How We Use Time: Consuming, Processing and Producing

Tracking Time

I’ve been tracking my time for close to a decade and over that time, thanks largely to the logistics of this process, the categories I use to bucket my time have evolved.

What started with three simple categories; labor, leisure & human functions, eventually evolved to include ten categories. Even those gave me problems though. For example both driving & biking to work count as commuting, but they are clearly different. How do you account for those differences and the impacts they will have on your life?

Because of this, I’ve recently begun thinking of how I spend my time in a more reductionist manner. I’ve been breaking down time spent into the things it consists of rather than the intended result. Similar to how a nutritionist might break down a meal into its elements; carbohydrates, proteins, vitamins, sugars, etc.

I have a notion that separating the goals of my time from the elements that make up the use of it will help me better optimize the way I synthesize the two.

How We Interact With The External World

The first elements I want to write about is the nature of how we are interacting with the world around us. As I’ve observed how I spend my time, all of it consists of; consuming, processing, producing or doing nothing.

Each time block we spend will consist of the four of those in some combination – likely never 100% any one.

For example, right now, by blogging, I am working in a largely informational space. My interaction with the external world is focused on information. As I write, I am producing information. But at the same time, as I hit the keys and during the pauses, I am also processing information. I am internalizing the external world and using my mind to make sense of it. I am also consuming information as I periodically check the internet for helpful information, writing on similar topics or a better word to use. You might say my time is 10% consuming, 60% processing and 30% producing.

These elements aren’t limited to the informational space though, they can also relate the the physical world. For example stacking wooden blocks is a production activity with the external physical world. I am using my time and energy to create external change. Observing the blocks is a consumption activity with the external physical world. I am using my senses to internalize what is external. Contemplating how to best to stack the blocks to achieve a goal is a processing task. I am thinking about the external world without affecting it.

Sometimes, of course, we are not doing anything. At least in the approximate sense. Sleeping is my best example of this (though sometimes I am aware of processing when I sleep).

Next Steps

I intend to use these elements as part of my new time tracking framework. My goal is to roll it out by early next year, as I enter my second decade of time tracking.

My hypothesis is that there is an ideal balance of elements, for a specific person, at a specific time to achieve a specific goal.

My first step is to gather benchmark data. As I tally up all of the time I spend, I will arrive at some total amount of activity that is consumption, processing, production and doing nothing.

After I have some data, I can experiment with the inputs and see how the outputs are affected. The ultimate goal is to better achieve my goals by thinking about time spent as a combination of many elements that are individually important rather than simply a black box designed to achieve some sub-goal.

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