As a person interested in AI and data science, I decided to record every single hour of my 2020 in a spreadsheet to create a sort of “personal life dataset” to play with. I see many companies spending a lot of money, time, and energy to set up dashboards and data analysis tools to monitor their businesses. I thought about doing the same to myself to see if it produced any benefit. Here are my final considerations on last year and my proposals for 2021.
2020 spreadsheet setup
I have divided my activities into the following 8 categories and assigned to each of them a color:
- Work (employer projects and obligations)
- Study (reading, master's in machine learning and AI, online courses...)
- Side projects (building this blog, building Gems, writing articles...)
- Sport (running and exercise)
- Fun (meetings and calls with friends, watch movies, listen to music...)
- Operations (everything related to daily habits like eating, driving, life obligations...)
- Phone (social media, web browsing...)
- Sleep (😴)
Then I created a spreadsheet for each month and included a table with categories on columns and days on rows. I have also added a stacked bar chart, a line bar chart, and a pie chart to monitor monthly category trends. Lastly, around the middle of the year, I have introduced another table with related pie charts to zoom in on monthly activity trends for work, study, and side projects.
The only metric I have recorded was the time spent on activities. Every day I wrote down the start and end times of each activity on my phone notes and manually updated the spreadsheet before going to bed. It may sound boring and time-consuming but it never took me more than 5 minutes a day. Consistency was the secret. Actually, tracking and storing everything manually introduced the right amount of intentionality to keep me accountable throughout the year. I think it has also subconsciously made me more thoughtful on how to invest my time.
What went well
Time is ultimately our scarcest and most valuable resource. Looking backward I think it was a great choice to design the whole system around its analysis and understanding rather than habits or anything else.
Charts really helped me visualize personal time management. I found it extremely useful to realize which activities were taking too much or too little time and adjust. For example, this year I started writing online, and seeing how much time I needed to complete a piece of content helped me to become faster. I have also better understood my reading pace so that I was able to plan more fruitful reading sessions and be realistic about the time needed to complete a book.
Including all the monthly tables and charts on the same sheet was a good choice to have a quick snapshot of everything and for daily maintainability.
Seeing the total hours spent each day on each category and activity positively affected my behavior. For example, during the first lockdown here in Italy it was forbidden to leave the house except for taking medicines or food. Seeing for too many days “0” in the Fun rows stimulated me to take more time to relax. Also, seeing ongoing activities on Study or Side Project rows, encouraged me to keep showing up every day to not break the chain.
What didn't go well
I didn't systematically analyze my data until the end of the year. All my ongoing adjustments based on tables and charts observations were done almost subconsciously and intuitively. I basically did a passive data collection and I could have benefited much more from a periodic analysis of trends. The main obstacle was not blocking the time to do it.
I have monitored activities but not actions. With activity-based recording, I mean storing daily data retrospectively, without introducing any bias or personal expectation in advance. With action-based recording, I mean making plans and check results. I have completely missed the latter and I think that, with some precautions I will discuss in the 2021 proposals, it could have been useful.
I did quantitative but not qualitative monitoring. My daily feelings and considerations are missing. The crossing of quantitative and qualitative data could have enriched both measurements and increased the overall meaning and understanding of my year.
One of my goals for 2021 is to make smarter use of time to have more of it for family, friends, rest, etc. I will monitor progress by comparing the time spent on fun activities with 2020 records.
I am not interested to become more productive but to become more effective. I don't want to build a system to get things done. I want to build a system to get the right things done. Here is a transcript of a great answer I found on Quora for what I mean:
Productivity is about the quantity of output. You can write ten articles per day, but it doesn’t mean they will be great.
Efficiency is about the quality of the product or performance. You can write half of an article per day and make it really good, but it might not be enough to meet the employer’s goals.
When you’re effective, it means you combine the efficiency and productivity concepts. You produced more work with fewer resources.
To make it happen I will treat time allocation as an estimate rather than a target. I will make sure to block the right amount of time in advance for the most important things. If some estimations will exceed the time available, I'll make an extra effort on prioritization instead of rushing or sacrificing time destined for something else. I already know that I will have some troubles with estimates at first as it is something I have never done so intensively before. I will overestimate in the beginning to improve with practice along the way.
The new setup is going to include categories, activities, and actions. I won't make any change on categories that will come from the aggregation of the following actions:
- Learning (e.g. reading, online courses, podcasts)
- Writing (e.g. essays, notes)
- Journaling (e.g. self-reflection)
- Building (e.g. websites, apps)
- Talking (e.g. zoom calls, conversations)
- Communicating (e.g. social media posts)
- Planning (e.g. definition of quarterly, monthly, weekly activities)
- Relax (e.g. trip to the Lake, watch movies, go out for dinner)
- Exercise (e.g. running, cycling, swimming)
- Sleep (😴 )
- Phone (e.g. time spent on social media, web browsing...)
These action-based elements are the columns of 4 sheet tables named:
- Daily: with days of the year as rows to passively capture the actions time of 2021
- Weekly: with weekly goals as rows taken from the monthly table and the respective estimate and actual time of each action.
- Monthly: with monthly goals as rows taken from the quarterly table and the respective estimate and actual time of each action.
- Quarterly: with quarterly goals as rows and the respective estimate and actual time of each action.
For each row, there are two additional columns named “Notes” and “Vote” to include continuous retrospection and subjectivity in the process which were missing parameters in the past year.
For most of the actions, there is also a dedicated sheet to keep track of time spent on activities during each month.
In summary, I am going to move from an activity-based to an action-based system made of actions that can be broadened into categories or narrowed into activities. By giving priority to actions rather than categories and activities, I want to introduce more intentionality into my system without affecting both qualitative and quantitative retrospective. I find actions a more reliable entity for planning as they provide the right amount of flexibility that daily life requires. At the same time, I am more comfortable with categories and activities when it comes to retrospection.
Towards mindful time management
I'll block 15 minutes at the end of each day to update the spreadsheets and do a quick retrospective. I'll also block 1 hour on weekends to make planning and a deeper retrospective.
The whole system is designed to constantly elicit some questions that I often take for granted but deserve much more attention such as:
- What do I want to achieve (In 3 months, this month, this week)?
- What actions do I need to achieve a goal? Are they all necessary?
- Do I have enough time? If not, what is more important? What comes first?
- Were my assumptions and estimates correct?
- How do I feel about what I am doing?
I'll keep using the time metric as it is 100% under my control and, as I said before but it's worth repeating, the scarcest and most valuable resource.
The system is everything but perfect and I don't know if it works until I put it to the test of life. For sure I have missed some important considerations and something won't fit from day 1. Feel free to make it your own at this link and find contradictions and improvements to discuss.
Have a fruitful 2021!