Seven Life Lessons Learned From Tracking My Time

by Leanne Sowul
published in Community

In the last Be Well, Write Well post, I wrote about the perspective of having abundant time. Today, I’m going to show you that time is not only abundant in the macro sense, it can also feel abundant on the micro level—in the weeks, days and hours that make up the building blocks of our lives.

In order to capture this sense of time abundance, I’ve spent the past five weeks tracking my time. For every waking hour, I’ve documented my activities in half-hour blocks.

Since tracking time takes time (an interesting paradox), the very act of tracking time raises some immediate questions. Why did I do it? How did I accomplish it? And most importantly, after five weeks, what did I learn?

The Reason for Tracking Time

At first, I was adamantly against tracking my time. I believe in the aphorism, “You manage what you measure,” but in my case, measuring has always lead to the tightening of my habits. I was certain that tracking my time would have a similar effect to when I’ve tracked my calories or stressed over the daily word count on my novel: I would start by simply keeping track of the time, but then my tightening impulse would start demanding more and more from my time, just as I’d previously demanded that I eat fewer calories or write more words. I didn’t want that kind of stress, so every time someone mentioned using a timesheet, I balked.

But in June, I read Laura Vanderkam’s new book, Off The Clock: Feel Less Busy While Getting More Done, and it changed my perception of time-tracking. Instead of using time-tracking to shame myself into doing more with my hours, I realized I could use it to develop a healthier mindset about time. That was my goal when I began this project.

As a side perk, I liked the idea that I could look back on my summer and get an honest picture of what I’d done. I could see how many meals I’d cooked for my kids, how many evenings I had lounged around and eaten ice cream, and how many yoga classes I’d taken. I even documented vacation time, so I could look back and savor the memories later. It’s more accurate than a journal, because the memories aren’t filtered through emotion. It’s simply a list of things that happened.

The Method for Tracking Time

It’s very simple to track time using either a notebook or a downloaded online form. I used Google sheets. They have a template for time tracking by the half hour, and you can change the template easily if it’s not the correct range or if you’d like to add more values. I quickly realized that I could use it to track other things, so I created space above the first hour to write down my exercise for the day, my writing time and word count, and whether or not I’d meditated. It’s easy to create a new sheet for every week, and I can store them all in a folder on Google Drive so I can access them later.

(Note: If you use paper and pen, I’d suggest marking down the times by the half hour ahead of time, to make it easier to stick to the habit.)

Seven Lessons I Learned From Tracking My Time:

1) The stories I tell myself aren’t true.

I like to say, “I don’t watch TV,” when people ask me how I manage to read so many books. But my time tracking exposed the lie: I watch TV every single day. Often it’s while I’m doing other things, like folding laundry or eating a snack, but it’s still part of my life on a daily basis. If I didn’t watch TV, I could be doing even more reading than I am now. I’m not planning to make that shift, because I now have to confess that my story is a lie, and I do like watching TV. (You heard it here first.)

2) Life balances out.

Not every day is going to go perfectly, but enough things go as planned on enough days of the week to pick up any slack from unexpected problems. If I have a couple nights in a row of poor sleep, I make up for it later by going to bed early or waking up late on another day. If I miss an exercise session one morning, I may find myself taking a walk that afternoon to burn off extra energy. As long as I listen to my body’s needs, I find natural balance.

3) Almost nothing takes as much time as I think it does.

Consider this cell on my timesheet for Sunday, 8/5 from 8:00-8:30 PM: “Put daughter to bed, go into son’s room for talking and snuggling, help husband with garbage, do dinner dishes, text with sister, take out contacts and wash my face.” That was in the space of thirty minutes, on a Sunday evening after 8:00, which I generally perceive to be a low-energy point. Yet look at all I did in thirty minutes! Before tracking my time, I would have imagined that putting my kids to bed would fill the entire half hour. But I got a lot accomplished in the ten minutes at the end of that block, and—here’s the key— I didn’t even feel rushed.

4) I have more room in my schedule than I think.

At the start of the week, I look at all those empty cells and feel inspired by their potential. I know that many of them will get filled with obligations that aren’t under my control, but many of them will also be available to use for the things I truly want to do. It’s important for me to know what I want to accomplish, so that I can use those pockets of time in a way that satisfies me.

5) The way I spend my time reveals my true priorities.

My timesheet shows that I put my family first, because I spend a lot of time actively caring for my children and connecting with my husband, parents, and in-laws. However, it also shows that I take care of myself: I get enough sleep, I exercise, and I make time to read. I find it satisfying to know that my values are reflected in the way I spend my time.

I also found that I haven’t been actively writing as much as I thought I was. Aside from the timesheet, I’ve been using a time-tracking app running in the background on my laptop to calculate the number of minutes I spend on my journal, my novel, my blog posts and newsletters. It has helped to know the average amount of time I need to write 500 words of my novel and how long it takes to construct a newsletter from scratch. Tracking my writing time has taught me that I have no excuses for not completing my weekly and seasonal writing goals, because I can get so much accomplished in pockets of 20 minutes or less.

6) If I can’t make a daily habit, it’s good enough to have a weekly habit.

I’m a strong believer in habits. Creating a regular cue-routine-reward loop, as Charles Duhigg recommends in The Power of Habit, helps take the stress out of maintaining my health. But in a busy life, sometimes those habits can’t be daily. It’s enough to know that I’m doing something like meditation or skipping dessert most days of the week, even if it’s not every day.

7) Even an unproductive day has some productivity; even a super-productive day has some rest.

I had a really bad day toward the end of July. I stayed home all day, ate junk food, didn’t write or exercise. I was wallowing. In my mind, that day was unproductive. But even though I wasn’t pushing myself to do anything at all, I still managed to get meals on the table for my kids, do the laundry, play a game of Monopoly with my son, and spend 52 minutes writing an essay. If I hadn’t actually written it down, I never would have given myself credit for those things. My mind, influenced by my dark mood, would have told the story that I’d wasted the entire day.

On the flip side, even a super-productive day has some pockets of downtime. On a Monday in early August, though I was focused on doing a lot of writing, exercise and household chores, I still played with my kids and spent time reading.

Tracking my time has given me an invaluable perspective on life. I know whether the stories I tell about my life are true or false. I feel more flexible and open with my time. There are 168 hours in a week, and that feels so much more expansive than 24 hours in a day.

If you’re interested in tracking your time, go for it! You don’t need to do it for five weeks, as I did, or over three years, as Laura Vanderkam did. (She’s still going!) Even just one week will give you a new perspective on the way you spend your time.

Leanne Sowul is a writer and teacher from the Hudson Valley region of New York. She’s the curator of the website Words From The Sowul and authors the “Be Well, Write Well” column for DIY MFA. She writes historical fiction and personal essay, for which she won the Scott Meyer Award in 2017; her work is represented by Suzie Townsend at New Leaf Literary Agency. Connect with her at leannesowul(at)gmail(dot)com, at, or on Twitter @sowulwords.

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