Two summers ago, after constantly reaching the end of a week and wondering where my time had gone, I read Laura Vanderkam’s “168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think” and I began tracking my time. For two weeks, I wrote down everything I did and how long it took, in a grid with the day’s 24 hours broken down into 15-minute increments. It was cumbersome, so I moved to an app which is now my addiction. For nearly two years, I have recorded everything I do and how long it takes, every day, with the exception of vacations. I have rough goals for how much time I want to spend on various types of activities per week (e.g., about 50 hours on sleep, about 35 – 40 hours with family, about the same for work, 3 – 5 hours on exercise), and it’s interesting to examine my pie chart for the week and see how it all shook out. What I love most is no longer wondering how I spend my time.
Below is an image of my time tracker for yesterday and the week of June 25. (I know this appears to border on madness but seriously, try it — it’s addictive!)
Despite having a handle on how I spend my time, something was missing. What are my goals for what happens during those hours? What am I seeking to accomplish during those 35 hours of time with my family per week? Or writing time? I have loved Laura Vanderkam’s concept of seasonal fun lists, but it wasn’t until I chatted recently with my writer and illustrator friend Erin McGill that my mind was blown by the power of lists.
Erin has a brilliant system (The Erin McGill Method) which I just implemented for myself. I can easily integrate her method with my time-tracking, and after just a few weeks it’s been life-changing.
The Erin McGill Method: Erin makes a list for each calendar year. The list has three categories: Work, Personal, and Home. Within each category, she has 4 Big items, 4 Medium items, and 4 Little items: 36 items in total to accomplish over a year. You can further break these down by season — selecting one Big, one Medium, and one Little item to do, in each category, each season. That’s nine goals for say, a summer. Totally doable, realistic, and satisfying. My challenge up until now is I create monstrous, overwhelming lists in my head (like clean and decorate three rooms in our apartment during the month of July) which make me want to hide under the covers rather than start the task. Using The Erin McGill Method has totally eliminated that feeling of gross overwhelm. And what if you have 6 Big things on your Work list? Well, save two of them for next year.
I sat down to make my Year List and made some modifications to Erin’s system. First, I added two more categories: Family and, because I’m a giant dork, Fun. Yes, I have put Fun on a list. But I would challenge anyone to make a Fun list, because that’s where a lot of your activities that give you a zest for life come into play. Some items on mine? “Try rock climbing” (big) and “Get a record player” (medium). It’s easy to forget about fun when juggling work and kids and life maintenance, but if it goes on a list, you’ll do it and it will sweeten everything else. “Take another cocktail class” (Fun, Little) is a great foil to “Clean the hall tree” (Home, Little).
I began my year in July, so my list spans July 2018 to June 2019. As I have five categories (60 goals in total), I’ve set out to accomplish 15 goals per quarter. (My first quarter — July, August, September — doesn’t square exactly with a season but that’s OK. I like how one of my quarters — January, February, March — will correspond to the beginning of a new calendar year.) Once I made my year list, I made my “quarterly” list, selecting one Big, one Medium, and one Small goal from each category. Next to each item on my quarterly list, I wrote down which month I’d focus on that item. Then I made a July list, with only the things I’m focusing on for July, with specific weeks (bigger tasks) or days (smaller tasks) assigned to them.
I’ve shared my First Quarter list below. You’ll see I didn’t feel the need to spread 15 goals evenly across three months, as some months have more time for certain kinds of activities. Some of these tasks are so simple — like “find that roast recipe”. That is part of a yearly goal to cook 6 new dishes (Personal, Medium), but all I’m doing this summer is simply finding the recipe. NBD. This approach helps me take goals that might feel lofty and amorphous (“do more hands-on projects with the kids”) to concrete and manageable: “Do a craft with June”, which we already did two weekends ago. Done!
I am loving this. I routinely used to read my ENTIRE to do list on the Notes app on my phone, emerge feeling scattered and overwhelmed, and then zone out, paralyzed, in front of an episode of Riverdale. Now I don’t need to consider anything except for this month’s list, because I know I have budgeted time later in the year for the other things. I’ve found myself using those hours I track in more efficient and productive ways, as my goals are smaller and more realistic than they used to be, and therefore, they are getting done!
If you are struggling to make sense of how you use your time, or feeling like you are never making a dent in your to do list, I can’t recommend these strategies enough.