Updated on 08.15.11

Building and Using a Time Diary

Trent Hamm

During the month of May and the first half of June, I kept a time diary. Several times throughout the day (as often as possible, in fact), I recorded how I had spent my time in as much detail as possible, without judgment, and saved all of these notes.

After allowing a couple months to pass, I sat down with all of these notes in August to try to piece together how exactly I spend my time, how I was wasting it, and how I could use it better.

I found this to be a really useful experience, so I decided to share it with you.

What’s a time diary?
Simply put, it’s a document where you record what you’re doing throughout the day in as much detail as is reasonably possible. So, for example, I might write:

6:45 AM – Woken up by my daughter and struggle out of bed
6:50 AM – Make breakfast for the family
7:10 AM – Eat breakfast
7:25 AM – Get together clothes for everyone
7:30 AM – Everyone gets dressed
7:45 AM – Take children to preschool
8:10 AM – Check email

You get the idea. The more detail you can add, the more useful this will all be.

What’s the use of a time diary?
When you are just entering the data into the diary, it doesn’t really serve any use at all. It’s just a recording mechanism.

Instead, a time diary comes in handy later on, when you have a month or two of data to look at and analyze. With this level of information, you can pore over the data carefully and often find some very interesting things about how you use your time and what you could do to use it more effectively.

Five useful things I got out of my time diary
The easiest way to demonstrate how a time diary is useful is to jump straight to the conclusions. Here are five things (out of a much larger set) that I’ve concluded from my time diary.

I would initially get a “hunch” about these things while reading the entries, then I’d find some way to extract that information to see if the “hunch” was right. Often, it was.

I used the May and June 2011 pages on a wall calendar with large spaces for the checkmarks and numbers I mention below. This let me easily compare days.

1. A poor night of sleep doesn’t affect me until two days later. Let’s say that I don’t get much sleep between Tuesday evening and Wednesday morning. I’ll usually be just fine on Wednesday, but I find that on Thursday I’ll waste a bunch of time and be much less productive than usual. I suspect that on Wednesday, I’m running on some sort of reserve, and my sleep on Wednesday recharges that reserve but doesn’t recharge me all that much.

I found this fact by taking the calendar, checking each night that I got less than seven hours of sleep with a red marker, and writing the number of obviously unproductive hours on each day with a black marker. The source of the information, of course, was my time diary.

I can change my behavior because of this by accounting for lethargy on those days. If I get a poor night of sleep, I’ll try to be extra productive on that following day because I know that the day after that will be a poor one. I’ll save mindless tasks for those days.

2. The more I interact with my children, the bigger the productivity boost is the following day. If I have a day where I spend a ton of time just with my children, the next day is usually a productive one. I’m not sure why, actually. However, I’ll say that yesterday, we took the children to the grocery store, watched a movie with them, rode our bicycles to a park, played there for a while, and rode home, and today I feel really productive.

I found this fact by counting the number of hours spent each day with my children, then comparing that to unproductive hours the following day.

I can change my behavior because of this by keeping my commitment to spend focused time with my children each day. Not only is this interaction good for both of us in that moment, it apparently also bumps up my productivity down the road. In fact, it pushes me even more toward scheduling “special days” where we do things like go to the Science Center of Iowa together.

3. Time spent reading usually increases my productivity for the next two or three days. One thing I measured is how many articles I completed per day. I found that if I spent two hours or more on a given day reading, the following day would see production of about one more article than average and the day after that would see a bump of about half an article more than average. I think the connection is that reading helps me with my ability to come up with phrases for the ideas floating around in my head.

I found this fact by simply noting the time spent each day reading and the number of articles produced each day. I averaged the number of articles I am able to write in a “working day” and then would compare that to the number of articles on each day, writing a + or – figure in the square as well.

I can change my behavior because of this by minimizing the little amount of television I currently watch and replacing it with a good book.

4. The longer the gaps between time spent cleaning my office, the lower my productivity. If I stop and clean my office once every week or two, I tend to be more productive than if I just let it go for a while.

I found this fact by using the calendar, recording the number of unproductive hours each day, and marking the days I cleaned my office with a pink highlighter. I found that the farther from an office cleaning I was, the less productive I was each day. It was a small impact, but a real one.

I can change my behavior because of this by cleaning my office more regularly. I’ve started setting aside time on Friday afternoons solely for the purpose of cleaning things up and making little changes, like installing a wall-mounted bookshelf for some of my most frequently accessed books.

5. My optimum amount of sleep is about eight hours, and it’s best if I wake up on my own and am not awakened by someone or something else. If I sleep much less than that, it tends to move into the “poor night of sleep” category and affects me down the road. If I’m awakened by an alarm clock (on occasion) or a child (much more frequently), it definitely has an impact on my day.

I found this fact by again using the calendar, checking the nights where my sleep was interrupted with a green marker, and writing my unproductive time on each date with a black marker. It works well with the first fact I discovered.

I can change my behavior because of this by going to sleep a little earlier. If I go to sleep earlier, I tend to rise with my children or even before them and I rarely need an alarm clock. This creates more naturally productive days.

Simply put, the entire purpose of a time diary is to figure out simple things you can change that make a big impact on your day-to-day life. I learned how much of an impact spending a couple hours cleaning my office can really have. I learned how direct the positive impact of reading is on my life. I learned that going to bed around ten during the school week is probably optimal.

These little things make a huge difference in my weekly productivity. They seem like small tweaks, but the impact of these tweaks is felt during every hour of every day in the form of increased energy and alertness and mental productivity. This adds up to more income and more life enjoyment as well.

Those types of discoveries are well worth the time that such a task takes up. It really can change your life in a positive way.

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  1. Kt says:

    have you read 168 hours? very relevant to this post and a great read.

  2. Katie says:

    Heh, this is funny to me, because, as a lawyer in private practice, I’m forced to write down my work in fifteen minute increments every day. (A lot of firms do 6 minute increments; I’m lucky.) I more view it as soul killing rather than useful data collection, honestly.

  3. Amber says:

    WOW. You are way cool.
    I have done a time journal, yet not as detailed.
    I learned a lot from the book “Time Management” by ______ Marschall.
    What you learned here is priceless. People should have to do this before going to counseling… LOL!
    Great wisdom, again… this post really touched my heart.
    Thank you.

  4. Ryan says:

    Can you post an image (on twitter perhaps) from the journal/calendar so we can get a visual idea of what it looked like? I imagine with the dots/codes it got a bit messy. But would still be interested in seeing the visual.

  5. Brian Carr says:

    I definitely think this is a great idea, but I’m fearful I would stop seeing the forest for the trees if I were to really work on this. For me, I work better in “broad generalizations,” for lack of a better term, so I’m wondering if nitpicking over every minute might become counterproductive.

  6. Steven says:

    Yet another thing to track. No thanks. I don’t need every second of my life accounted for. If I’m doing something, chances are, I *want* to be doing that. So long as everything gets done that needs to be done, I see no reason to track how I spend my time.

  7. Carole says:

    I keep a weight diary. I weigh myself every morning and write it down. When my weight goes up I try to remember what was going on at that time. I also take my blood pressure at intervals and write it down. These are more health measures than self improvement goals. Although good health is certainly desirable.

  8. Crystal says:

    This is a very interesting experiment. I would love to do this for myself, but would probably get stuck figuring out how to decipher the data. Someone should open a business doing time-analysis like this… I would pay for someone to give me a detailed report on these things (assuming I provided the time diary), rather than try to figure out what items to measure, and how.

  9. Amy says:

    I’m with Katie. I track every 6 mintues of my time as a CPA and can tell you I am much more productive because of it. If you have to account for your time, you tend not to get caught up in unproductive (or unbillable) things as easily. Its also great for judging how long a task will take when you can go back and compare to other similar jobs.

  10. Adam P says:

    Ugh…I left public practice and a large firm to get away from time sheets. They were soul destroying. I already track all my spending. I don’t need another spread sheet to chronograph my life activities too!

  11. leslie says:

    I had to do this when I worked in advertising and I admit that I fall in the camp that finds this “soul destroying”. It was by FAR the worst aspect of my job…an opinion shared by pretty much everyone in every agency I worked in. I really do get how the information could be valuable to you at some point but unless I had a HUGE time management problem (or related issue) that I was trying to solve it just would not be worth it to me to do that again.

  12. krantcents says:

    I think I see a pattern in your diary! When you do things that fulfill you in some way, you are more productive. I think this may be true for a lot of people. Good information for me to reflect on and use. Thanks.

  13. Kerry D. says:

    Good food for thought… Although it can be tricky exactly how to attribute the gain or less; for example, playing with your children led you to a productivity gain over the next few days. Likely spending time with your children is very fulfilling. BUT, it sounds like much of the time you spend with your children is also much more active than your overall sedentary lifestyle… I’d suggest that being activity in some way is a huge contributor to greater productivity–it sure is for me. Once I’ve gone a few days without significant activity (walking, cycling, dancing, you name it) I start to feel sluggish. Also, how I eat impact my productivity over the next few days (and if I’m tired from poor sleep or too much work, that careens downhill mighty fast.)

  14. Telephus44 says:

    I like the idea of doing this for a month or so to see the patterns. I would find it difficult to do with my entire life, but I have done it on occasion with my work. I have found certain patterns that make me more productive (say, doing my filing every week on Friday mornings).

  15. SwingCheese says:

    When I started Weight Watchers, the first thing I did was track not only my food intake, but also the amount of fruits and veggies I was eating, dairy I was consuming, and activity I was doing. In this manner, I was able to identify that I’m not eating nearly enough dairy, and to rectify this situation before it becomes a health problem. I wouldn’t do it with every thing, and I don’t do such a detailed review daily anymore, but something like this can be very helpful.

  16. Rachel says:

    At comment #1 from Kt: I’ve read several reviews of 168 Hours, and the consensus seems to be that the book is relevant only to the self-employed (or those who don’t have to report directly to a supervisor) and those with a lot of disposable income to spend on household services (cleaning, cooking, laundry, etc.). I don’t fit into either of these categories. But…I haven’t read the book myself to judge.

  17. Michael says:

    Enjoyed this one, Trent. Hope you’re doing well.

  18. Kathleen says:

    Another lawyer here. Life is already measured in 6 minute increments. Hate it! No more! (Ok, it does force you to evaluate your time — I cut out almost all breaks. But frankly, it’s just miserable.)

  19. joan says:

    I use a time diary because as a housewife to many times at the end of the day, I wonder what I actually got done. Writing it all down, I find that all those small tasks did count up to time well spent.

  20. Chris H says:

    Kerry D. Is right – while a time diary is a useful exercise, be careful about attributing causes. Correlation is not causation, and you may be a victim of confirmation bias when you’re exploring your “hunches”.

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