How Six Months of Tracking Everything Increased my Awareness
social life & social media
David El Achkar
When David El Achkar made a big change in his life, transitioning out of his consultant role, he started wondering how the lack of daily structure would affect how he spent his time. He decided to tackle this question and start tracking his activities. In the video that follows David explains how he accomplishes this by using a Google calendar and a specific formatting system. He also elaborates on a few key insights about where his time goes and what he’s learned about his productivity.
How Six Months of Tracking Everything Increased my Awareness
So this is my life in the past six months. Every square is 15 minutes, every column is a day. There are 138 days, roughly 3000 activities. I’ve logged every single minute of my life in the past six month.
Now this came because of a change. I went from a consultant lifestyle to a post consultant lifestyle. Basically highly structures, highly busy even on weekends to completely unstructured; almost vagabonding. Why, is a different story.
So after only a couple of days and those days starting to become a blur, I wasn’t really sure what I was accomplishing any given day, and I would ask myself what the hell did I do today, or yesterday, or this whole week for that matter.
And so I decided I needed to track this data. So the experiment is quite simple. I have a Google calendar where I create an entry for each activity, and the process is pretty quick and painless. It only takes me a couple of seconds to log each activity.
And the way I do this is I create one entry for each activity. An activity can be as short of five minutes and all activities combined cover the 1440 minutes in a day, and I try to do this as soon as I complete an activity or at most within a couple of hours.
So the format of an entry is context activity tagged, where context refers to the purpose of the work. The activity is the actual work I’m performing, so reading, writing, and the tag is any additional information I might want to keep track of like the name of the book I’m reading.
Context and activities are independent in such a way that I can combine one with the other. Personal writing is in my diary, career writing is completing a visa application. Now the neat thing is that in the past six months is that I haven’t missed a single minute of logging. Well, until this happened.
I was in the Canadian Rockies enjoying the great outdoors hiking, biking, white water rafting, the whole lot and I didn’t have the time or the connection to log stuff that I realised that was not going to be very useful.
So let me start off by showing you what a sample week looks like. On the right is a very social week; hanging out with friends almost every day. On the left is the opposite, it’s what a seven day work week looks like.
If I switch to an aggregate view of the data, this is how the activities stack up, and one of the early realizations is that I spend 50% of my time on survival activities, so sleeping and eating and such like.
Another quarter of my time was spent at my desk on my Mac. Another fifth interacting with people, whether in a work or social context and which I found healthy. And at the top you’ll notice 43 hours of procrastination in the past six months; not bad.
Now if I switch to context the picture is even starker. Two thirds of my time is spent alone. So it’s the sleeping and eating, but it’s also includes the reading and the procrastination I had mentioned. The final third is divided between work and social. Specifically a ninth of my time or 400 hours were spent hanging out with friends and family.
And at the top, 28 hours on Quantified Self, so we’re talking about preparing this talk or the life log experiment that I’m talking to you about right now.
So another one of the early realizations was that my intuition of how productive I was or how I allocated my time was generally off. I always overestimated the amount of productive work and underestimated the undesirable activities like procrastination. So enter the power of data over intuition. So the best example I could think of is that is 50% of my time simply surviving in this world, and in a high productive society, this is viewed as very inefficient, and a slight overhead that needs to be cut down to a minimum. Now of course, I don’t subscribe to a life such as that.
And so what’s left of this speedy talk I’m going to highlight three main insights: manufactured awareness, the illusion of busyness, and how focused is my focus. So let’s kick things off.
One of the first things I’m grateful for is the sense of manufactured awareness that this experiment has afforded me whether internally or externally, and let me explain to you what I mean by that.
So externally I now have this calendar which is an extension of my brain. It gives me a black and white picture of what I’ve done, and more importantly what I haven’t done, so now I know I can pretend and fool myself in the thinking I’m being productive.
The second change, the internal one comes from the act of logging or the anticipation of logging. I’m now acutely aware of what I’m doing when I’m doing it. So ask myself ‘Is this really what I should be doing right now? Is there a better way for me to spend this time’, and so every decision carries a lot more weight. And it’s as if I’m two selves; I’m the doing self, the worker performing the activities. And at the same time I’m the manager, the criticizing self-overseeing my work, making sure I’m in line with my goals and values.
The second insight came from analyzing my productivity data. So I had somehow consistently manage to log 32 hours of work per week. Can this really be true? Was I really lazier than the French and their 35 hour weeks? And so it turns out no not really.
If you look at the level of detail that I’m able to capture with my data allows me to separated heads down, deep work from all of the overhead. It’s the procrastination, the social and the personal stuff we do at work like chatting by the water cooler.
And so it turns out, 32 hours of deep work is actually quite good. It’s an interesting thought, do any of us really know how much productive work we complete any given week? And my hunch is that no, we’ll tend to overestimate productive work, underestimate collateral and the overhead.
So finally how focused is my focus. I’ve always been fascinated by the topic of flow and deep work, and it’s something that I find I’m able to reach quite often. Like rock climbing, you lose yourself on the rock. You forget where you are. You forget time. It’s an amazing feeling. The only wakeup call is when you slip and fall 20 feet.
On the flipside, it’s something I find hard to reach when I’m working. It’s the difference between that hour long upward struggle to form coherent sentences, and that jolt of inspiration that spits 1000 in 10 minutes.
So one of the key ingredients to achieving flow is an extended and uninterrupted work session, so I’ve used work session duration as a proxy for flow. It at least gives me a sense of how likely I am to get there, and it turns out not very likely. If you look at my data I average 45 minutes for work sessions, and the only activity, the work activity that I perform for more than an hour is coding, so clearly there’s some improvement to be made there.
So there you have it. I’ve only scratched the surface with what I can do with this data, and I’m consciously adding new data points, stuff like sleep quality, step count and the like. And there’s a lot more I would have liked to have shared with you today but running out of time. So thanks for listening, and also note that on my website I actually post this information almost real time so you can see what I’m doing at any time of the day. It’s all updated every couple of hours.