Category Archives: time

Unstructured time, shaping your wants, and giving yourself permission

I was talking to a couple of other Quantified Self Toronto members about the management of unstructured time, since one of them was taking a gap year from school and the other one had just wrapped up regular employment. “How do I make sure I don’t waste my time?” they asked.

Here’s what I’ve been learning from semi-retirement: it can be easy to make good use of your discretionary time. (And to feel like you’re making good use of it!)

When I was planning for this experiment, I worried that I would end up frittering away the time on frivolities that people frown on: vegetating on the couch, playing games, getting sucked into the blackholes of social media and random Internet browsing.

It turns out that when you fill your life with so many more interesting possibilities, it’s easy to choose those instead. It reminds me of something I’ve learned about finances, too. Many activities make me just as happy as other activities do, so I might as well pick activities that are free or inexpensive and that align with my values. Likewise, I might as well pick activities that give me multiple benefits or that align with how I want to spend my time. A movie is diverting and it’s also good for learning about emotions and storytelling, but watching a movie while folding laundry is more useful than watching a movie in the theatre. I enjoy cooking more than I enjoy eating out. I enjoy writing, drawing, or spending time with W- more than I enjoy playing games.

So I don’t fill my days with plans or box myself in with calendared intentions. I look at the week ahead and list tasks that I need to remember, promises and appointments I’ve made, and maybe make space for one or two personal projects or ideas that I don’t want to forget about. I have a regular client engagement on Tuesdays and Thursdays, which I do because I like the client and what I get to help them with. Sometimes I take a week or an entire month off, to re-set my sense of time. Even during my regular weeks, I try to leave plenty of space.

It’s important to have space to follow where your interests and energy take you. I try to minimize the number of things I’ve promised to other people so that I have the flexibility to follow opportunities when they come up. That way, if I don’t feel like writing, I don’t. Maybe I’ll draw. Maybe I’ll code. Maybe I’ll work in the garden. Maybe I’ll tidy the house. Maybe I’ll read. Maybe I’ll plan.

I make exceptions for conversations. It’s hard to not schedule those if I want to make sure they happen at some point. Left to my own devices, I might never get around to talking to people. So I pay someone to handle my scheduling, and I ask her to space some of the optional ones apart (maybe one a week?) so that I have room for focusing on my things. It’s a little weird scheduling three or more weeks in advance, but space is important.

The rest of the time goes to whatever I feel like doing the most at that moment. It helps that I feel good about the things that I want to do, like writing, coding, and drawing, and that many of the things I do are also valued by others. I remember coming across in some book (was it Early Retirement Extreme? I should dig that up again) the idea that you can raise your skill in some activities or hobbies to the point that people are willing to pay you for it (now or in the future). Other things like exercise or cleaning the kitchen have their own rewards.

Did I luck into wanting these things by nature, or did I shape my wants to fit what I wanted to do? It’s hard to say. Most of it feels natural, but I do consciously tweak my motivations. Here’s an example of where I’m deliberately working on hacking my wants: exercise. W-‘s been helping me build a strength training habit through lots of encouragement and positive reinforcement. I also remind myself that the time I spend exercising will pay off both short-term and long-term, and that helps me get better at picking it over other alternatives (ex: bike to work and get some exercise versus work from home). It’s like what Mel wrote about digging out a path of least resistance so that it goes where you want to go. The other day, I was on my bike for almost 4 hours: 6 short trips, back and forth, covering mostly the same ground. I might not add as much to my “Done” list, but it’s good for me.

One of the benefits of choosing to spend my time this way is that it’s easy to say no to the common time-wasters that people often beat themselves up about. You don’t feel that need to escape because you haven’t been trying to keep yourself disciplined all day long. This also means that you aren’t wasting the emotional energy you’d otherwise use to beat yourself up about bad decisions. =) There are tasks that I postpone or don’t get around to, but it’s not because I suck. it’s just that I wanted to do other things instead, and I may get around to those tasks someday.

Even leisurely activities become experiments. I spent one Monday watching animé practically the whole day. I’m studying Japanese, so I watched the episodes with the original soundtrack and English subtitles. It was fun hearing the sounds start resolving themselves into intelligible words… and it was interesting feeling that barrier of “Oh, I should be doing productive things because it’s a weekday morning!” start to erode as I learned more about giving myself permission to follow my interests. (It turned out that watching those animé episodes was great for helping me follow along with the audio and the script. I often listen to just the audio as a way to immerse myself in the language and enjoy commuting or working… Bonus!)

Maybe the trick to managing an unstructured schedule isn’t to get better at discipline, but to get better at wanting good things, to get better at seeing the value in different activities. Then you can trust in yourself, with a little review and feedback so that you can tweak your course and make better decisions. At least that’s what seems to be working for me, and it might be something that would work for you too. =)

Quantified Self time-tracking: Choosing your buckets

This post missed its publishing schedule. I’m posting it today so that it doesn’t get lost.

Kate asked me how I chose the categories I use for tracking my time, and if I had any tips for someone who’s starting out.

I track my time at a medium level of detail – not so high-level that I can’t ask interesting questions, but not so low-level that it’s hard to summarize. To select an activity category (the non-bolded text in the table below), I type in parts of it. For example, “un subway” becomes “Unpaid work – Subway” and “quantified” becomes “Business – Quantified Awesome.” If something is ambiguous, the system shows me all the matches and lets me pick one. I can make some activity categories inactive so that they don’t get matched by the search. If the text doesn’t match anything, I’m shown the category creation screen, and the timestamped record is automatically created once I create the category for it. For “Other”-type activities and other activities that I’ve added a note field to, I can add a pipe character followed by a note (ex: “disc other | Yada yada yada”) for more details.

Here’s the general structure. I based the top-level categories on the OECD time studies so that I can compare my numbers with averages from other developed countries. The top-level categories I use are:

  • Business: Anything related to entrepreneurship or professional development
  • Discretionary: Hobbies, socializing, and other ways I choose to spend time
  • Personal: Personal care, daily routines, exercise, and things you can’t outsource because the point of the activity is personal benefit
  • Unpaid work: Chores, commuting, and other things you could theoretically outsource or eliminate
  • Work: Working as an employee; also, the occasional work lunch
  • Sleep: Sleep and naps!

The second-level group (Business – Build, Business – Connect, etc.) are the ones I recently created for reporting purposes. They look useful, so I might figure out how to build them into my database for more reporting goodness.

Within those major groups, I have one or two levels of record categories that I really use to track time. The higher groups are just for reporting. I create more activity types as needed.

Business
Business – Build
Business – Android
Business – Book review
Business – Business development
Business – Coding
Business – Delegation
Business – Drawing
Business – Learn
Business – Marketing
Business – Other
Business – Paperwork
Business – Plan
Business – Quantified Awesome
Business – Research
Business – Sales
Business – Connect
Business – Connect
Business – Correspondence
Business – Presentation
Business – Pro bono
Business – Earn
Business – Consulting – E1 – Conf
Business – Consulting – E1 – General
Business – Consulting – R1
Business – E-book
Business – Illustration – I1
Business – Illustration – I2 – UPV
Business – Illustration – I3 – M
Business – Illustration – I4 – SR
Business – Illustration – I5 – MT / G
Business – Sketchnoting
Discretionary
Discretionary – Other
Discretionary – Other
Discretionary – Play
Discretionary – Harry Potter (… because I forgot I already had “Discretionary – Play – LEGO Harry Potter”)
Discretionary – Play – Final Fantasy
Discretionary – Play – Katamari Forever
Discretionary – Play – LEGO Batman
Discretionary – Play – LEGO Harry Potter
Discretionary – Play – LEGO Heroica
Discretionary – Play – LEGO Indiana Jones
Discretionary – Play – LEGO Lord of the Rings
Discretionary – Play – LEGO Pirates
Discretionary – Play – LEGO Star Wars
Discretionary – Play – Nethack
Discretionary – Play – Other
Discretionary – Read – Nonfiction
Discretionary – Relax
Discretionary – Productive
Discretionary – Emacs
Discretionary – Gardening
Discretionary – Latin
Discretionary – Read – Blogs
Discretionary – Read – Fiction
Discretionary – Sewing
Discretionary – Tracking
Discretionary – Travel
Discretionary – Writing
Discretionary – Social
Discretionary – Family
Discretionary – Social
Personal
Personal – Exercise
Personal – Bike
Personal – Exercise
Personal – Scoot
Personal – Walk – Home
Personal – Walk – Other
Personal – Walk – Subway
Personal – Walk – Work
Personal – Life
Personal – Eat – Breakfast (… sometimes I track meals separately, but usually they’re just part of Personal – Routines)
Personal – Eat – Dinner
Personal – Eat – Lunch
Personal – Plan
Personal – Planning (… because I forgot I already have Personal – Plan)
Personal – Routines
Sleep
Sleep
Sleep
Unpaid work
Unpaid work – Commute
Unpaid work – Subway
Unpaid work – Wait
Unpaid work – Errands
Unpaid work – Errands
Unpaid work – Groceries
Unpaid work – Home
Unpaid work – Clean the kitchen
Unpaid work – Cook
Unpaid work – Laundry
Unpaid work – Tidy up
Unpaid work – Other
Unpaid work – Other
Unpaid work – Other travel
Work
Work
Work – C
Work – Lunch
Work – O
Work – Other
Work – T

I track business projects as their own categories so that I can bill for my time or figure out if something was worth doing. I track games separately so that I can figure out what I spend more time on.

I usually create a tracking record at the beginning of the activity so that quantifiedawesome.com can timestamp it. If I forget, I can say things like “-15m relax” to note that I started relaxing 15 minutes ago, or say things like “13:30 writ” to note that I started writing at 1:30 PM. If I’m seriously late, I can specify the date like this: “3/24 19:05 social”, or use the batch entry form. When I record an entry, the system shows me the edit form, so if I was wrong (I thought I was going to start Personal – Routines, but really, I went back to sleep), I can change the category using a dropdown and save it. I can also adjust start and end times, and the previous or next record is automatically adjusted too.

I track my time based on the primary activity so that I don’t double-count the time. For example, if I’m taking the subway, I file it as “Unpaid work – Subway” instead of “Discretionary – Read – Nonfiction” even if I read a book during the trip.

I have to build some kind of split/merge/refactor activity category tool someday, but so far, this is fine. And more reports! Reports are fun.

Tips and lessons learned:

If you’re starting out, a simple thing that lets you capture some text with a timestamp will work just fine. Jot down a few keywords that explain what you’re doing – enough to remember. Do this for a few days to a week in order to get a sense of what categories you may want to file things under.

Once you’ve figured out what general categories you want, use a button-based tracker like Tap Log or a list-based tracker like Time Recording (both Android). They’re great for selecting something from a defined list or structure. The downside is that it takes a liiittle more time to add a new category.

When you have lots of categories, going back to text input makes a lot more sense. No scrolling, no clicking around, and you can add new things fairly quickly. The substring search I put into quantifiedawesome.com works really well for me because I know which shortcuts map to which categories, and the structure is better than freeform text because reporting is easier.

Reporting is a lot more fun if you’re comfortable with spreadsheet pivot tables and other nifty features. I should do a screencast of how I use Excel to slice and dice my data. =)

Next step for me: Time estimates

I’ve started recording time estimates for more detailed tasks/activities so that I can a) figure out if I routinely overestimate or underestimate certain things, and b) get finer-grained time data. I know that it takes me roughly an hour from the time I get up to the time I get out of the house with my usual morning routine and maybe half an hour for the rush version, but it would be great to break that down into components and perhaps experiment with it. I’m also curious about how much time it takes me to get to places so that I can adjust Google Maps estimates for walking, biking, or public transit.

I write predictions down in Evernote (“Predict home by 7:05”). Evernote automatically timestamps the creation date, and I update the note with the actual time and any other notes I want to include (“home at 7:03; bike”). When I have several estimates and measurements, I’ll make a spreadsheet. When the spreadsheet structure settles down, I might build the functionality into Quantified Awesome. Successive prototyping helps me figure out how the data feels before I spend time building a structure for it. =)

So that’s how I track my time! See Where the Time Went for a recent presentation sharing my results.

Quantified Self Toronto: Where the Time Went

Update 2013-6-6: Added a link to the video!

Carlos Rizo convinced me to quickly throw together a presentation for today’s Quantified Self Toronto meetup. Here are my slides!

Check out quantifiedawesome.com for my data, dashboard, and source code, and read through my Quantified Self blog posts for more geekery.

Quantified Awesome: Time and building mastery

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There’s an often-repeated number in studies on expertise: it takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice in order to build a skill to mastery.

Last year, I logged 265 hours writing, or around 45 minutes a day. Don’t be scared off by that. If you’re repurposing something you’ve already done, blogging takes maybe 5-10 minutes. It takes an astonishingly long time to think through new things. I can type at 90-110 words per minute, but my brain chugs along at 16 words per minute when reflecting, and I haven’t quite gotten the hang of using speech recognition or dictation to get past that barrier. I suspect I won’t be significantly faster. Thinking takes time. That 265.5 hours is butt-in-seat time. Yes, that’s the professional term for it. I have surprisingly little of it, considering how much I perceive writing to be a part of my life. (Really? Just 45 minutes a day? What would happen if I doubled that?)

Generously including quick blog posts as part of this practice, assuming that I’ve maintained a similar pace since around 2003, neglecting the fact that real writing involves a whole lot more rewriting (which I tend to do out of forgetfulness rather than deliberate improvement), and ignoring the assigned writing I slogged through in school (or the countless e-mails I dash off), the calculations show that I’ll probably be inching closer to awesomeness… oh… when I’m 57 or so. I know life doesn’t quite work out like that, but let’s pretend for the sake of calculation.

It doesn’t actually look half-bad, you know. If I can get a decade or two of great writing out right around the time I should have tons of experiences to write about, that should be fine. Of course, with the unreliability of memory (both mine and the computer’s), I’ll just have to hope my blog will survive the years. And if I turn out to be a passably good writer who can package up what I’ve learned and turn it over to the next generation of young whippersnappers, then that’s great. Don’t need to win any awards.

On a similar note, I logged 198 hours drawing last year. This does not include the times that I filed drawing under “Business – Plan” or “Personal – Plan” instead. Even less revision going on over here, but I’m working on ways to improve that, and other ways to increase the proportion of writing and drawing in my life. Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers: The Story of Success broke down that 10,000 hours into around 10 years of daily 3-hour practices.

I have spent a ton of time coding. I’ve been coding since I was six or so, and I worked on quite a few web development engagements at IBM. I’m still nowhere near “master” level. I can point to lots and lots and lots of people who are way better than I am. I have fun with it, though. I can make stuff happen.

It’s good to remember that invisibly sunk time, the accumulation of experience over years. That way, I don’t get frustrated about drawing if it feels less natural than coding, and I can see all this writing as building a skill step by step.

Thank goodness for visible progress. Hooray for a blog that lets me go back in time! Compared to a year ago, I draw so much more than I used to. I feel a little more organized and coherent as a writer – headings for my paragraphs, an index for my posts. I still don’t have the deft interweaving of personal story and insight I envy in Penelope Trunk’s blog or the lyrical geekiness of Mel Chua (no relation), but I’m growing into my own style.

I think it would be fascinating to have 10+ years of time data. It’ll be interesting to see how I change things along the way. Not that quantity of time controls everything, but it’s fun to ask questions and realize that the composition of your time doesn’t always match up to what you think it is. Then you can tweak it.

Other 2012 numbers to put this into perspective, because I have the data anyway:

image

  • 3024 hours of sleep – 8.3 hours per night and I’m still fidgety when I go to bed; I wonder how one deliberately practises sleeping
  • 729 hours socializing (in person, answering e-mail, etc.) – not much deliberate practice going on there, but good to spend that time
  • 411 hours connecting with people for business (in person, answering e-mail, etc.) – a little bit of systematization and experimentation
  • 102 hours reading fiction, 88 hours reading nonfiction – funny, I thought it would be the other way around, although some of it did get classified as “Business – Drawing” instead
  • ~75 hours playing LEGO video games

More time analysis looking at percentages

So that’s where all the time went!

Quantified Self: Learning from a year of time data and planning what to tweak in 2013

Last year, I decided to move from tracking my time using off-the-shelf applications (Time Recording, then Tap Log Record) to building my own system using Ruby on Rails so that I could tailor it to my quirks. Quantified Awesome now has more than a year of time data, and I wanted to see the patterns in how I use my time.

How I categorize my time

For ease in comparison with OECD time studies, I use the following high-level categories:

  • Sleep: What it says it is. Important!
  • Discretionary: Hobbies, socializing; anything optional or chosen
  • Personal: Morning and evening routines, personal care, exercise
  • Work: Working on IBM projects
  • Business: I split this out from work because I wanted to see how much time I was spending on building my business or improving my skills
  • Unpaid work: Commuting and other unpaid work/business-related activities; also, tidying up, getting groceries, cooking, doing laundry, and any household tasks that I could theoretically outsource
  • Within the categories, I have one or two levels of detail, which I’ll discuss later.
  • image

    This graph shows the major changes in how I used time this year. To account for the varying numbers of days in a month, I’ve expressed each category as a percentage of the time available for the month. The major change was the swap between working with IBM and experimenting with running my own business, but all my other categories are surprisingly stable.

    Here are some basic statistics looking at the monthly and weekly variation. There’s a bit more variation on the weekly level, but it smoothens out a lot when it gets to the monthly level. Also, the overall numbers tell me I should probably work less and spend more time on discretionary activities.

    OECD 2011 – Canada   Mean ~ total hours / week Monthly STDEV Weekly STDEV
      Sleep 35% 58 2% 3%
    22% Business + work 28% 47 5% 6%
    21% Discretionary 16% 28 5% 7%
      Personal 14% 23 2% 4%
    14% Unpaid work 7% 12 2% 3%

    Sleep + personal for me = 49%; OECD 2011 stats for Canada: 42%

    Sleep

    I get an average of 8.3 hours of sleep per day, which is a familiar and fairly stable number, and right in line with the OECD 2011 leisure time study’s findings. Looking at the inter-day statistics for sleep, I see a standard deviation of 1.63 hours, which means my sleep pattern is a little jagged. Here’s a daily chart that shows the variation.

    image

    It doesn’t look so irregular on a weekly scale, though. I tend to be pretty good at taking it easy after I catch myself getting tired due to lack of sleep.

    image

    Business

    Business-wise, I was thrilled to have a running start. Here’s billable time as a percentage of total time (out of 7 days a week). May was a little crazy because I was helping out two clients at the same time. I took time off in September and December to focus on other interests, and I’m generally scaling back consulting because I need to make myself learn how to do other kinds of business too.

    image

    Here’s some more information in a table, showing that while I don’t reach the utilization ratios I remember from my performance review days, I still do okay.

      Billable time  
      % of total time % of business time
    Mar 2012 17% 61%
    Apr 2012 16% 71%
    May 2012 24% 76%
    Jun 2012 17% 60%
    Jul 2012 21% 66%
    Aug 2012 18% 66%
    Sep 2012 1% 5%
    Oct 2012 11% 37%
    Nov 2012 14% 42%
    Dec 2012 2% 10%

    Going forward, I should probably plan for a 25% billable : 75% marketing/overhead mix (or even more weighted towards marketing).

    On average, I spend about 10 hours a week connecting with people for business, which is a surprisingly large chunk of time. It’s good, though. I’m learning a ton and helping lots of people along the way. The weekly standard deviation for this is 7.8 hours, which probably points to “introvert overload” kicking in – after an intensely social week, I’ll hibernate for a while in order to recharge.

    Discretionary

    All work and no play makes for a boring sort of life, so this is where discretionary activities come in. Discretionary – Social is by far the juggernaut of this category, with 46% of all discretionary time use (average per week: 13.7 hours, stdev 11.9 hours – same introvert overload kicking in). Business networking + discretionary socializing works out to an average of 20.8 hours per week, with a standard deviation of 15.1 hours. Here’s the sparkline, with a spike around the September trip where I went to a conference and hung out with family.

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    The graph below shows that I’m not necessarily substituting business connecting for discretionary socializing. There’s actually a very slight positive correlation between them. I do need my breaks afterwards, though.

    image

    On to other things I do with my discretionary time. Because the Social sub-category is so much bigger than the other categories, these sparklines all use different vertical axes instead of using a shared axis for inter-category comparison. They show percentage of discretionary time, with the peak time highlighted. (Remember, we can’t compare heights across categories!) The third column shows the total percentage of discretionary time spent doing that activity.

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    The sparklines show that my interests tend to shift. They also show some categories that I’ve forgotten to use, such as Discretionary – Family which tends to get lumped under Discretionary – Social, and Discretionary – Read – Blogs, which has become more of either Personal – Routines or Unpaid work – Travel. Looking at this, I can see that LEGO games tend to give us about three months of obsession time, which may not be a good thing. Winking smile Fortunately, W- plays them too, so it’s actually “sit on the couch and chat” time, with bonus scritching of kitties who like sitting in our laps.

    Unpaid Work

    Duty comes before pleasure, though, so I need to make sure chores are taken care of before I settle in for some writing. Here’s how the chores worked out.

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    For scale: I spend about 3.3 hours a week cooking, which is really spending maybe 6-7 hours every other week or so cooking a whole batch of things. Or at least that’s what I think it works out to. The weekly data shows me that I tend to cook in cycles (mean = 3.5 hours, STDEV = 2.3 hours):

    image

    Other interesting things: Why, yes, biking and subway time are negatively correlated (coeff = -0.53). Yay biking! The weather’s been decent, actually, so I should totally break out the bicycle and bike some more. (Biking: 209 hours this year, average of 7.2 hours per week during biking season)

    % of total time Personal – Bike Unpaid work – Subway
    Nov 2011   2.4%
    Dec 2011   0.6%
    Jan 2012   0.9%
    Feb 2012 0.1% 1.6%
    Mar 2012 0.1% 4.5%
    Apr 2012 7.3% 0.3%
    May 2012 5.9% 0.2%
    Jun 2012 4.6% 0.3%
    Jul 2012 3.6% 0.7%
    Aug 2012 2.5% 1.2%
    Sep 2012 0.8%  
    Oct 2012 3.7% 1.1%
    Nov 2012   6.9%
    Dec 2012   3.6%

    Personal

    The personal category includes all the little things that keep life running, like having breakfast and brushing my teeth. On average, I spend 2.1 hours a day dressing up, eating, brushing my teeth, and so on. That’s 815 hours over the last 386 days! Biking, walking, and exercising account for 408 hours over that time span, which works out to be an hour a day. Not bad.

    So, what does this mean for 2013?

    I’m planning to:

    • Spend less time commuting; spend more time biking and exercising – extend biking season earlier and later (November was totally bikeable, but I chickened out and got a Metropass!), and ramp up personal exercise to ~4 hours a week.
    • Spend less time working as a whole (and yes, trying to not panic about this shift either); spend more time writing and doing other discretionary activities – keep business-related time to ~40 hours a week
    • Spend less time working on billable projects; spend more time marketing/selling/learning (and trying not to panic about this shift) – shift to 25-30% billing as a percentage of total business time

    Glad to have the numbers! You can actually see my time data on Quantified Awesome.  I’ve just added a “Split by midnight” option that makes analysis a little easier for me and other people who use the system to track their own data.

    Onward!