Pick up just about any time management book and you’ll find a common piece of advice somewhere near the beginning. “Conduct a time and motion study on all of your activities for a week”. This will be accompanied by a nifty table with snappy rows and impressive columns all nicely laid out for you to fill in. The text goes on to ask you to analyze the results of your time study, doesn’t give much more perspective than that.
Indeed understanding time use can be a useful diagnostic tool for understanding productivity. I’ve been running a time study consulting business since 1990, using the innovative TimeCorder device that I invented and launched in 1989. Whether you use a TimeCorder, or an app, or the back of an envelope, or a form from a time management book, understanding something about your time usage can be useful. Only when you measure your productivity can you improve it.
But once you discover that you spend ten hours per week on one of your major activities, what does that mean? Most statistics gleaned from research are only helpful when they are placed in context. How do those ten hours compare to other people who are like you? Perhaps they are similar, but do those people have the same job or family situation? Also, how has the data changed? Are those ten hours going up or down over time? Are there occasional peak periods? If so, what causes them? And how does your time use in one area affect all of the other areas? An illustration of this is when overtime hours are examined. If you work longer hours than usual during a particular week, that time has to come from somewhere else. Something has to give. More work might mean less family time, or less exercise.
When you spend more time on one thing, then some other thing will either disappear completely or become compressed. Time for meals is an example of this. With all those overtime hours, chances are you’re not eating massively lower amounts of food. You may simply be compressing your meal time. Rushed breakfasts, lunch on the go, and fast food for dinner take the place of long lingering meals over a glass of wine and good conversation. Another artifact of large amounts of time use in one area is overlapping activities. More and more you start doing two things at once. So those rushed meals are eaten at your desk or (heaven forbid) in the car while driving to work. Ask a busy mother what keeps her going, and she’ll tell you how she can feed children, speak on the phone and clean dishes, all at once.
Based on our time motion study research, the thing you are most likely to discover is that you spend fewer hours than you might like on your highest priority tasks while spending much more of your time than you would like on low priority tasks. In the work place, those low priority tasks are administrative activities; filing out reports, going to staff meetings, answering routine internal requests and other activities that aren’t part of the main thrust of your job. Outside of work, those lower priority tasks will be household chores, shopping for groceries, minor repairs, laundry, and cleaning up.
So track your time and put it into perspective. You are likely to be surprised about something. Then you have to figure out what to do next. Are you happy with the way things are or do you genuinely want to improve your productivity? A thorough time study analysis leads to insight. And that leads to results. Your time is worth it.