My last post, where I talked about the dangers of Scroll Hypnosis, really got me thinking about how I spend my time. I’ve talked about the importance of maintaining a good balance with work and life before and time tracking in general. It’s a nice idea, but I’ll freely admit I have…not been the best at keeping track of what I’m doing. The problem was there were too many categories. Too many things I could be doing, and it was hard to classify different activities. I was spending so much time figuring out how to track time, it became a waste of time.
I’ve realized that, if I want to improve my overall quality of life, I need to just break things down into five categories. The goal, going forward, is to minimize the bad categories by replacing that with good categories. So allow me, if you will, to break down the categories and then discuss how I’m going to go about achieving this goal.
1) Productive Work Time
This one is the most straightforward. This is the time when I’m working, either on writing-related activities or my job, and being productive. I’m writing something, I’m outlining something, I’m working with a cover artist, or I’m performing job-related activities. Anything that directly pertains to being productive in my professional life goes here.
However, this is one twist to this category.
Studies have shown theres a limit to how productive you can be in a day. If you try to push yourself too hard, you’ll end up being less productive – in essence, you’ll spend the time less effectively because you only have so much energy. So, while productive work time is a good category, it’s a good category that cannot be my entire day. I’m allowing myself flexibility here – if I’m in the zone, I can spend more time on being productive, but I’m not allowing myself to push to the point of exhaustion.
Note that I’m also counting 5-15 minute breaks as productive work time. I’ve talked about the importance of working in intervals before, and those short breaks to recharge between intervals is a necessary part of being productive, so you shouldn’t count them separately. If a break goes 20 minutes or longer, then and only then should you start looking to see which of the below categories it falls into.
2) Unproductive Work Time
This is the first bad category and represents time spent nominally on work-related activity that isn’t actually useful. Everyone has some of this category. The obvious Unproductive Work Time is time you spend at work staring blankly at your screen because you’re scheduled but have nothing to do, or time you spend thinking and stressing about work without doing anything about it. It’s the time spent staring at a blank page, trying to will yourself to make words appear.
But it’s also time that feels helpful but actually isn’t.
Time you spend imagining what you’ll do if you get that big promotion, or when you’ll publish the second book when the first isn’t finished, or dreaming about what you’ll do when you finish your degree. Time spent fiddling with spreadsheets to help you manage your time also fall into this category, or researching for things you’re not sure you’re going to use. Things that give the illusion of being productive while not doing anything to help you actually progress.
The real danger of this part comes from the point I had at the end of the last category. Because this time feels like work, it eats into your maximum amount of productive hours. To give it an arbitrary number, if you can get 10 work hours completed in a day, but you spend three hours on things that feel like work but aren’t productive, you can’t work 13 hours to make up the lost time. You’ll hit the wall of maximum productivity at 10 hours, even if that time is unproductive. That might seem counter-intuitive, but it’s about how your brain works. If your brain feels the stress of work – which happens during unproductive work time – you lose that mental energy, no matter what you’re actually doing.
3) Constructive Free Time
Constructive free time is high effort non-work activities that are beneficial. Exercise. Cleaning. Cooking. Things that take mental or physical energy but are not directly work related. These are beneficial activities and in some cases are activities that absolutely must happen, but they still take energy. Energy that has to come from your overall productivity.
There is good news here.
Most of these can be done in small increments. A half hour of tidying up once a week has a huge impact. Same with a daily half-hour of exercise. Cooking can be done in fifteen minutes a day chunks, or you can bunch it together into a full hour on the weekend for meal prep the rest of the week. I don’t know what’s going to be the ideal breakdown for me, and that’s one thing I hope to learn from this. Do I do better if I bunch all my cooking together over the weekend and use that for the week, or do I function better if I do it only when I need to eat? I’m going to try different things until I find a balance I’m happy with, and I suggest you do the same.
4) Fun Free Time
This is an extremely important category that often gets overlooked in our work and hustle obsessed culture. This is time spent on things you enjoy that are low energy. Reading a book. Watching a TV show or movie. Playing a video game. Playing with your pet. Spending time with friends. Doing things that you enjoy and are not in any way productive.
It’s always a good idea to get at least some time in on these activities.
Why? Well, because this is when you recharge from the above three categories. Your mental health needs you to spend some time on things you enjoy that don’t stress you. It’s how you remind yourself why you are being productive in the first place. Even if you are lucky enough to spend all or a large chunk of your productive work time on something that you are passionate about, you still need to give your brain a chance to rest and recharge. Fun is a pressure valve that releases stress, and if you don’t give yourself time to have fun, it will just build up until you burn out.
Social media can fall into this category too, but only if you’re using it carefully. I break this down more in the last post, but right now lets just say if you’re smiling or laughing while using social media, it’s probably in this category. If you’re just mindlessly staring at your screen, it’s in the next category.
5) Mindless Free Time
This is where so much of your fun free time can slip away. Just like how unproductive work time gives the illusion of being productive without the benefits, mindless free time gives the illusion of having fun without the renewing effect of actually enjoying yourself. Obviously, this is where I classify time spent in scroll hypnosis, but there are other things that go here too. Watching a TV show you don’t enjoy anymore but still follow because you’ve already sunk time into it. Playing a video game that stopped being fun but you want to recapture the magic it used to have. Brainless gacha games that just want to take your time. Scrolling the news long after you’ve gotten an understanding of what’s going in the world and are now just pummeling your brain with the negatives.
I’m willing to bet most people who have “no time” would find a lot of their time goes into this category.
It’s an insidious trap because you can tell yourself it’s relaxing or fun. But is it really? Think about the activities I described. Are they really things you find fun? Because if they are, they should go up into the next category. But if you realize – like I did recently – you aren’t enjoying the time you spend on them, and they aren’t things that are productive…why are you doing them? Cut that activity out of your life and replace it with something that is productive work, constructive free time, or fun free time. Whichever category you need to spend more time doing, allocate that time there.
I haven’t mentioned sleep yet on this list, and that was for a very deliberate reason. I’m changing the way I think about sleep. It’s not a thing I spend time on anymore. Instead, days are not 24 hours. Days are 16 hours, and I am breaking down how I spend those 16 hours. Sleep is not something I spend time on during the day, it’s an 8 hour period that happens between days. An intermission between time.
This is to try and develop a healthier relationship with sleep.
I’ve said to friends and family before that I hate sleep, because it’s true. I hate that I have to waste 8 hours every day going unconcious to keep the meat sack that I’m attached to operating. If there was a healthy way to eliminate sleep from my schedule, I’d do it in a heartbeat.
But there isn’t. Sleep is, in fact, a mandatory thing everyone needs to do. If you don’t sleep, all the above categories become harder to manage, and you’ll find yourself adding a new category to your activities: Time spent trying to stay awake.
So, if you’re like me, change the way you think about sleep. It’s no part of your 24 hour day, it’s 8 hours between your 16 hour days. It’s a mandatory break that you have to take to be able to start the next 16 hours day.
I’m already finding this mindset is improving how I view sleep. Sleep is going from an obligation that I have to waste time on to something like drive time when I’m running errands – it’s just something that has to be done to do everything else on the list.
Now, naps are different. I’m classifying naps as “Fun free time” if I didn’t sleep well the night before, and “Mindless free time” if I did and am just napping to pass time. Decide what works best for you.
So why did I spend over seventeen hundred words defining time? Well, I’m finding that thinking about things like this is helping me break out of some bad habits and reduce my unproductive work time and mindless free time to replace it with things that are either productive or good for me. I’m hoping that, since it’s helping me, it might help you too.
As a final note – if you have a physical or mental barrier that limits how much you can get done in a day, designate any time you spend recharging as constructive free time, fun free time, or adjust how long your “sleep intermission” lasts, depending on what viewpoint you find makes you feel best. You can even add other “intermissions,” and don’t view that as time taken out of your day, but with the same – hopefully healthier attitude – as sleep. It never helps to look at that time as wasted, because you are taking care of yourself. No matter what, that should always be a priority.