Do you really know how you spent your attention last week? When you imagine something specific about the coming week, do you know you’ll feel?
Turns out, probably not.
To make decisions about the future our brains make up stories to fill in the giant gaps in our knowledge, often based on what we think happened in the past. Past behavior is probably the best predictor for future behavior, but the stories we imagine about our past are usually blurry idealized compilations, and mostly they’re wrong. Plus, our ability to predict the future is almost always off. This is especially true when it comes to how we imagine we felt in hte past or will feel in the future.†
For example, most tenure track professors think they will be happier once they have tenure. Most people think they’d be happier winning the lottery.
Turns out, probably not.
If you want a cleaner dose of reality, if you want the best information about where your attention really went and how you felt and might feel again, I have a tool you can download that will get you some.
The Honest and Reviled Timesheet
A timesheet is simply a running log of how you spend your attention and when you change it. It’s necessary if you track billable hours, but have you ever logged your time sleeping, daydreaming, making meals, or making love?
If that thought makes your heart race, your anus shrivel, and your lips utter “Sieg Heil,” then a timesheet might be exactly what you need.
Don’t be afraid, you don’t need to use it all the time. Just once in a while, check reality. It may surprise you, it may confirm the stories you tell yourself, and it might even hurt a little. (From what I can tell, it hurts a lot more if you don’t.)
How a timesheet helps you make decisions
Knowing how you actually spend your attention is undeniably helpful in making decisions and plans. I can’t name all the benefits here, so I’ll give you a couple ideas then report on one experience I had.
Your best self can gain a little control. Paying attention to your actions almost always improves them. Keeping a timesheet is an excellent way to become more conscious of what you are doing and make changes at key moments.
You’ll witness the effects other people have on you. For example you’ll have evidence that the mess your boss hands you has a real cost.
You’ll learn about your circadian rhythms so you can tune your schedule to optimize your creativity and vitality.
You will probably be surprised. And being surprised by yourself is one of the best things in the world.
What surprised me
After my recent Continuous Creation Challenge, I organized my timesheet into an infographic that tells the story of the 60+ hours I spent trying to be as creative as possible. Without the timesheet I wouldn’t have learned the following.
Faking a meal can give me energy. When I logged my energy levels I noticed how they related to my hunger, especially after a night with little sleep. On this one morning though I faked a meal. When I was so hungry it was distracting, I changed my decision to fast until noon and made a meal. What was so surprising is that the act of making the meal seemed to bring my energy back. So I didn’t eat! My energy stayed very high for another hour or so.
I get pumped as I approach a goal, and I deflate after I reach a goal. Look at the energy line compared to the goal finishing moments.
The Stoker needed as much attention as the Creator role. This was one of the bigger surprises. I knew my sleep was way off so naps were necessary, but counting sleep, naps, food, and exercise, even though I was working as hard as I ever work, I (apparently) needed as much attention to the Stoker role as I did to the roles that make stuff.
How to use a timesheet
Choose a time period. It’s probably best to track your time consistently for a full week so you can see what you do through weekends and on different days. At the very least track your time one day from the time you wake until you turn off the light to sleep that night.
Set up the right columns. Here’s what I suggest.
- Date. Only if you are tracking more than one day.
- Time. Write down the exact time something changes, an activity, your energy, or a role. Everything in the row to the left of the time marker or starts at that time. See the example.
- Energy Note. Every time you notice a change in your energy or mood, write the exact time and your mood change.
- Role. Note the primary role you are playing. Note the time when your role changes.
- Activities. Jot down what you are doing, and what you are paying attention to.
- Hours. Total up the time you spend doing specific activities or playing roles so you can know how much time you spend doing different things.
Analyze the data. Add up the hours you spend on each role or big activity for each day. Here’s a decent time calculator. You don’t have to go into extreme detail like I did to notice interesting patterns, but consider asking your friends to help you examine your timesheet and look for useful surprises and insights. If you want to see some observations of mine, look at the comments here.
While the concept may seem simple, I want to show you my example for ideas and techniques. I did my original timesheet for my creative intensive by hand, and it’s coded with references and acronymns so I reconstructed the timesheet for the first day all neat and tidy.
Note that I didn’t get to bed till 2:30am. That’s about 4 hours later than usual, so this timesheet is logging a day where I’m at an energetic disadvantage. I started the day at 6:33. See my notes about my energy and the roles I’m playing. I’m first a Father preparing breakfast for my daughter, then walking her to the subway station. I steal a few minutes between 7:50 and 8:22 to write a Pilot Fire article. Then the Stoker takes over as I trapse off to a tennis match. I return to stretch and listen to music before really starting work. I’m “Very happy & tired” and because I’ve decided to fast till noon, “Hungry.”
I log the whole day through the next night noting every time I change roles or activities or notice a change in energy. (It so happens I was also graphing my alertness on another chart.)
Then I total the hours for each role including when I sleep. I mark up the page when those changes happen; for example, from 6:33 to 7:50, my primary role is Father. Because we don’t measure time in metic, the math takes extra brain power I rarely tap. I used this.
Adding up the hours for how I spend my time based on the different roles I play is very revealing. For my Continuous Creation Challenge I was tracking roles grouped in the Creativity and Vitality fires.
Reality is underrated.
We make decisions all the time based on prejudice, habit, denial, and wishful thinking. And how often to we say, after the fact, “Oops, I did it again?” A simple timesheet can give us a glimpse of our actual behavior so every once in a while we can say, “I’m going to try something else this time.”
† Daniel Gilbert’s work on happiness crushes our beliefs about how we make decisions. I highly recommend reading his book, Stumbling on Happiness and listening to his Ted Talk or better, his conversation with Laurie Anderson.