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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  1. Interesting what you discovered. I like that you are spending more time with your kids than you would have thought. I just might have to do this too.
    I am an early riser-generally 2-3 mornings at 4:30, and 3-4 mornings at 6:00. Sundays I sleep in until 7:00.=) But, in order to do this I have to be in bed early-usually by 9:30. I can always see a correlation between staying up late and getting up late. For whatever reason.
    I was also inspired buy your “making time to write” (or something like that) blog. I read it a while ago, and decided that I was going to be purposeful about writing in the mornings. I exercise, get dressed, have time with Mr. Hippie, have my devotions, and then write. These are my most important things. Well, so are my kids, but they are generally sleeping for 75% of this set aside time.
    Anyway, thanks for both of these posts.

  2. I’ve been loving our routine this summer: up at 5:30 or so, I make breakfast for both of us, we have devotions before my husband leaves, I spend some time reading my Bible, and then do my reading and writing of blog posts/email/etc. THEN I get to the rest of my day: dishes, cleaning, organizing around the house, working outside the home, etc. I’ve been seeing a lot of posts the last couple days about time management and priorities…I think God’s trying to tell me something. 😉 Thanks for this, Anne!

  3. I did this exercise as part of the book ‘The Time Audit’. It’s so interesting to see what you *really* spend your time doing. I found I was watching much more TV than I was admitting to myself.

    Regarding laundry, I have a controversial suggestion – just don’t do so much. Honestly, most things (apart from undies) do not need to be washed every time you wear them. If you are strict about hanging bath towels, they are fine for days too. The easiest way to cut down on something like this is usually the simplest!

    • Anne says:

      About the tv: I get that. I had to be careful to log what I was actuallydoing for each interval of time, and not just what I wished I was doing!

      Is the laundry suggestion controversial? It sounds reasonable to me. I think we have a modest amount of laundry…for a family of six 🙂 But now that you mention it, I should pay more attention to what my kids put in the dirty laundry. They’d much rather throw something in the hamper than go to the trouble of hanging it back up again.

  4. Katie says:

    I used to be an early-morning person…when my schedule allowed an afternoon nap or at least down time. Now I know that if I get up before six, even if I’ve had a full eight hours of sleep, I don’t have enough energy to be effective at work. Maybe this is because it’s a head job, and my brain can only handle so much active thinking? A time log seems a good idea.

    I wonder if it would be the same if I had a more physical job that taxed my body rather than my brain. I can keep going doing chores or going to the gym or whatever if I’m tired (early in the morning or the late afternoon), but I can’t force my brain to be productive. Once it’s done, it’s done.

    I’m one of those eight-hours-or-no-deal people, too. I have no idea how that’s supposed to work with a newborn…especially once I have to go back to work at eight weeks. Yikes.

    As for your laundry–as soon as I was tall enough to reach the dials, I got put in charge of all my and my siblings’ laundry (I was happy to unload that on them as they got older!), and even before that, we had to sort all of our own clothes for washing and then fold/put away after they were clean so all Mom had to do was the actual operation of the machines. I think I was seven, which would have made my youngest sibling about three. Not that she helped much at that stage, but I certainly remember us all sitting in the hallway with a mountain of clothes. Anyway. I was shocked that my mother-in-law still did my husband’s laundry while he was in college, and I certainly think your kiddos could save you an hour or two a week! ^_^

    • Anne says:

      Thanks for the encouragement, Katie! I’m hoping to whittle down that laundry time by the end of summer.

      And about sleeping with a newborn: it’s tough! But I just said I need 8 hours of sleep a night, and my firstborn didn’t sleep through the night till he was 5. Somehow, we made it through. But the first two years I fell asleep while I was putting him to bed every night, or while I was reading books to him on the couch, and I would NOT be able to drag myself out of bed in the morning until the very last second. But we made it. And your baby is likely to be much, much easier!

  5. I did a time log once when I was in college – it really helped add study time (okay, and friend time!). I’ve thought about doing it more recently, but settled just for working up some basic schedules. You know, so I still have some flexibility 😉
    The book sounds intriguing, though. May have to check it out.

  6. I’ve resisted doing a time log while my baby has been getting up during the night; I still feel like I’m in survival mode and whatever works to get through the days is ok.

    She is … maybe possibly semi-reliably sleeping through the night. She’s done it for 5 or 6 nights a week for the last month, and it is glorious. So perhaps it’s time for me to do a log for myself and see how my week looks. Like you, I need 8 hours of sleep to function at my best, and perhaps I’ll finally be able to get that again.

    I’m not sure I want to know what my laundry total would be. My kids aren’t old enough to be much help with it, and I prefer my husband to spend his non-work time doing other things that help me more.

    I think my time diary would show that I spend a lot of time dealing with food. Three meals a day, plus an afternoon snack. Neither child can prepare their own food, and one still needs some things to be fed to her. Cleanup is generally all me too. That doesn’t even count menu planning, grocery shopping, and all that.

    • Anne says:

      YES on the food. I spend a lot of time dealing with food, too–and it’s not my favorite way to spend time! I’ve been limiting options and making sure we have favorite foods in the house to streamline things, but it’s still a work in progress.

  7. Oh, and I forgot to add that I think it’s fantastic that your time diary showed how much time you spend with your kids. It does seem like we’re always hearing the message that we need to spend more time with our kids, and I think it’s easy to think we’re not doing enough.

  8. Tim says:

    What I’m really dying to know is how much time you spent keeping your time diary?


    P.S. Aimee Byrd posted a guest piece I did on singing praises off key (linked through my name). Hope you get a chance to take a look, Anne!

    • Anne says:

      Jen, I get giddy thinking how much I’d enjoy to read a post by YOU about your own not-yet-existing time diary!

  9. Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Coupons says:

    I haven’t kept a time diary either – I thought about it after reading her book (168 hours), but I don’t have a 9-5 job. I’m a nurse, so my shifts are 12 hours and I work 3 of them in a week. Depending on the day, I may not get off on time. I also may need more sleep the day after. I don’t think it’s as practical for someone with as unpredictable a job as I have, though that being said I think I’m going to log off the computer and make my goals for the day. 🙂

    • Anne says:

      I get this. I’m planning a “day in the life” post for the near future here on the blog, and my big question is which day to write about, because there are 7 days in the week and NONE of them look alike!

      Laura’s a big advocate for just tracking your time for a full 168 hours instead of waiting for a “normal” week because there is no such thing. Unless you’re on vacation, every week has its own surprises. I didn’t feel like I tracked a “normal” week, but I still think it was valuable to track.

  10. I am the same way about sleep- I need 8 (or more) hours per night. I do so much better when I make that a priority. That’s great that your time diary revealed that you’re spending your time wisely!

  11. Carrie says:

    I highly recommend outsourcing laundry. My 14 year old does the family’s laundry, and he won’t even hear of doing a different chore (he says he likes having some quiet time alone in the basement, nobody follows him down there because he’ll put them to work).

    When I did my time diary, I was also pleasantly surprised at how much time I spent engaged with my kids. One of the things I tried to change though was how much time I spend “puttering”… aimlessly doing random things that are probably productive but there was no real time slot for them, so I probably wasn’t as efficient as I could be.

    • Anne says:

      Carrie, I can relate to the puttering 🙂

      My husband kept a time diary the same week I did, and he tracked things a little different than me. He had quite a few half-hour blocks marked as “piddle”–goofing off on the web, twitter, etc–and “chaos”–which was basically when everybody was home and the kids were running around like crazies.

  12. Anne- thanks so much for posting the results of your time logging! When I’ve inflicted this experiment on myself I’ve also been fascinated to see how much time I’m spending with my kids. I’d work 40-45 hours a week, and spend 40-45 hours on kid care. No wonder I feel like I have two full time jobs. I literally do. I don’t spend 3 hours a week on laundry though. I thought I was spending like 40 hours a week emptying the dishwasher, but it only felt like it. It took 5-7 minutes a pop, and I’m now doing it 4-5 times per week. So we are talking somewhere between 20-35 minutes. Somehow knowing this number makes it seem less dreary and awful. I tell myself I am spending less than 1/300th of my time on emptying the dishwasher. Not that bad.

  13. Emily says:

    The thing about laundry is, it is always there.

    For me, spending the time after I just wake up to get a blog post done is essential, b/c as soon as DS gets up (and he gets up EARLY) the noise and demands become way too distracting, even when my DH is there b4 going to work.

  14. theBMCreport says:

    Loved reading this post. I can so relate to staying up WAY to late! This is such a great idea! It’s a little scary but one I feel like I must try. Hopefully, I will be pleasantly surprised!

  15. 'Becca says:

    I once kept a time diary just at work. I was astonished to see how much time I spend adjusting my fluid balance: making hot drinks, pausing or slowing my work when the drink reaches perfect drinking temperature (add time to this stage when I have a headache or cold and spend time breathing steam before it’s cool enough to drink), and going to the bathroom! But I think being properly hydrated and caffeinated increases my productivity….

  16. Samantha-Anne says:

    I had never heard of keeping a time diary before but I absolutely love the idea of doing it. I love detail, statistics, and tracking so this is right up my alley. I am currently working on trying to make my workflows at home more efficient. I also am interested in what I spend my time on because I think that will show me where my passions lie. I am curious to see how much time I spend doing things that have absolutely nothing to do with the things I am passionate about and learning how I can cut down on time spent on those activities. I found an Excel spreadsheet to help me to track what I am spending my time doing each day and I will start doing that tomorrow and I’ll do it for one week. I am really looking forward to seeing what this shows. Thank you so much for this wonderful idea!!

  17. Roxanna says:

    I’ve read this idea before and usually disregarded it because, really, what new things could it teach me? But your small but important insights show me it’s worth doing. Thank you! (And thank you for putting it on your kindle deals today – just picked up the book 😉 )

  18. Abi says:

    What method or tools did you use for the time diary? Did you use any app or did you track manually with paper and pen.

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