Have you ever been going full speed all day, but still feel like you are running behind? Ever look back and wonder what took up all of your time? This is common. Every day we complete a wide variety of tasks, everything from hygiene to eating to work and beyond. We spend time caring for others, answering questions, meeting demands, and hopefully checking some things off of our own to-do lists. We are so busy with disparate (and often interrupted) tasks that we can rarely articulate how much time we spend on each individual item. If asked, “how long does it take” to do this or that, we might not have a solid answer.
While some tasks are highly time-sensitive (e.g., driving to work, riding to school, participating in a meeting, going to a class, etc.), many are not associated with a start, stop, or duration time. As a result, we don’t notice exactly when we begin and when we finish. Furthermore, we may start, get pulled into another task, and then come back later to complete it, muddying our concept of how much time we have spent working on it in total. In most instances, we just never focus on how long a chore actually requires.
In general, there are at least two categories of tasks for which we tend to lack an accurate understanding of “time spent.”
- Routine tasks
- Digital endeavors
Let’s look at these individually.
These are the things we do repeatedly that don’t require a lot of mental energy, such as taking a shower, folding laundry, and walking the dog. We tend to do them mindlessly, without paying attention to how time we are actually investing. Since we don’t know how long they take, we lack a key piece of information when it comes to deciding whether or not we have sufficient time to complete them at any given point in our day.
For example, I might not really know if I have time to unload the dishwasher before I need to leave to pick my daughter up from school. Or, I might not be sure if I have sufficient margin to file a stack of papers before my next call begins.
It isn’t hard to get this information, but we must focus to find it out.
Time spent in digital endeavors is a bit trickier. These consist of activities we pursue on a screen, such as texting, messaging, scrolling, surfing, gaming, and watching. In these instances, our focus is being drawn into a pursuit that often has no associated beginning or end. We might think we will check email for a couple of minutes, and suddenly realize we’ve somehow lost a half an hour. Similarly, there is no way to know when we are ‘finished’ checking Instagram. We can play Candy Crush for 5 minutes or 65 minutes. More often than not, we underestimate how much time we are spending on our devices.
In a recent article in the New York Times, I was surprised to read the following quote about Instagram, which uses a metric called “Teen Time Spent” to gauge usage and strategize growth. The article said,
“Instagram relied on teenagers to spend an average of three to four hours a day on the app.”NYT, 10/16/2021
(It went on to say that Instagram relies on adults to spend about half that much time on the app each day.) This sounded like a lot to me, as I initially pictured teens sitting down once a day and looking at Instagram for 4 hours. However, this isn’t likely how young people are using the app. Instead, I imagine they are checking the app all throughout the day; five minutes here, ten minutes there, a half hour somewhere else.
It’s easy to lose track of time on electronic devices, for children and adults alike. Time lost in this manner can cause pain in other parts of our day when we fail to complete important tasks and/or find ourselves rushing around and falling short.
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One of the best ways to manage time (since we can’t create more hours in the day) is by having a clear picture of how we are spending our time. This requires we stop, pay attention, and take note.
For routine tasks, this is relatively easy. Simply keep track on a list like the one below of the things you do each day, and record how long each one takes. Set a timer when you start, and then turn it off when you finish. Record the time spent in minutes. Repeat this procedure a couple of times and then take an average.
Once you know how long these tasks take, you’ll make smarter decisions about when to complete them. For instance, if you find that it takes 4 minutes to empty the dishwasher, and you have to head out the door in 10 minutes, you can confidently know that you have sufficient time.
When it comes to digital endeavors, there are a couple of different options.
For activities where you sit and pursue a solitary digital pursuit for a sustained period of time, you can use the same approach as the one for mundane tasks. For example, when you sit down to watch a movie, play a video game, binge a TV series on a streaming platform, and the like. The times are likely to vary more than they do for mundane tasks, but it will still be helpful to see how long you are spending on these endeavors. These are also the easiest to limit, as you can decide in advance how much time you are willing to dedicate (e.g. I will let myself stream a show from 8-9 each evening).
For the situations in which you are checking a digital device periodically throughout the day, (e.g. checking apps on your phone), there are ways to see at a glance how you are spending time. Both Android and iPhone capture time spent by app. It may feel a little intimidating to track and analyze this information, but being aware of how you spend your time is powerful.
After all, you can’t change what you don’t acknowledge.
If you discover that you are spending more time on a digital endeavor than you would like, consider setting a limit for yourself with app timers.
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Effective time management happens when we align our waking time with our tasks and activities. Awareness of where we spend our time is the first step.
Do you have a clear idea how long your routine tasks take? Have you ever examined how much time you are spending on digital endeavors?