How We Use Time: Investing, Enjoying and Giving

Tracking Time

I recently wrote about plans I have to tweak a time tracking system I’ve been using for close to a decade.

I’ve been breaking down time spent into the things it consists of rather than the physically observable action. Similar to how a nutritionist might break down a meal into its elements; carbohydrates, proteins, vitamins, sugars, etc.

This is the second post in the series where I look at various elements of how we spend our time.

The Beneficiary

The second batch of elements I will write about is who the beneficiary of our current actions is. As I’ve observed how I spend my time, all of it consists of; enjoying the now, investing in the future, giving it for the sake of others or wasting it. The beneficiary is either me right now, someone (possibly me) in the future, someone else or no one.

Each time block we spend will consist of the four of those in some combination. Unlike our first set of elements though, I don’t think the ratio is very fluid, I think one of these will dominate the lions share of any segment of time.

For example, on example of enjoying the now is walking on a beach and watching waves break while being fully present. It might also be a night out with friends, a movie, etc. The goal of the time is the time itself. In fact, you might have spent considerable amounts of other time to make this time possible – working to be able to afford the flight to place where you are, coordinating to be with the people you are with, researching to make the logistics work, etc.

Investing in the future is a common thread that crosses many areas of our personality. Taking classes that help with your career is a way to use what you have now to make the future better. Perhaps you enjoy the class, but I’ve found most investments eventually become difficult. Physically, running to train for a race is another example of an investment – it is an immediate sacrifice of comfort in the present with the hope of achieving a desired result in the future. But even if there isn’t a race, running or other exercise are an investment in health. We can also invest in our minds, our relationships and any other aspect of our being.

Another intention that we can have with our time is giving it to others. I think of mentoring, charity work, and even parenting as prime examples of ways to give time. There is even some research that shows this might be the most effective way to use resources if our goal is our own happiness.

Finally there is wasted time. Time that has no intention or fails to achieve what it was used for. The common example I see and have fallen into myself at times is not enjoying time where the sole purpose is enjoyment. It is too easy to become distracted by things that were supposed to be a means to the end, to let work creep into our vacations, bills creep into our family time or enjoyable activities become laborious for no reason. If this is designated enjoyable time, let it be enjoyable.

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.

Innovation Session: Evaluating My System for Gathering Data on Myself

Last December I started measuring a few things about myself every day. Now, four months in, I’d like to take a look at how it has gone and what that data has shown me so I can improve upon the system.

Success of the System

Over 102 days I completed the survey 80 times. Based on that I would deem the method a success. Any system that is able to remind me to do something and succeed in getting me to do it ~80% of the time is doing pretty well in my book.

Pivoting my completion percent by the day of week gave me the following.



The astute reader will notice that my completion rate was >1 on Wednesdays. I thought there might be a bug or double logging errors in my system. When I looked into it I realized that a few of those were actually my Tuesday records being logged sometime after midnight. I’ve been doing these innovation sessions which often keep me up past my usual bed time on Tuesdays.

Nonetheless, mid-week my success rate is much higher than on weekends. This is probably due in part to the fact that on weekends I am more likely to be out of cell range while camping. I am also often hanging out with people at 8:00PM when my reminder sounds and sometimes forget to do it when I get home. A snooze option might help with that.

What I Learned

When I started this project I had three goals, each with their own type of questions:

  1. Things I want to quantify so I can later try to correlate them
  2. Things I want to codify so I can later look back on them
  3. Things I want to ask so they will stay on my mind

I’d like to evaluate each category on its success.

Category One: Qantifiable Items

Looking at these I don’t see much of a trend. After some iteration I landed on measuring my health in six areas on a scale of 1-10. On their own the items aren’t very helpful because they aren’t associated with any sort of action items. Data without action isn’t very valuable.

In order to make these items valuable I will need to associate them with something else. For example I could associate my vocational health data with records of who I had meetings with that day to help me see who I enjoy working with and who I might avoid when possible.

If I can find a few fact items to associate with each of the six health items I might be able to make use of these but as they are, there isn’t much to see.

Category Two: Records of the Time

These were free text questions about how I succeeded and failed that day as well as what I was excited or worried about. Unfortunately free text processing is not my strong suit and so I am at a loss about what to do with these. I usually only wrote down a few words and so there isn’t much detail. Looking for the most common words returns a lot of generic words; got, was, had, etc.

In order to make this section more useful in the future it might be helpful for me to create some categories to choose from or to get more text recorded so I can better use it in the future. Overall I think the benefits from these questions actually fits better in the next section.

Category Three: Items to Keep in Mind

These were questions I asked myself because answering them would require me to reflect on my day. The questions were all along the lines of “how did you demonstrate X today?” The responses were free text and so I didn’t leave a response if I could’t think of anything for that day that answered the question. It turned out I recorded something only ~35% of the time.

Despite that, I think having these daily questions was actually a positive thing. Even on the 65% of days I did not have answers, I asked myself the question.  Skipping putting in an answer came with a desire to try harder tomorrow.


The system I set up to gather data is actually fairly effective, the questions I ask need improvement though. I would like to see more actionable items coming out of these daily surveys and so I will need to hit the drawing board again. When I sit down again I’d like to dig into some  aspects of my life that I have the power to change and that data can help influence my decisions on.