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Maximizing the Effectiveness of Your TIME - Keeping an Activity Log

blog author
Written by Mike Schultz
President, RAIN Group

If you want to maximize time, you must find more of it, and choose what you do with it carefully. We all have the same 168 hours a week to work with. Some people make the most of them, others don't.

There are so many time management systems out there that it can be overwhelming to know where to start finding more time in your day to achieve what you want. We find many of these systems to be too complicated and hard to follow.

A few simple steps, however, and you can get more accomplished than ever.

  1. Goals: Know what you want to achieve.
  2. TIME: Break down how you spend it so you can change it.
  3. RAIN DROPS: Create a...
    • Daily Routine of
    • Obsessive
    • Planned
    • Sprints

In a previous article, we outlined TIME in detail. In brief, there are 4 categories:

  • Treasured: Time that you hold dear.
  • Investment: Time spent focusing on achievement.
  • Mandatory: Time spent performing tasks you feel like you have to do.
  • Empty: Time wasted.

The key to professional success is to maximize your Investment time. When you do, you will eventually gain the financial freedom and independence to enjoy more Treasured time, and do what you want when you have it. And, indeed, when you maximize your Investment time and get the most done during it, you will find yourself with more time available immediately to treasure.

To get started right now, keep a time log. This might sound mundane. Who wants to spend time all day recording what you did, for how long, and what TIME category it fell under?

The reality is it's not much time, it's Investment time, and it works.

It's actually quite similar to keeping a food journal. According to a Kaiser Permanente study of 1,700 people, "those who kept daily food records lost twice as much weight as those who kept no records." There is no doubt: if you want to maximize your time, you have to know where you are spending it now.

Just as GI Joe said, "Knowing is half the battle."


Your TIME Goal

The goal is to maximize your Investment time immediately, and Treasured time both eventually and immediately. To do this, you must either minimize your Mandatory and Empty time, or convert it to Investment or Treasured time.

4 Rules of Time Tracking

Here are some simple rules we've found essential to help people track their time:

  1. Set activity goals*

    When you know what you want to accomplish in a given day, you can define activities that will get you there. Let's say you're in sales and you're prospecting. Your objective is to generate one meeting with a possible buyer. You can set your activity goal as, "spend at least 4 hours obsessively prospecting with no distractions." You may or may not achieve your objective, and you can't always control that, but you can control where you spend your time.

    It's also helpful to define the most important activity for the day. When you do, if you are faced with a decision on what to do next, you'll know to focus on the most important activity first.

    *Note that if you are doing your initial time tracking to get a baseline, do not set activity goals unless you historically have done so. Follow your normal daily routine. At first, just track your time to see what you are doing now.

    Tip: When it comes to time tracking goals, focus on activity over outcomes. You can control that you spend X number of hours concentrating on a specific activity, but you can't necessarily control the outcome of that time.

  2. Track activity and TIME category

    When tracking, always note your activity (e.g., shopping) and your category (e.g., Mandatory). Most time tracking software and apps (see #3) will allow you to do this fairly easily. By tracking both, you can see what you're actually spending your time on, and you'll be able to make conscious decisions on how to minimize Mandatory and Empty time, and maximize Investment and Treasured time.

    Tip: Minimize the number of activity labels you use. Shopping is usually enough to cover food shopping, online shopping, clothes shopping, and so on. Driving is enough to cover all driving, including commuting and everywhere else you go.

  3. Use technology and timers best suited to you

    Absolutely use timers. You can use everything from a stopwatch on a watch, phone or desk, an online timer of which there are many, or those built into software like Toggl, RescueTime, TimeCamp, MyHours, or ATracker (which I use on my iPhone).

    With ATracker, I set up my activities, including writing this article (Intellectual Capital Development) and categories (Investment). When I switch activities, when I feel like seeing what's in the news today for example, I simply click the next activity (e.g., Aimless Web Surfing and Empty), and it stops tracking time in the previous activity and starts tracking time against the new one.

    Worried you'll forget to switch activities? Some trackers require even less effort. With RescueTime, you install the app across your devices—phone, tablet, laptop, whatever—and let it run. It tracks your digital activity in painful detail, down to the second, and categorizes it into productive and unproductive time. As long as you can shake the Big Brother feel, this method is best for keeping you honest. Of course, you'll still be responsible for tracking time not spent staring at a screen.

    If software isn't your thing, you can use a timer on your watch or desk, and simply track your time in Excel, a notebook, or a note taking technology like Notes on your phone, Microsoft Word, Evernote, or OneNote.

    Tip: The method you use doesn't matter. Just track your activities and TIME categories somehow.

  4. Track in periodical obsessive daily chunks 

    Time tracking should only be done periodically in daily chunks. It's impractical to track your time meticulously every single day. You can always track gross time spent (e.g., 3 hours prospecting, 2 hours meetings, 1.5 hours meals and breaks, 2 hours TV), but this kind of tracking isn't the obsessive tracking that will allow you to change your time habits. You must get more granular if you want to get the kind of data that will make a difference.

    The obsessive days should be the work days and non-work days you choose to 1) understand where your time really goes using timers and contemporaneous tracking, and 2) focus on changing your time habits.

    People who don't make time tracking a daily obsession do not track their time accurately. Especially before time tracking becomes a habit for you, it's going to be difficult. You must make time tracking a conscious decision in general, and each day you are planning to track time, you should remind yourself in the morning that it's a priority for the day.

    Tip: Choose days periodically to track obsessively. Make it a priority and track in real time.

As you track your time, keep the following in mind:

  • Be honest with yourself. People too often lie to themselves when they time track. If you read article after article or watch video after video as you scroll through Facebook, track it. If you don't like that you are doing some activity, still force yourself to track it. Change the behavior later if you don't like it. If you are not honest with yourself, you won't be able to change.
  • You can enjoy something without it being Treasured time. Some people enjoy texting, aimless Facebook scrolling, a long shower, or reading a whole newspaper. Most people, however, when they're honest with themselves, would like to spend less time on these activities. (Unless they are retired, and time is truly their oyster.)
  • Go back and adjust if you miss some tracking. If you are using a timer on an Investment activity, but you realize you checked your email and then you web surfed for 10 minutes when you saw an interesting article you wanted to read, subtract 10 minutes from Investment, and add 10 minutes to Empty time.
  • Give yourself distraction mulligans. If you find yourself, for example, leaving an Investment activity to check sports stories on the web and you realize you should not have done that, simply go back to the Investment activity and don’t bother logging the lost time if it has been less than a minute. If, however, you get distracted multiple times in a short period, go back and log the distraction time.
  • Don't target zero Empty or Mandatory time. You can't really get to zero, and you don't want to. Sure, you can convert Empty time (commuting) into Investment time (listening to business books). Human brains, however, need down time.

    Consider that the average adult underestimates the amount of time they spend watching TV by one full hour per day. Most adults actually watch 30 hours of TV per week—an average of a whopping 4.3 hours a day!—but they think they watch 20 hours a week.

    Be honest. Be realistic. You don't have to target zero hours watching TV, but if you're like most people, you could gain 10 hours per week if you truly watch the amount of TV that you think you watch.

The first step is to start tracking. Don't wait for the perfect moment, the perfect app, or the perfect activity. The sooner you figure out where your time is going, the sooner you can start maximizing time spent on what's actually important to you.


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Topics: Sales Performance Improvement Extreme Productivity