What I Learned By Keeping a Time Diary

Laura Vanderkam’s new ebook What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast inspired me to do something I’ve been meaning to try for a long time: log how I spend my time for a full 168 hours.

Laura argues that successful people purposefully use their mornings to focus on things that are important, but not urgent: things like nurturing your career, nurturing your relationships, and nurturing yourself. And if you’re not using your mornings well, the solution is often to be found in how you spend the rest of the day.

I was pleased to realize that my own schedule sticks to this principle: I use my early mornings to write, do some devotional reading, and review the day’s and week’s priorities in my planner.

But that’s not the whole story. Here’s what my time diary revealed.

I consistently stayed up too late.

Some activities justify an occasional late night, but that’s not what was keeping me up. The usual culprits were email, the web, and reading “one more chapter” (or three) in my current book. Frankly, I wasn’t surprised by these results.

What did surprise me was the direct correlation between staying up too late doing not-so-important stuff and waking up too late the next morning to devote meaningful time to important tasks.  I was shocked by how easily I traded the morning’s meaningful, important tasks for “stuff that needs to be done” in the evening. I didn’t realize I was making this trade at 10:00 at night, but that’s exactly what was happening.

And sure, I can drag myself out of bed on too-little sleep if need be.  But only for a few days: after that my body rebels. If I’m really tired, I won’t even hear my alarm.  Unfortunately, I need 8 hours of sleep.  Looking at my diary, I only averaged 7 hours of sleep a night.  This is plenty for many people (and I really wish it was for me), but it’s not.

If my sleep number is pretty well fixed at 8 hours then I know exactly what time I have to go to bed to take advantage of my mornings. My time diary showed me the high price I paid for staying up too late–and that’s all the motivation I need to get to bed on time. 

I spent 3 hours on laundry.

I had no idea how much time I spent doing laundry each week, because I typically only spend 5 or 10 minutes at a time on it. But for my diary I duly recorded all those little snatches of time and calculated the answer: 3 hours. (And I didn’t even turn on the iron!)

I am not okay with spending 3 hours a week on laundry. Hiring it out doesn’t strike me as particularly convenient or affordable, but my kids have expressed an interest in helping more with this job (for pay, which suits me fine).

I’m planning on investing a little extra time this month in laundry lessons. I’ve added a stepstool to our laundry area, and I bought my favorite detergent in powder form so I won’t worry about my kids sloshing the liquid. My goal is to get my active laundry time down to one hour a week.

I spent way more time with my kids than I expected.

Friends, church leaders, and the web constantly encourage me to spend more time with my kids. You’ll be glad you did, they say. But the assumption underlying all this “encouraging” talk is that I’m not spending enough time with them. I’d assumed they were right.

My time diary showed that I spent hours and hours with my kids. And I wasn’t just spending time alongside them with my phone in one hand, but engaged with them: I read stories on the couch, cheered at their ball games (with no phone or other distractions), pushed my baby on the swing, played catch with my son, watered the flowers with my girls, went on fun family excursions, headed to the pool, and chatted over popsicles and picnic lunches.

My time diary showed that when I’m around, I’m quick to follow their lead. We made special recipes together, popped over to the library to grab a book they were anxious to read, and made impromptu Lego building plans.

I thought my time diary would show I was spending too much time on my email. I wasn’t expecting to find out any good information about myself. But I’m delighted to have it.

If you’re interested in making over your own mornings, What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast is $2.99 for Kindle.

What would a time diary show about your life?

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what I learned by keeping a time diary

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