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We all wonder where the hours go. There’s a good reason for that — we’re absolutely terrible at remembering how we really spend our time.
Hunting through data from the American Time Use Survey, conducted annually by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and other time diary projects, I came to the inescapable conclusion that how we think we spend our time has little to do with reality. We wildly overestimate time devoted to housework. We underestimate time devoted to sleep. We write whole treatises glorifying a golden age that never was; American women, for instance, spend more time with their children now than their grandmothers did in the 1950s and 60s.
Nowhere is this truer than with work. Are you a workaholic spending 75+ hours at work a week? Then you’re probably off by as much as 25 hours.
These curious blind spots continue into the realm of work. People who get paid by the hour know how many hours they work. People who inhabit the world of exempt jobs have a much more tenuous grasp on this concept but, as a general rule, the higher the number of work hours reported, the more likely the person is to be overestimating. A study published in the June 2011 Monthly Labor Review that compared estimated workweeks with time diaries reported that people who claimed their “usual” workweeks were longer than 75 hours were off, on average, by about 25 hours. You can guess in which direction. Those who claimed that a “usual” workweek was 65– 74 hours were off by close to 20 hours. Those claiming a 55– 64 hour workweek were still about 10 hours north of the truth. Subtracting these errors, you can see that most people top out at fewer than 60 work hours per week.
It’s no shock that we don’t spend time wisely — most of us have no idea where the time goes.
We do know some of the culprits. TV. Web surfing. And email. Oh yes, email.
Knowledge workers spend 28% of their time with email. 58 percent of smartphone owners don’t go an hour without checking their device. 9 percent check it during religious services.
According to a 2012 McKinsey Global Institute report on the social economy, knowledge workers spend 28 percent of their time wading through their inboxes. According to Lookout, the mobile-security firm, 58 percent of smartphone users say they don’t go an hour without checking their phones. And not just waking hours. Lookout reported that 54 percent of smartphone users check their phones while lying in bed. Almost 40 percent say they check their phones while on the toilet. Some 9 percent admit to checking their phones during religious services.
Why can’t we focus? Dan Ariely says it’s an issue of visibility.
Calendars are great for showing things that take 30 minutes but can’t help us judge progress on big projects or creative endeavors that take 30 hours.
The next thing working against us is the calendar. It has a tendency to represent tasks that can fit in thirty-minute or one-hour blocks. And tasks that take, say, fifty hours— which could be how long it takes you to complete a meaningful creative task— don’t naturally get represented in that calendar. Then there’s opportunity cost. With money, opportunity cost is the fact that every time you spend three dollars on a latte, you’re not going to spend it on something else. With time, there is also an opportunity cost— but it’s often even harder to understand. Every time you’re doing something, you’re not doing something else. But you don’t really see what it is that you’re giving up. Especially when it comes to, let’s say, e-mail versus doing something that takes fifty hours. It is very easy for you to see the e-mail. It is not that easy for you to see the thing that takes fifty hours.
In my interview with Cal Newport he said that the emphasis on productivity tricks was problematic. It’s only part of the solution — and not the important part:
There’s this notion that productivity alone, if you could just get the system right, is going to give you a meaningful career. I think a big shift is happening in people’s thinking as they realize “No, no, productivity can’t do that for you.” It can’t help you crack the new theorem or the new big product. What it can do is help clear the deck so that you can then start the sort of hard work of building and applying skills that leads to the really valuable stuff.
We spend time wisely when we plan:
Preliminary analysis from CEOs in India found that a firm’s sales increased as the CEO worked more hours. But more intriguingly, the correlation between CEO time use and output was driven entirely by hours spent in planned activities. Planning doesn’t have to mean that the hours are spent in meetings, though meetings with employees were correlated with higher sales; it’s just that CEO time is a limited and valuable resource, and planning how it should be allocated increases the chances that it’s spent in productive ways.
It’s even a good idea with your free time.
The only published study of the way chief executives actually spend their day has been made in Sweden by Professor Sune Carlsson. For several months Carlsson and his associates clocked with a stop watch the working day of twelve leading Swedish industrialists. They noted the time spent on conversations, conferences, visits, telephone calls and so forth. They found that not one of the twelve executives was ever able to work uninterruptedly more than twenty minutes at a time—at least not in the office. Only at home was there some chance of concentration. And the only one of the twelve who did not make important, long-range decisions “off the cuff,” and sandwiched in between unimportant but long telephone calls and “crisis” problems, was the executive who worked at home every morning for an hour and a half before coming to the office.
So what do you need to do?
Plan ahead and protect a period of time every day, probably in the morning, and use it to do the long term things that matter.
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