After a few months of downsizing, streamlining, and organizing my physical possessions, I shifted my focus. I had lived in Seattle for a little over a year and my typical routine had me in a bit of a funk. In an effort to resolve this, I decided to look at another one of my limited resources: time. I hoped a quantitative study of how I was spending would provide some much needed insight into my otherwise automatic grind. I conducted a week-long time study documenting everything I did, rounded to the nearest half hour.
I recorded this information in a journal throughout the day and gave it a once-over before heading to bed. I wanted it to provide me with a better picture of how I was spending the majority of my time, but I also didn’t want to make it a chore. While I don’t really care about how much time I spend brushing my teeth each week, I am interested in how long I spend grooming myself throughout the day. Think getting ready in the morning, taking a shower, changing and washing up in the evening. In the same token, digging into the specifics of my social activities wasn’t as important as simply realizing the amount of free time I really enjoying each week.
The week of my study was fairly routine: I went to work 5 days, enjoyed some social activities in the evening, commuted to work every day, and cooked at home on a regular basis. The most unique aspect to my week was volunteering for a work event on Saturday afternoon, as this is pretty atypical. After one week, I compiled my results into the table below. All numbers are in hours. The total hours are then displayed as a percentage over 168 total hours in a week.
The Essential Time
I deemed (and bolded) the first five categories as essential to my lifestyle. The average person will work, sleep, groom, eat, and travel around in some capacity. Effectively I deemed them unavoidable. The remaining activities were identified as free time (as you’ll read below).
work equated to time spent at my desk, sleep included laying awake, light reading, and phone scrolling, grooming measured brushing teeth, haircuts (something I now do myself), bathroom breaks, and bathing, cooking reflects all time spent creating or consuming food at home or by myself, commuting was any time spent getting from point A to point B by vanpool, bike, car, legs, or bus.
These essential categories can be dreadful or delightfully enjoyable depending on your outlook and situation. For example, my commuting was greatly enhanced by vanpooling and biking, while others view their one-hour car commute as a “required” prison sentence. In my vanpool, I could read, nap, or socialize. Biking got my heart rate up and added to the long-term benefits of great health.
Another category, cooking, may be seen as nothing more than a chore. Whether I viewed it as the simple act of consuming calories or a wonderful extension of my artistic self, optimizing my cooking routine to be as enjoyable as possible improved my overall satisfaction. While some may view these tasks as life-enhancing or downright distracting, I believe they are pretty darn essential in developed, first-world lifestyles.
Bringing it back to the macro, I found a large majority of my week was spent at work or sleeping. Since commuting makes my work possible, I’ll add that to the majority as well. Therefore, I spent 68% of my life sleeping, working, and getting to my job. Seeing that number was pretty jarring and certainly had me thinking more about the whole “do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life” cliché. If you work 40+ hours a week and feel as if all you do is sleep and work…you are justified for feeling that way.
The Free Time
The remaining categories are completely optional in my given lifestyle scenario: I don’t have to complete the Tuesday LA Times crossword or enjoy a beer with friends to live. We generally refer to this remaining chunk of life as free time. In other words, we made the money to finally do the things we enjoy. Even if you enjoy your job enough to do it for free, I argue that a healthy moderation of work, play, and community are essential to your long-term happiness. Here is what my free time categories looked like:
volunteering was completed for my company, socializing consisted of happy hours, hanging out with friends, going to trivia, and hosting community groups, shopping is something I try to limit (duh!), craigslisting involved me listing/selling some furniture and belongings, and cleaning is the unfortunate by-product of owning lots of stuff and renting an apartment
With most of my time siphoned to the essential elements of life: earning money, eating, and taking a shower, I was left with only 37.5 hours of my week. This equates to less than one quarter of my week reserved for absolute freedom. So what did I do with it?
Well, I decided that cleaning was a necessary part of my weekend–most likely because I value maintaining a certain living standard. So I guess I’ll call that time well spent (read: how can I reduce this task?). I also dedicated 7 HOURS to selling things on Craigslist!? And while I enjoy the decentralized and easy-to-use nature to Craigslist, I’m really just moving goods from one place to another at a minor hourly rate. But once again, I decided I value a small amount of cash in exchange for keeping an appliance from ending up in a landfill (read: how I can stop buying stuff I don’t need? can I barter to avoid freezing my financial capital up in a shop vacuum?). On a positive note, I socialized almost everyday–a very important part of feeling connected to my community and creating a sense of belonging. So well done there.
Much like the essential tasks, it turns out I can enjoy or dread some of my free time as well. Hence, there are positive and negative aspects to both your essential time and your leisure time. It’s simply up to you to evaluate your threshold and decide where that line is drawn. After placing some numbers to each activity, I could them associate a more abstract sense of satisfaction to work, socializing, or sleeping. Was I getting a proportional amount of joy of of these activities? Did I wish I spent less time doing certain things? And more time on others?
This rolls-up to one great takeaway from this experiment: heightened consciousness around how I was spending my time. For the first time, I was really paying attention to when I should be switching task. Instead of lazily moving on from cooking to editing photos, I now did so with more deliberateness. And I really attribute this to the simple tracking of my hours. Therefore, there are two dimensions to our time: quantity, as observed here, and also quality. I can’t really tell you whether or not eating for 9 hours each week is essential to you. If you find immense quality in those hours, congratulations! If you get stressed out by the thought of cooking for yourself, perhaps that quantity isn’t adequate. Lots of self-reflection to be had!
In the vein of intentionality, my one-week study also led to recognizing and reducing time sucks. For me, some time wasters are scrolling social media feeds, taking interest in flashy marketing campaigns while shopping, or laying in bed long after my alarm. I don’t want this to come across as a plug for constant productivity, as that’s not my conclusion. I think there are healthy ways to “waste” time outside the guise of productivity. For example, walking to the store instead of biking allows me to enjoy the sights and sounds of my neighborhood. Or spending more time enjoying each bite of the meal I prepared. Sure, they add time, but they do so with intention. And more importantly, align with my values more so than refreshing Instagram or delaying the start to my day.
So did this study end up providing insight? Yes, undoubtedly. Until then, I spent over 1200+ weeks on Earth, but I had yet to analyze how I was allocating my time. And after all, we don’t get that much of it. This is a great exercise for anyone stuck in a rut or simply wanting to be more intentional with one of their limited resources. Through this, I was motivated to find better work, reduce my commuting time, clean less, and view my esssential time in a new light. I also took away insights into the quality of my experiences and brainstormed strategies to minimize those tasks that don’t bring me joy (darn you cleaning!). I encourage you to step outside yourself for a week and see what insights you discover.