Want to know your current habits? Keep a journal.

Knowing what our current habits are is essential to taking action to change them.

Every habit book I have ever read has advocated keeping a journal to identify what we’re doing at a given time. In the era of smart phones this is easier than ever. Keep a small book with you, I like the little, pocket sized Moleskine Journals because they are easy to carry.

  1. Pick a time when you are following normal routines. Knowing vacation habits isn’t going to help you find and address your day to day habits.
  2. Set your smart phone alarm to beep at you in 15 to 30 minute increments.
  3. Write down what you’re doing at that time.
  4. Do this for at least a week. 2 weeks may give you a better picture and is probably enough data.

After you have collected your data, you need to analyze it. I like to create a table of activities by category. I may have a column for work, a second for wasted work time,  a column for personal goals and one for wasted personal time.

For example: I may have recorded that I spent 1 hour consecutively, writing a report. This would go in productive time for work. Then, perhaps I was interrupted by an email alert and I found myself, 15 minutes later, still looking at emails that were unimportant to what I did. This 15 minutes would be categorized as wasted time. Even if the first email was relevant to what I was doing, it would go into wasted time because it derailed me from a task that I needed to complete and broke my train of thought. You have to decide what is useful and what is wasted. Be brutally honest with yourself. Did you really gain much by griping by the coffeepot with your co-worker? It is one thing to have time to build internal social networks. It is another, entirely, to kvetch to no purpose. I allot time, during a work day, for mental and physical check outs. These little breaks, they don’t have to be more than a few minutes, allow me to stretch and disengage from an activity so that I can work effectively over a day. I schedule my email checks, most highly productive people do, so that email doesn’t interrupt work that really matters. There are few things so dire that they can’t wait an hour, or more, before being assessed for urgency.

An at home example might be 4 hours of window shopping when all I needed was one specific item that could have been purchased in 45 minutes including travel time. I’d have 45 minutes of productive time and 3 hours 15 minutes of wasted time. What might I have done with that time? Pursue a hobby? Make my home more attractive? Relax with, or help a friend? Play with the kids or the dog? Walk the beach? Spend an extra hour or two on that course that’s giving you headaches?

With room for flexibility, I schedule my down time. In my current routine, Monday is a hard and fast day off. I don’t read or write or do any thing else for The Tutoring Company. The purpose of the day is to allow my brain to rest and to do social and physical things that recharge my mental, physical, emotional and spiritual batteries. While I do have scheduled activities, I like to do yoga, for example, I also leave room for unplanned things. Maybe I decide to go birding or have my hair done. Wasted time is anything that doesn’t support the need to break away from work. I have found that I am much more productive when I do this because I don’t procrastinate so much. I give myself time for myself, to do things that are just plain fun and relaxing.

A lot of people, myself included, like to complain that keeping such a journal is tedious and time consuming. Well, to be frank, it can be, if we let it. On the other hand, we could look at it as a personal anthropological exploration. When I am resisting this kind of tracking, I try to tell myself that I can keep track of what I am doing without bothering with a journal. I can’t. When I keep a journal, I am floored by how much time I  waste everyday. I used to feel angry with myself about the wasted time but, I have learned that the knowledge empowers better  choices and priorities. Without the insight from that tediously built journal, I would not be able to do that.

Here is a challenge:

    • Keep a journal for two days and tell me what you learned about your habits in the comments below.
    • Are you willing to carry the journal on for the rest of the two weeks to see what you learn about how you spend all your time?
    • What is your biggest time sink and what would you rather do with that time?

I look forward to your comments!