resentment, fear, and resulting procrastination comes from misjudging how much time something takes.

Knowledge is power, right?

Well, knowledge is the starting point. Doing something with that knowledge is the step to power.

Track your time for day, or half a day. Or just time how long a particular task takes. I think you’ll probably be surprised by what you learn, and able to make much better decisions about how to handle your tasks and time in the future.

Share your time-use epiphanies in the comments!

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Posted by Camilla Hallstrom  | June 27, 2015 at 4:33PM | Reply

Great take on productivity, I especially liked the point on accepting your own choices. That can definitely have a huge impact on overall productivity!

Posted by Devin Baillie  | June 14, 2015 at 1:57PM | Reply

As a parent who spends a lot of time home with the kids (and with summer break coming up soon) the perspective and behaviour sections were really helpful to me. I often feel like I’m trying to accomplish something, and other things (kids, neighbours, pets, chores, etc.) are getting in my way.

I’ll definitely try to remember in the heat-of-the-moment that it’s my choice to be home with the kids, as well as to plan ahead for the most common interruptions so I’m acting intentionally, rather than reacting.

I can also sympathize with your feelings about the kitchen. For me it’s the bathroom: I timed myself cleaning it a while ago, and realized that it only takes me about 15 minutes to scrub it from floor to ceiling (or almost 30 minutes if my youngest helps).

Posted by Annie Mueller  | June 10, 2015 at 1:10PM | Reply

Bruce, thanks.

An important point in that word output is that those are very much “first draft” words. After editing (which they’ll need), I’ll probably have about 1000 publishable words. I’ve found that I’m most productive (and most happy) in writing when I a) outline on paper thoroughly first and then b) write like mad on the computer from my outline. The final step(s) is a good edit, then it’s on to formatting and publishing. Following that method has definitely helped me to increase my writing output… even with that final editing step cutting out 50% of my content. :)

Posted by Bruce Harpham  | June 3, 2015 at 2:26PM | Reply


I’m impressed by your output: “3:17 – 4:04 Write 2,420 words. This is how desperation works.”

For me, writing 1,000 words of content to grow my business in a day is a “good day.” Your post has me thinking about the potential to increase my output even further.

Posted by Jake  | May 28, 2015 at 3:35PM | Reply

Great insight here!

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