The First Step to Getting Organized

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Everyone complains about being overworked, but for many people that’s not actually the case. “We have all sorts of stories about how we spend our time,” says Laura Vanderkam, the author of several books on productivity.

“We tell ourselves that we work full time,” she adds, as if we never make time to eat or sleep—but the vast majority of us do. The are 168 hours in a week; the fact is, you’re likely not making the most of all of them.

To relieve the feeling of being overwhelmed, one helpful tactic is start is to use spreadsheets or a dedicated time-tracking program to keep an hour-by-hour record of how you spend your days, says Vanderkam, whose latest book is I Know How She Does It: How Successful Women Make the Most of Their Time.

Keeping track of how you spend those precious hours “gives you a hard-eyed picture of reality” and an opportunity to “address some of those stories that may or may not be true.” An example? That you don’t have any time to exercise or you can’t make it to your kid’s recital.

“If you want to spend your time better, knowing how you spend it is the first step,” she says. “You need to be aware of where you need to make the changes—it might end up you may not have to make the changes you think you need to make.”

Vanderkam advises people to keep track of how they spend their time for a full week, preferably two. The crucial part of the exercise, however, is that you shouldn’t plan your days in advance. The log has to reflect how you actually spend your time—not how you wish you spent it. Vanderkam compares it to how professionals who have billable hours, like consultants and lawyers, track their day. These workers often have above-average time management skills, says Vanderkam.

What you’ll need

You don’t need any fancy equipment to get started, but you do need to establish a system to capture the data. Vanderkam created a template which can be downloaded from her website. Vanderkam, who works from home, keeps the spreadsheet open all day and just fills it in as she goes. (She’s challenged herself to keep a daily log for a year). It’s better to track things as you go along in your day, rather than doing it all at the end of the day, because some of the data will be less accurate that way.

For people whose occupations require them to be more mobile, Vanderkam’s personal preference for working on a desktop program isn’t as practical. But you can use a basic spreadsheet app or your phone’s built-in notes app. Another app that many people have recommended, Vanderkam says, is the free time tracking software app Toggl.

For analog geeks, pen and paper is fine, too.

When to begin 

A lot of people put off starting because they don’t think that the current week is an accurate representation of how they spend their time, according to Vanderkam. “But every week is atypical,” she says. There will always be interruptions. The more often you do this exercise, the clearer your patterns become.

The point of the exercise is to give you a more objective picture of your behavioural patterns. “Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good,” says Vanderkam. It’s okay to begin at any time—just start.

It’s okay to be vague

Some people think it’s necessary to delve into extreme detail in their log. But a rough estimate of when you started and finished, and what you were doing in that time period, is good enough. It’s okay to just use general descriptions. Jotting down notes like “went to work, played with kid, made dinner” will suffice.

Ask yourself these three questions

After you’ve collected the data, it’s time to “interview” it. Says Vanderkam: “Ask what you like about your schedule. Second, ask yourself, ‘What do I want to do more of with my time?’ Then, lastly, “What do I want to spend less time doing?’ And hopefully, those things can be taken out of your routine.”


Do you track your time? What’s your strategy for staying on schedule? Let us know by commenting below.

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Chad Keiser

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