The Big Reason Why You Need To Start Tracking Your Time
This article originally appeared on Forbes by Mark Murphy, Founder of Leadership IQ
Have you ever been plowing away at some big project for what seems like minutes, only to realize that you’ve just burned through 5 hours? Or been running around frantically all day, putting out fires, only to realize that you’ve barely made a dent in your to-do list?
Both of these cases are examples of losing track of time, and it happens to a shockingly high number of people. For instance, 69% of people say that on most days, time flies by and they don’t track where they spend every minute or hour. And that can be incredibly dangerous, both for your productivity and your mental health, because people who track their time are significantly more likely to feel like their days are spent on truly value-adding and important work.
How do I know this? In the past few months, more than 7,000 people have taken the free online test “How Do Your Time Management Skills Stack Up?” And one of the 12 questions asks respondents to choose between the following options:
- On most days, time flies by and I don’t track where I spend every minute or hour.
- I regularly track my time (whether manually or with software) so I know exactly where my time goes throughout the day.
As you can see in the chart below, a small portion (31%) are actively tracking their time while more than two-thirds (69%) are not.
Tracking your time will obviously make you more aware of where your minutes go throughout the day. But even more importantly, tracking your time allows you to identify the activities that are misusing, or wasting, your time.
- Green Light work is good. It's the stuff you were hired to do. It's essential to your job and your work goals, and without it, you might as well not even be there.
- Yellow Light work is work that's important to your role, and it must be done, but it may be delegated if time doesn’t allow you to do it. Other people may not initially be qualified to do Yellow Light work, but with guidance, training, or extra help from you, this becomes possible.
- Orange Light work is work that must be done, it's integral to the organization, but it's not what you were hired to do. And so, no matter how much you enjoy doing it, it's a waste of company resources when you do Orange Light work.
- Finally, there's Red Light work. Red is bad. This is work that's just a waste of time for anyone and everyone. Whether it's an outdated system or something redundant, Red Light work doesn’t make sense and it should be abandoned altogether.
The online test also revealed that 50% of people say that more than a quarter of their time is wasted at work. That’s a lot of time spent on Red Light work and not nearly enough spent on Green Light work.
So if you want to correct this problem, you need to start tracking your time. It doesn’t have to be a super complicated exercise; take a couple of days and just track where your time goes. Do it in 5-minute increments. You don’t have to do it down to one minute, but roughly track yourself:
“Okay, I start my day and I start it with a meeting, and that took about an hour. Then after that meeting, I stopped and I got some coffee, and then I read some email, coffee, and then email, and that all totaled, took me maybe 30 minutes. And then, after that, I started to get into this report, but then I only got about 15 minutes into that when I got interrupted and then I had another meeting, and then somebody emailed me, and on and on, and on.”
Do this for two days. What you’re going to have is a list of where your time went. Once you’re done with this, you then go through that list and label the time. Where did I put my time? How about that meeting, that thing was a colossal waste. The email, it was important. I responded to a bunch of emails, but did it need to be done right at that moment? It wasn’t vital. I didn’t really move my bar forward at all. Maybe we’ll just call that Yellow Light work. Those interruptions, that’s Red Light work. Oh and then I had that expense report, that’s definitely Orange Light work. But then I got that hour of concentrated time to work on the new proposal, that’s definitely Green Light work. Whatever it is, you go through and you categorize your activities. And then you total up your time and analyze it.
If you’re like most people, you’ll see that you’ve got bits of Green Light work here and there, but there will be lots of Red, Orange and Yellow Light activities surrounding the Green. And one of the things that will probably hit you immediately is that there are certain times of the day that are most conducive to accomplishing Green Light work. Most people find that if they can string together 2-3 hours of Green Light work, free from Red, Orange and Yellow Light activities, they will have a significantly more productive day with a lot less wasted time. And not only is that good for your career, it’s also terrific for your sense of accomplishment and well-being.
Mark Murphy is the author of Truth At Work: The Science Of Delivering Tough Messages, Hiring For Attitude and Hundred Percenters.