Lessons Learned From an Entire Year of Time Tracking

Tracking my time in 15-minute blocks revealed insights into productivity and life structure

Nick Metzler
Nick Metzler / Published January 10, 2019

'Tis the season for New Year's resolutions — convincing yourself to go to the gym every day, nailing down the title of that book you've always wanted to write, and forcibly cutting back on sweets until you just can't handle it anymore the second week of January.

My name is Nick Metzler. I'm a game designer. I make games in all sorts of mediums, from Survivor challenges to board games at my full-time job. One of the main principles of rapid improvement within in a game is the speed at which you can receive feedback for your actions. It's why you can improve so much faster at Call of Duty than in math class: You get instant feedback when you get a headshot, but you have to wait a week for your teacher's grade to figure out that you got a number wrong in the middle of an equation.

I was on the hunt for a rapid feedback system for my life, a way to truly see how I spent my time. I had a lot of hypotheses about how much I worked and how much time I spent socializing, but I didn't know for sure. I always felt like I was running out of time, like I was doing three things at once—and I wanted to know why that was.

Self-help gurus tout that in order to be successful, you need to treat your side projects like a full-time job after work, but for some reason, I couldn't quite make it happen, even though I've spent the last two years optimizing my schedule to be as efficient as Michael Phelps was in the water.

My 2018 resolution was to track how I spent my life in 2018 in just over thirty-five thousand fifteen-minute blocks for the whole year. Guess I made a resolution to say goodbye to any sense of normalcy as well. With data this granular, I was sure to find the answer to how to make my life more efficient and productive.

Well, I got my answer, but it wasn't the one I expected to find. Below is a pie chart of how I spent my time last year:

Pie chart of time spent in 2018

Apparently, I wasn't as productive as I thought I was.

As I pored over my data, I noticed some common patterns. Having already cut out most common time-wasting activities, such as Netflix, social media, working out (oops), and more, I was curious to find that Jeff Goldblum was spot-on when he said that "life finds a way." Unfortunately for me, life finding a way was equivalent to me getting hit with tons of short-term, totally legitimate, excuses like having to move apartments, traveling on nine business trips, apparently spending 9.7 percent of my time socializing, and spending a whopping 5.1 percent of my time preparing and eating food.

I guess my first luxury expense will be hiring a personal chef to give myself 3 percent of my time back. 3 percent, though? That's not that much. I wanted to get more time back than just the returns of an online savings account.

I broke down my data into quarters and noticed something startling. The donuts weren't much different from the average in the year. How could it be that, even with major distractions, like moving apartments and going on five back-to-back weekend trips, I was still hitting the average distribution of time for each activity category, give or take 2 percent? If you just glance at these charts, you could miss the fact that they're all different:

Time spent by quarter in 2018

It was then that my biggest revelation hit me: Short term excuses mean absolutely nothing. It's your priorities and your dedication to them in the long term that make you successful—or not.

Pretty obvious revelation, no doubt. Most riveting ideas are simple, after all. But this led me to another idea: that of "life structure," the ghostly idea hidden within this simple revelation.

When I looked at how consistent my average was, and how volatile my individual days were, I realized I could predict with reasonable accuracy how I was going to spend my time in the next quarter, and thus understand how much available free time I actually had. The results frightened me. Like I said, it was a ghostly idea.

Without a massive change in my life structure, I can expect the following uses of my time within a percent or two:

  • 30% of my time sleeping
  • 23% of my time at my full-time job
  • 6% of my time toward food
  • 5% of my time doing random necessary tasks (e.g., email or errands)
  • 4% of my time hanging with my girlfriend
  • 3% of my time hanging with my family
  • 2% of my time doing daily needs (e.g., showering)
  • 1.5% of my time getting really really good at Smash Bros. (my main way of relaxing)

Added up, this regularly leaves me with about 25 percent of my time for everything else:

  • Working on side projects
  • Socializing
  • Spending time in transit
  • Meditating
  • Improving my life (e.g., tracking finances)
  • Reading (e.g., learning how to manage my finances)
  • Working out (just kidding, I don't work out)
  • Watching TV
  • Scrolling social media
  • Helping other people (definitely need to do this)

Keep in mind that 25 percent is just over the amount of time I spent at my full-time job. That means, if I gave up everything else in my life that was theoretically unnecessary, I could spend as much time building my side projects as I spent on my full-time job.

So it's possible to work on a side project as much as I work on my full-time job, but I'd mainly have to give up all socializing to do so. That's rough because so many of the opportunities I've had in my life came from socializing. I can't cut that out completely.

If you're stuck in traffic an hour each way to work, or if you have kids, this equation gets much tougher. Not to mention an addiction to a Netflix or working out every day.

Truly, the only way to make a massive shift in your use of time is to rework your equation, to re-create your life structure.

Everyone has a life structure, built up by the requirements of their environment. Surprisingly, you actually don't have many choices in your life once your environment is built. For example, if you live far away from your office, your environment dictates that you must spend time traveling to and from your job. If you have kids, your environment dictates that you must spend time, you know, raising them.

Structural changes, like going freelance, would switch up the equation quite a bit. Then everything is back up for grabs. I'm not suggesting this is the right move for everyone, just that it does, without a doubt, change the "average" use of time. It's an example of a structural change. A structural change, simply, is any major decision that impacts your typical routine — you know the type.

If you're like most people and can't make a structural change at this point in time, you'll have to deal with small percentages here and there. And that, of course, requires discipline. This experiment helped me define my life structure and has allowed me to see clearly the environmental shadow monsters that eat my time away.

I've personally determined that it's not yet time for a structural change. My priorities are aligned with my life structure, and I'm able to move forward into 2019 with confidence that the average amount of time I'm using for my various activities in my free time is in line with my goals.

Hard to believe the tracking itself only took 15 - 17 hours total. Was it worth it? Totally. As a result, I'll always know what I did in 2018. Check out the full chart here, or see the highlights below:

Highlights of 2018

It's powerful to have this clarity, and I know others can achieve the same clarity without forcing themselves to track every 15 minutes for a full year.

Seriously, don't do that.

You can get a major benefit just by tracking your life for four weeks, for an hour a day. When you track your life just for a month, you'll uncover your own life structure. In that structure, you'll see how much time you have to play with, and from there you can review your priorities. How are you currently spending your free time? Is that in line with your goals? Is it time for a structural change to give you more time?

As 2019 has come, I've created three New Year's resolutions to adapt my own life without changing my life structure. I know I can achieve all of them, since, as I said, short-term excuses don't matter, and these all focus on my long-term goals. It'll be easy to hit them because I'll have made them a priority.

  1. Be more productive on business trips. I found that my productivity seriously suffered when I went out to dinner and drinks with the team every night during those nine trips.

  2. Don't be hungover. It ruins my productivity for the weekend, which is the largest amount of time I have to be productive within my life structure.

  3. Stop waking up late on weekends. I wake up at 6:45 a.m. every day to do work in the morning, but all those gains are diminished when I wake up at 11:00 a.m. on weekends.

Bottom line: Make sure your life structure is in line with your priorities in life. Since life structure dictates so much of how you spend your time in the long term, ensure that you're designing it effectively. From there, trust that you've done what you needed to do in order to achieve your goals.

It's almost like picking the right house, the right job, or the right significant other. Actually, it's exactly those decisions. Those choices are what create your life structure. If your life structure is moving you away from your goals, it's time to make a change. Happy New Year.

This was a guest post by Nick Metzler. He recently started a group called Gaming Life, which turns common networking and career situations into games so you can automatically avoid common obstacles while having fun. He offers a free hour-long webinar where he breaks down the three lies you tell yourself while networking. Take a look if you want to increase the number of clients you can book or if you're anxious about networking. Or you can or join his Facebook group to become part of the conversation.

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