Absolute time vs. effective time

Most folks who have an interest in personal productivity have probably experimented with tracking time. This is challenging because this can cause large amounts of overhead – e.g., if you’re spending a minute every fifteen minutes noting down what you did. It can also be very distracting. After a few attempts with minimal success over the years, I think I have finally developed a system that works for me. More on this coming soon at a blog post near you (yes, this is just a teaser :-)).

A key part of the success has been learning to focus on effective time vs. absolute time. People call “effective time” by different names – focus time, flow, deep work, etc. I think of it as “effective time” as it is the time that was really spent in getting stuff that matters done. So, a few tweaks that have helped me focus on “effective time” are –

1. Not measuring time spend on email or admin. That’s not to say admin doesn’t get done. It is just that I know I will end up doing it. Admin and email also tend to be my favorite tools for procrastination. So, not measuring them means I keep focused on the things I ought to be working on.

2. Being strict about measuring “effective time.” After a 2 hour burst, for example, I record it in the form of a calendar event on my Outlook. I’ve generally erred on the side of being strict around exactly how much I put in. If I feel like I spent only 1 hr 40 mins, I generally put in an hour and a half (generally measured in 15′ intervals as it is easy to count at the end of the week).

3. Not sweating the small stuff. I’ve been measuring how I spend my time for 14 weeks now and have learnt that I shouldn’t worry about small slippages. It is completely okay to sleep an extra hour, spend an extra 15 minutes enjoying your lunch or to just stare into space. What really matters is what you do when you get to work. In fact, the less stressed you feel, the more you will probably get done. If you can squeeze in effective time when you are at your work desk, the small stuff doesn’t matter.

It comes down to understanding and then measuring the effectiveness of the time you spend working. Meetings, for example, are an example of time you might measure as “work” but it is typically low effectiveness work. So, you definitely need to think about what you really need to do to get work that matters done. Once that is done, then it is all about creating a clear list that spells it out, not worrying about absolute time you’ve spent on your desk and just maximizing the effectiveness of time you spend working.

Once again, don’t worry about time spent at the office. Worry about what you do when you are actually there.

(This is the sort of post that feels so obvious and simple once you write it. Somehow, the execution tends to never be close to obvious or simple..)