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Dave's Mostly Tinkering, Occasionally Reporting

A Life Logged: Surprises And Insights

in Life Log · 8 minutes read

This is a follow-up post on the life log experiment I started on May 19. If you haven’t done so already, I recommend you read this introductory post on the topic.

For the past 42 days, I’ve logged 923 activities over 998 hours or 59,865 minutes, at an average of 22 events per day. I am back, after more than a month of big-brother tracking, to share some results from my life logging experiment.

It’s been a  surprisingly painless process. At no point have I found it intrusive to track my activities. And, as you have of course noticed stalking me on here, I’m happy to report not having a single gap in six weeks of tracking.

For starters, here is a peek at how my time is spent across each context and activity group below.

Contexts, average daily hours
*Mouse over or click for details
Activity Groups, average daily hours
*Mouse over or click for details

What Have I Learned So Far?

As I sifted through all this data, I came across some facts that initially stroke me as odd or surprising. Enter the power of data over intuition. I may feel as if I behave a certain way. Data will prove whether or not I do so.

For example, I spend more than half my day on survival – activities that are basic necessities to life (sleep, food, etc.). In a hyper-productive society, this would be viewed as wasteful and inefficient. “Life overhead” activities that need to be cut down to a bare minimum to maximize productivity. Of course, I don’t subscribe to such line of thinking, so we can ignore that… except, except on those dreaded existential-doubt days. You know what I’m talking about.

Luckily, today is not an existential-doubt day.

Top 10 Activities, average daily hours
*Mouse over or click for details

On that note, I present to you the top 4 insights:

1. Manufactured Awareness

We are often driven to act by our circumstances rather than by our intentions. For example, I may get excited by an email I receive, carried away in my response I surf the web for some information, leading me to a useful video, that I’ll want to share on Facebook, and then initiate a conversation with a friend. While each activity on its own may be worthwhile (online research, learning new concepts, reconnecting with friends), the chain of events is driven by reactive a behavior rather than deliberate and thoughtful decisions to allocate time.

Fortunately, this experiment has equipped me with improved awareness, a manufactured awareness. It has forced me to evaluate the decisions I make, to detach myself from the rush of mindlessly switching between activities, and to occasionally take a step back and make sure I spend time the way I intend to spend it.

life log - awareness

An example of an improvement that came about from this awareness is batching email. After only a week of logging, I noticed I was spending excessive time on email. I would check my mailbox multiple times a day, answer on the go, and get back to what I was doing. I very quickly realized the inefficiency of doing so as well as a the cost of interrupted important work. I have since decided to batch these events into 2 or 3 blocks a day.  My time on email has since dropped by half, from an average of 12 hours to 6 hours a week.

A simple change with significant results uncovered by data. Pretty cool, I believe.

2. The Illusion Of Busyness

Surprisingly – or rather worryingly – I’ve only logged an average of 32 hours of productive work per week. Disappointing at first glance. I was now being lazier than the French with their 35 hour work week! As I explained in my introductory post, the aim of this experiment was to mitigate the risk an unstructured and unconstrained schedule would have on effective time allocation. All this fancy wording to say, I was afraid I would start wasting my time. Remember, I came from a job where I put in roughly 50-60 hours a week, occasionally more. Seeing that number drop by almost 50% made me question whether I was really able to lead an unstructured life effectively.

However, after a bit more digging, I was able to build a more complete picture. These 32 hours of heads down productive work do not include any overhead (e.g., commuting, eating, procrastinating, and socializing at work) nor any personal activities performed at work (personal email, reading, procrastinating, etc.), both of which represent a sizeable chunk in most workplaces. A question naturally pops to mind:

“Do any of us really know how much productive work we complete in a given week?”

Life Log - busyness

Probably not. We tend to overestimate our actual work and underestimate the above two categories without any data. So after all, I suspect 32 hours of heads down productive work is significantly better than I had initially thought. I will evaluate this again in a few months to see if my argument holds.

3. How Focused Is My Focus?

My next insight is one that I’m excited to finally get data on, however slightly disappointed by what I’ve uncovered.

Deep work, flow state, hacker focus, etc. all refer to a state where one becomes completely absorbed in an activity; fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, involvement, and enjoyment. It’s in this state that we generally produce our best work. Is it often referenced in athletics (e.g., when a sprinter is in the zone). I know I experience it when I rock climb. It is equally effective in the context of work, although possibly less frequently because of the multiple distractions we are subjected to.

Life Log - Flow

Unfortunately, we can’t will ourselves into this state. It needs an adequate environment, and time. Take the example of writing. Whenever I sit down to write, for the first while, I will often struggle to form coherent sentences as I warm up. It feels awkward, and I have to force myself to keep at it. But, assuming I don’t succumb to distractions, I will at some point get in the zone. And when that happens, I start writing effortlessly, almost mindlessly – some still say incoherently – and “wake up” some time later to 1,000+ words.

Since one of the main ingredients to achieving flow is giving myself enough time to warm up, what does my data have to say about this? It turns out, nothing to be proud of. My average uninterrupted work session lasts 45 minutes (even excluding miscellaneous work and email which tend to be shorter). I should stress on the word uninterrupted, I could be working on the same topic for a whole day, but if I interrupt my session with breaks every 45 minutes it’s not the same (lunch, restroom, chats, etc.). To put it differently, of all activities that are not social events, Coding is the only one that has an average uninterrupted session duration greater than 1 hour (1h20min to be specific). In my opinion, this is clearly insufficient and will need more work.

What’s your experience with flow and long uninterrupted working sessions?

4. Urgency, A Mirage

Awareness has also helped me shed light on a behavior I believe is a common symptom of living in hyperdrive. I often mistake the perceived urgent with the important. And I suspect you may find this familiar.

As I check my email or wrap up a phone call that gets me excited or anxious for whatever reason, this emotion can lead me down a path of “fire fighting” i.e., responding to said events out of excitement and perceived urgency rather than focusing on the important, often less urgent work such as writing this post.

As humans, we are hardwired to respond to attention grabbing … ehm. sorry. just a sec. let me respond to this text message … yes, attention grabbing things that demand an immediate response. Do I really need to reply to that text or email now? Do I need to return that call now? Likely not, and as such I am better off batching these events until a later more appropriate time – if at all.

Life Log - DistractionNotice that second one from the left. Don’t you have something more productive to do now?

As for my data, looking only at Desktop activities within the context of Work (includes: Email, Code, Research, Organize, Write, Todo, Misc), I can roughly divide my time into two buckets: primary work (Code, Research, Write, Todo) and support work (Organize, Email, Misc). My time is in fact split 60/40 (primary/support). This, coupled with the previous insight on frequent context switches, is an indication that I may be spending too much time on collateral attention-grabbing activities and not enough on the meaty work. Another area for improvement.

Partially Structured Is The New Unstructured

That’s a lot to take in in one session. My productivity ego didn’t see this one coming! But of course, that’s what I signed up for.

So what now?

Taking all of this into account, I’ve decided I will focus the next while on improving working session effectiveness by tackling two related problems: decreasing the fire-fighting and increasing the amount of deep work. To achieve this, I will start introducing a bit more structure into my days. As explained above, without the right incentives and daily structure I am more likely to fill my days with unimportant or meaningless work.

Specifically, I will spend a bit of time every Sunday planning out and scheduling the upcoming week. I will “book” longer deep work sessions, occasional email slots, workouts, and will leave the rest open, including weekends. I want to make sure I give myself enough free space. The point is to strike the right balance between deliberate work and serendipitous tinkering. I don’t expect to get this right the first time around, but I anticipate seeing some benefits fairly quickly and will improve this exercise as I go.

I just hope I don’t turn out this way.

Life Log - Structure

Do you see yourself making similar mistakes during your day? What other insights would you like to see extracted from the data? Let me know what you think in the comments below.

Check out the Life Log page for the latest updates and posts on this experiment.

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Published on:   July 3, 2013
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  • Incredibly insightful Dave! I’m eager to read more!

  • Tara Achkar

    Great post ! I didn’t realize all the things you can learn from logging your daily activities! Maybe I’ll start doing it myself !!!

  • Xu Fei

    Dave, great work! 🙂 Would have been fun to compare the pre and post-consultancy life breakdown…

    • Yes,exactly! It’s too bad I didn’t start this earlier.

  • Myriam Chidiac

    I’m so proud of you before I read or without reading it.. :)) :*

  • LT

    Good writing, great insights, fantastic cartoons!

  • nickdurbano

    Great insight Dave! Have you heard of Feltron? … he publishes an annual report on his “life data” using a web app he created called DAYTUM. Fascinating stuff.

    • Ah yes, the Feltron report! I remember looking into this a few years ago. His stuff is incredibly detailed, it’s impressive.