What do university, and full-time work have in common? They’re all frameworks for how to spend most of your waking hours. Rather than follow the framework blindly, I decided to observe how I spent my time as a full-time employee. So I kept a time log of what I did every day for 6 months. What I learned went beyond time management.
I started my job with a notebook and pen dedicated to the time log.
Each entry was structured like this:
woke up at 10
10.15-11 took the train to work
11-12 bummed around reading internet
12.30 check tasks
1 start working on blah
2.30 take a break
6 break for dinner
7.30 finish task, submit for review
8.20 watch seinfeld
completely bum around and sleep at 2
Every weekend, I’d review my previous week and take note of what I did well and what I didn’t do well.
At the end of every month, I’d compile an “Investor Update” of what I’d done, places I’d been, friends I hung out with, and sent it to my parents, just for the sake of sending it to someone.
I learned a ton from doing this, some of which is distilled below.
What I learned
1. Your plan to do things on the side is doomed.
If you don’t take proactive measures, full-time work will consume your time and energy like a black hole.
It’s not just the 8 hours a day you’re supposed to spend there. The first thing you think about when you wake up is “I have to wake up to go to work”. You think about it in the shower. You think about it during your commute. And after work, if you did your job right, you don’t have the energy to do anything productive.
So if you take a job with the intention of doing what you really want to do “on the side” - good luck - it’s an uphill battle. You might want to think twice.
2. Do things that add up.
As an engineer, my day-to-day tasks were individually trivial, but they added up over time to meaningful product improvements. I saw this in my time log - every day I would do a couple of minor tasks, but at the end of the month, the total effect it had was greater than the sum of the parts. In contrast, my time spent outside of work seemed to evaporate. I went to brunches, biked leisurely along the cost, watched many movies - these things don’t have much of a lasting effect today.
So I tweaked my activities to make them endure, like the software I write for a living. Socially, this means maintaining existing friendships instead of constantly seeking new ones. I traveled to see close friends, made sure I cleared my schedule from them, and it was worth it.
I used to read a lot of articles, blog posts, etc. I now focus on just one.
Do something that will last, and focus. There’s nothing more powerful than focusing on the same thing every day, kicking the line forward inch by inch until it moves a mile.
3. Following up is easy and effective - but we forget.
When you meet someone new, there’s a 90% chance you wont see them again. But it doesn’t have to be that way. I wrote down the names of the people I met in my time log, and when I reviewed them the next day, it was a no brainer to reach out to them to stay in touch.
All it takes is sending a quick message like “hey I enjoyed meeting you yesterday”. It spurs a virtuous cycle - you reach out to someone, they remember to invite you to a hike or a brunch, and the cycle continues.. I personally met a few great friends this way.
It’s so interesting that such a small quantum of effort can spark a high-value relationship. And how taking note of who you met at a party drastically increases your chances of following up.
4. Don’t rely on your memory for anything important.
If following up with people is so high-value, why don’t we do it automatically? We’re busy - we forget. Clearly, relying on our memory prevents us from living life to the fullest.
Writing what you did during a vacation is very high ROI. Written experiences of a vacation capture what pictures don’t - your feelings and state of mind. I wrote down my experience of going to Australia for my cousin’s wedding, and re-reading it is so joyful it feels like I’ve discovered a secret advantage to life.
Written goals are very valuable, especially when you catch yourself falling short of them. This is something I learned from work actually. At the beginning of the week, we write down what we plan to accomplish this week, and reflect on what we failed to accomplish the last week and why. You know it works when you think to yourself, “I was supposed to get that done? I forgot.”
Keep things written down and constantly look back at them. Or else you’ll forget and miss the learning opportunity.
It’s not hard to keep a journal once it’s a habit. Here are some tips to help you form the habit:
- Buy a nice notebook and pen. It gets you financially invested, and a physical book sitting on open your desk is the best reminder.
- Pair it with another daily habit, like getting your morning coffee.
- Don’t be afraid of what you might see. It only gets better from here.
- Enjoy it. When writing down what you did today, look back on yesterday fondly, and be satisified knowing it will be recorded forever.
- Build up a streak and cling to it. Let the fear of breaking the streak drive you.
The importance of reflection in this process can’t be understated.
The whole point is that reading objectively the way you spent your time destroys any illusion you may have that you’re spending your time correctly. If that illusion is there, at best you’re not living to your full potential. At worst you’ll come to regret how you spent your time - and by extension - your life.
When you see yourself spending weeks on end doing things that don’t matter to you at a higher level, you’re forced to realize, if you do nothing, things will stay this way forever. So you change much faster than you would otherwise. If that’s not worth the 30 minutes a day it takes to do this, I don’t know what is.
Write your own story
The biggest roadblock to starting a time log is the fear that for months, you’ve been spending your time wrong.
But you should expect that and start writing a time log now. You’ll be thankful that you saved yourself months or years of plowing ahead, wasting time.
You can change the way you spend time now and in a few months, you’ll like what you see in your time log.
The algorithm of the time log is:
- write it down
- read how you spend time, and facepalm at your life
- make a small change and keep writing
- see your own change in the time log
- feel like a million bucks
You can write your own story instead of letting your story happen to you.
You can’t simply be told these lessons and “internalize” them. Don’t rely on your memory for anything important. In order to truly internalize these lessons, you have to experience them for yourself.
The bigger picture of writing everything down is that it gives you the ability to pause, look at your trajectory, and adjust your heading. Business owners look at their revenue numbers in quarterly board meetings. Scientists look at their log books to write their research papers. Time is what life consists of - shouldn’t we be taking an honest look at how we utilize it?
What’s the format of each of your posts?
Time range: What I was doing. Notes.
Time range: What I was doing. Notes.
Time range: What I was doing. Notes.
When and how often do you write?
Write every day on your work break or while getting coffee. If you miss a day, that’s ok as long as you backfill it soon.
How much do you write for one day?
Not too much, and not too little. Too much is when it’s unsustainable. Too little is when large chunks of time go unaccounted for.
How often do you read your previous entries?
- When writing, read your entry for yesterday.
- When bumming on a weekend, read about your past week.
- At the end of the month, look at how far you’ve come.
What do you think about when re-reading your previous entries?
- What was good about how you spent your time?
- What was unnecessary?
- Is there anyone you wish you kept up with who you didn’t?
- Was there something you wanted to get done that you didn’t?
Can I use a computer or a phone instead of a notebook?
I’ve tried it, but it doesn’t work as well.
- Having a dedicated notebook is a physical reminder to write in it.
- A notebook forces you to flip pages to get to the one your care about. In doing this, you sometimes catch glimpses of previous posts. This promotes re-reading of your entries, which is where all the learning happens.
- The page size of a notebook informs how much you write. On a computer, I tend to write too much.
- I’d be interested in apps that make this easier, but again, you lose the physical reminder to re-read your posts that a notebook affords you.
If you’re interested in trying this out, I want to help in whatever way I can. Send me an email at karanssikka [at] gmail, and I’ll keep in touch to see how it’s going!