How Long Does It Take?

watch on a women's arm
Image by fancycrave1 from Pixabay

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.”

  1. Routine tasks
  2. Digital endeavors

Let’s look at these individually.

Routine Tasks

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.

Digital Endeavors

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.

*     *     *

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.

Sheet to track time spent on various tasks

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.

*     *     *

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?

33 thoughts on “How Long Does It Take?”

  1. I have a fairly good sense of time, an intuitive sense, and how long things will take to do. However, when I’m in hyperfocus mode, I can easily lose track of time. To help me make the best use of my time and still allow myself to hyperfocus, I use timers and buzzers to keep me on track. For example, let’s say I have a block of three ‘clear’ hours, and I have several things I want to work on. I’ll set the timer for 60 minutes. When the buzzer dings, I’ll see where I am and evaluate whether I want to continue with what I’m doing or transition to the next thing. I keep doing this at varying time intervals until it’s time to stop. This allows me to have 100% concentration without worrying about time at all. I know the auditory cue will interrupt me and cue me to stop and evaluate where I am.

    1. I rarely go into that hyperfocus mode, but that is a terrific system if you are able to do that! So helpful and easy these days to set an alarm to keep you on track!

  2. I do have an idea how long it takes to do some of the routine things here but technology is another story. So I think I may glance at the apps when I finish here to see just out of curiosity now. 😉

  3. Time tracking is a reliable tactic to help us create time awareness. The fact that many of tasks we think take a long time are tasks we don’t like. Add in that these tasks are not so fun make it feel longer. I love that you are recommending a strategy to help us be more reliable in our time tracking.

  4. I have an app that logs social media time and it’s rather embarrassing! But also my career!
    I find that with digital stuff I’ll always be wrong when telling my family how long I’ll be. “Just five minutes” is often 20. With physical tasks, I’m usually spot on. I set four minutes for teeth brushing because I often like to go twice with the two minute countdown. My hygienist thanks me!
    Tamara recently posted…5 Tips in Customizing Your Transportable HomeMy Profile

    1. I’m laughing over here because I am the same way with my teeth. I use this toothpaste in the mornings from Crest (Brilliance) that has two tubes. You brush first with one, then spit (don’t rinse) and do the second one. I love it. Feel like that is a powerful 4 minutes of my morning!

  5. Thanks for this “timely” article. I find that many people overestimate how long a routine task takes like make the bed or empty the dishwasher. They are surprised when they actually time it and realize that when they have 10 minutes available they can actually get something accomplished.
    Time on digital matters is usually the opposite. I set a timer to remind me to get off scrolling through social media or doing research.

  6. I have a pretty good sense of time but there are instances when I hyper-focus on a project. I am not used to setting alarms or timers – this is something I’m working on changing. I think a timer will help me move on to the next thing I want to get done. Many of my clients have little or no sense of time. They will often avoid a task because they think it will take them way too long to complete. I love the idea of making a list and then timing those chores/tasks.
    Diane N Quintana recently posted…“Focus on What’s Strong, Not What’s Wrong”My Profile

    1. For many of my professional organizing readers, this seems very basic. But I know that many people, like your clients, honestly do not know how long it takes them to do tasks. I was surprised to realize how little time a few of them take. It might FEEL like a long time, especially if I don’t like the task, but it actually isn’t!

  7. Such good points. My family laughs at me when we’re together at holidays because, when they ask how soon I can be ready to leave (about thirty seconds after someone else has vacated the shower), I will say, “I can go in 37 minutes.” If there’s nobody blocking my progress, I know exactly how long it will take from the minute I get in the shower to the minute I can put on my shoes and walk out the door, all hygiene and grooming. (Of course, it’s a few minutes longer on a day I’m wearing full makeup.) Grocery shopping, household tasks, etc.? I’ve got it down pat.

    You’re right that digital time is different, but I still have some mastery. I rarely hyperfocus and lose large swathes of time because I instinctively look at the clock every few minutes while using social media and at least every ten minutes or so while working. But there are two areas where bogged down. When I write, I go into a different world. (I thought this comment would take half a minute; it’s been quite a bit longer because I ALWAYS have more to say.) And transitions take longer. I am sometimes shocked that I think it should take 30 seconds to get from my front door to pulling out of the parking lot, forgetting that settling in, checking that GPS is set, checking my hair in the mirror, etc., takes quite a few more minutes than I anticipate. Ah, well!

    1. I am like you and rarely hyperfocus. Not sure if that is a plus or a minus, but it is my reality. Perhaps the exception to that is when I am with a client. Those hours just go so fast because I’m trying to stay focused and get things done. It’s a treat to my mind, actually, to focus on thing when I am with them!

  8. This is great. I love the idea of paying attention to how much time it takes to do a given task. I think we have a tendency to pick up our phones and waste time when we only have a few minutes here or there because we don’t think we have time to do anything else. In reality, a lot of mundane tasks only take a minute or two or five at the most. It’s just a matter of retraining your thinking to be more productive.

    1. I’m guilty of that as well, Sheri. You are so right. If I know with confidence that I can fold a load of laundry or read an article, I might be more inclined to do those instead of grabbing my phone!

  9. I’m challenged with going down a rabbit hole with digital time management. I have set times of the day to check email and social media at my desk. But then in order to manage my “down time” I make myself sit in a certain location in my home if I want to jump of email and social media any other time of the day. It makes me more thoughtful about how much time I’m sending on my phone or laptop.

  10. I recently had a client, by her suggestion, do a time diary. She wanted to figure out if she was spending too much time on certain activities. She found that it was the time in between starting and stopping a task that she was not using well. She also discovered that grouping certain tasks together in a block of time made better use of her time. Planning your time, takes time, to make better use of your time.

  11. Knowledge is power! I love how simple your tracking timesheet is, Seana. Like many other commenters, I live by my alarms. They keep me moving through the day without getting sidetracked.

    I’ve found it more realistic for myself to schedule in digital time, with an alarm. Depriving myself makes my inner five-year-old determined to check them. It helps me to stay more aware by reminding myself that these devices are designed to keep us attached to them. My inner five-year-old doesn’t like that at all – they’re not the boss of me!
    Lucy Kelly recently posted…Solving the decluttering puzzleMy Profile

  12. I use Toggl to keep track of how I spend my time when I’m on my computer. It’s up to me to start and stop the timer so it may not be 100% accurate, but I’m able to use that information to create a monthly report which shows how many hours I spent on client work and on my own business. That helps me to make sure I’m not working more or less hours than I want and that there’s a good balance.

    There’s an app on my phone called Digital Wellbeing that tells me how much time I spend using various apps but I rarely look at it.
    Janet Barclay recently posted…Six Questions You Must Answer on Your Website to Attract Your Ideal ClientMy Profile

    1. Yes, Digital Wellbeing is the tool. It’s pretty crazy to look at that. For anyone who feels like they are losing time, that’s probably worth a check.

  13. I find turning off my phone is a great trick/discipline.

    If I don’t turn it on from midnight until noon – I don’t miss a thing!

    Even calls can be returned at that time which is better for me. And when I check at noon, there might be something worthwhile.

    Honestly, there rarely is anything that pressing.

    1. I highly respect the discipline to not check your phone until noon. I’m happy to keep it out of my bedroom, but I do look when I wake up. Part of this is because I like to see if my daughter in AZ left me any messages or photos. Once I do a scan of what’s come in, I set it aside again until after breakfast. It’s so important to find what works for each of us!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

CommentLuv badge

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.