Why time booking isn’t just for grown-ups

According to the testimony of friends who work as lawyers, the worst part of the job (apart from putting paper into colour-coded files) is the hassle of accounting for every minute of every day. They do this so their practice can charge its outrageous fees to the right clients – it seems that anything not being directly charged for isn’t worth doing (unless you can get someone commanding a lower hourly rate to do it). I feel palpable relief that I have never been subject to such officious management.

It has therefore been something of a shock that, over the last six months, I’ve become a convert to time booking. This transformation has been so complete that I book time to all the projects I work on, even if I’m not billing a customer. The reason I do this is simple – far apart from the homicidal minute-by-minute accounting of the lawyer, keeping a record of how I spend time brings a number of benefits, the most pronounced of which is a change of behaviour to spend time doing what I know I want to be doing. This might sound frankly un-earth-shattering, but as I hope to make clearer, knowing you’re doing what you want to be doing feels good, especially if you can get there without it being burdensome or annoying.

Why I book time

This breaks down into three explanations, which build on top of each other: knowing what I’m doing, knowing I’m doing what I want to be doing and doing what I’ve said I’m going to do.

Knowing what I’m doing

I recently carried out an experiment on myself, where I kept a diary of everything I spent time on for three months and then analysed the data to see where my time was going (I’ve yet to write this up, although the sister experiment on what I spend money on is here). In advance, I’d predicted what I spend time on – things like sleeping, eating, hanging out with friends – to see how accurate a picture I had of my own doings. The outcome showed that, although I’d been able to make a decent gut estimate of how I spent my time on habitual activities (such as sleeping), there was a wide gap of 30 or so hours (nearly 20% of the week) where I had no idea in advance what I was going to do.

It is not such a terrible thing not to be able to say what you’ve been doing, but it feels like we are under a lot of pressure to increase efficiencylive life fastersleep when you’re dead, etc. etc. Even if you don’t buy into this nonsense, it’s likely you’ve wished there were more hours in the day at least once. How can you improve something if you can’t measure it? Writing down what I’m up to obviously means I have a much better idea of what I’m up to.

Knowing I’m doing what I want to be doing

I don’t think I’m alone in finding it easy to get to the end of a day and think “very good, martini time. Now then, what exactly have I achieved today?”. It’s a somewhat more pronounced feeling if I get to the end of a week and think similar thoughts. It’s easy to brush off the question and determine to be more memorably constructive the next week, but at some point it starts to feel like there’s a lack of control over your own time.

I do think it’s important to feel that you’re doing what you want to be doing, rather than just reacting to things, bouncing about. Having a written record of where my hours have gone means I can’t just kid myself into thinking I’ve been terribly productive when I haven’t – initially this record is an uncomfortable kind of crutch. However, I think the discomfort is worth it, as after a short time, making myself aware of what I’m doing means I change my behaviour to be happy with that record.

Another thing worth noting is that once you feel confident that you’re doing things you want to be doing, all the other things that previously seemed so pressing now seem less so. In other words, you’ll end up choosing how you spend time.

Doing what I’ve said I’m going to do

Diets, fitness programmes, personal development plans, business development – many things take more than a week to come to fruition, but since it seems natural to think of time in a rhythm of the week and the weekend, it’s easy to become dispirited if looked-for effects take longer than a single week to surface.

One way of making it harder to stop doing things you’ve previously decided you want to be doing is to have the fact that you’re doing them written down – it feels way harder to stop something I’ve started when I can look back and see what progress I’ve made. It’s also easier to succumb to continuity and copy across activities from an earlier week than it is to commit to new ones: if I can see I’m on the way to finishing something, that makes it harder to start something shiny and new. Which brings me on to a bonus benefit…

Avoiding kittening

My habit of writing down what I’m doing means that I often have to expend effort to change what I’m doing. I like to avoid effort, so I’ve tended to want to avoid changing what I’m doing – my behaviour has drifted naturally towards spending longer periods of time on one thing rather than multi-tasking fruitlessly.

How I book time

Now you’re totally convinced of the need to do some time booking of your own, you will be worrying that it is going to take you forever to keep up to date. Fear not! Even with a mild tendency towards data-OCD, it takes me somewhere between ten minutes and an hour per week. As I have said, I like to avoid effort, so I don’t go much detail unless there’s a good reason to (such as wanting a detailed record for billing).

At the start of the week, I take the time to write down what I want to be doing that week and an estimate of how long I think each thing will take. At the end of the week, I write down whether each thing has been finished or not and compare my estimate of how long something would take with how long it actually did.

At the moment, I’m using two methods to book time – a broad estimate of time-spent vs. an hour-by-hour account.

Broad

At the end of a day, if I know I’ve spend a chunk of time on something, I’ll write that next to the thing, with a brief note of what I did. This is pretty rough, and I’m only bothered about the accuracy being to the nearest 30 minutes or even hour. I think this probably takes ten minutes in total over a week.

Detailed

If I’m doing something that I want to keep detailed notes for, I’ll write down each day when I start spending time on it and what I’m doing as I go along. When I change to something else, I’ll record the end of that period. The accuracy is to the nearest five minutes. I usually have one or two projects running like this at any one time and over a week it might take closer to an hour than ten minutes to make the record.

What time booking is not for

I do not advocate the measurement of time-spent as some sort of performance metric. It is not right to reward yourself or someone else just because a lot of time has been spent on something: reward outcomes, not efforts.

However, the ability to accurately forecast how long things will take you and to do what you say you will are both measurable traits you ought to encourage.

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