Getting Sh*t Done | Time Diaries

PHOTO BY  DEATHTOSTOCK

PHOTO BY DEATHTOSTOCK

The first step to getting sh*t done is figuring out what you're already doing. Now, as blazingly smart and self-aware as you undoubtedly are, I respectfully cast doubt upon the idea that you already know what you are doing.

Well that's terribly uppity. What on earth gives me the wherewithal to assume that?

Well, first, and to be frank, this is a-pot-calling-the-kettle-black type of situation. Because I, like every writer I know, every creative person, dream of that beautiful, uninterrupted stretch of time spent alone somewhere idyllic -- a little cabin in the mountains, a bungalow on the beach, a little flat in an old city -- where they could just work, where there are no fires to put out, no distractions, no other demands on their time or attention or energy. Just them and their creativity, and probably a personal chef.

We have that dream (and this is the pot calling the kettle black) because life keeps on happening. It intrudes on everything you're trying to focus on. It's the worst. Why can't you only go grocery shopping once a year? Why do you have to deal with mailing packages back to Amazon, or filing insurance claims, or answering God-forsaken email, all the time?!

So how do you figure out what exactly is you're doing?

You keep a time diary! The pros recommend keeping track of what you're doing all day, for an entire week, in 15-minute increments. Does that sound a little insane? Yes! Yes it does! Does it feel insane to actually do it? Indeed! But should you power through and do it anyway? My recommendation is yes. And here's why.

If you're putting out fires all day, then you're a firefighter. The way you actually spend your day is what you do and, arguably, who you are. Not how you wish you could spend your day. So before you even start declaiming about your goals or ambitions or everything you're going to get done this week or this month, (1) cool your jets and (2) keep a time diary.

Did you just scream when you saw that spreadsheet? It's fine if you did. I'm the daughter of two government contractors, one of whom is a chemical engineer, one of whom is a business development and proposal writing genius, both of whom are super neurotic, so I must have seen my first spreadsheet as a very wee lass. My sister's wedding was basically like a ream of spreadsheets come to life. We are a spreadsheet people. And it serves us well.


Don't worry if you're not a spreadsheet people -- I've made this one available to you to download for free. Click here to download now! (That sounds so sketchy. I promise it's not sketchy.)


You can use a spreadsheet like this (or this exact spreadsheet) to keep your time diary for a week. Do it during a more-or-less normal week, set a timer every 15 minutes to write down what you're doing IN THE MOMENT (not later in the day when you have to make it up), and BE HONEST. Don't you dare lie in your time diary. Pretend it's your doctor. or your priest.

My latest time diary, color coded into general categories. This is one week's worth of mornings.

When you're done, take a good long peep at that thing.

Does how you feel you spent your week match up with you actually spent it?

Did you get more done than you thought you did, or less?

Did you sleep less than you thought you did?

Did you spend 500 hours scrolling through instagram?

Most importantly, did you spend more time doing things that needed your "immediate" attention, like responding to emails, running last-minute errands, and getting up to speed right before an impending meeting, class, or call? In other words, did all that little stuff that comes up constantly throughout the week take up more of your time and energy than the things you need to be doing to, well, get sh*t done?

And here's one week's worth of evenings. Notice anything?

Look at mine, for instance. Guess how much time I spent watching Netflix and Starz (light gray)? Basically all of the times. How much time did I spend reading? Like an hour (not enough of a thing to even give it a color). Not great.

But, go me, I did spend time almost every single day writing my novel (lavender). And also go me, I was working a fair amount during the day (light pink is actual class sessions; darker pink are office hours, appointments, and other related class work).

Later I'll recommend coming back to these, and keeping them for longer, to catch patterns and use them to trick yourself into being more efficient and doing the things you want (or need) to do and stopping doing the things that you don't wanna do. (Teaser trailer: I spent an hour, tops, on my research this past week (dark blue). I need to fix that. BUT HOW? Stay tuned.)

Noodle on this before we talk about goals.