A Year in Time
Updated: Jan 19, 2019
I’ve been making notes and thinking about this blog post for most of the latter half of last year, so being able to sit down and write it is kind of exciting. Back at the start of 2018, I started doing a lot of work that required me to do some light time tracking of my work hours. Prior to this, I’d been a big fan of podcasts like Cortex and Focused (formerly known as Free Agents) that were big proprietors of the benefits of time-tracking. I was interested in two main parts of this experience. Firstly, I wanted to understand data I was creating involuntarily just by living my life. Hours were being allocated to things subconsciously, and I wanted to be able to look into that and see how that corresponds with my various states of being (emotional, financial, musical etc). The other thing I wanted to do, aside from looking back with clarity, is to see how this affected my looking forward. Would I work better on something if I manually flip a switch that puts me on the clock for it? How much time did I think I was going to be spending on things? And what were the actual figures like at the end of the year? While you could hypothetically have timers on all throughout the day, I decided to focus on the key areas of my life I felt like I needed to measure more accurately. Out of the 8760 available hours of 2018, I tracked 1598 of them. The purpose of this blog post is to go back through the last year of time-tracking data and shed some light on these numbers , what they mean to me, and why I believe this to be a very worthwhile exercise.
Work – 764 Hours
This is probably rather self-explanatory. My job was the single biggest focus of last year, and due to the somewhat freelance nature of it, part of the reason I took this exercise up. My initial reaction to this number was that it was far less than I estimated. I expected to have put in at least 1,000 here, especially considering the average hours worked per year by a UK citizen lies between 1,500-2,000 if a cursory Google search is to be believed. What’s even more surprising about that statistic is that matches the total number of hours I ended up logging, let alone working. Another surprising part of that was when people who work 30 hour weeks saw this number and thought it was a lot, even though their total would be drastically higher had they saw it.
As for the actual practical benefits of this, I can’t explain enough how important this was. Because most of the work I did this year was commission-based, I was able to compare the exact amount of time I’d worked any given period and cross referenced that with how much money came in. After a while, a pattern began to emerge that I was making a fairly consistent hourly rate as work began to stabilise, which mean I could do the inverse of this exercise; because I knew what my hourly rate was, I could then budget the necessary number of hours into my week (workload permitting) so I’m not overworking myself. And that’s probably one of the reasons that number is almost unusually low. I don’t want to work all the time, but I definitely want the freedom to make stuff, practice, and just have a great time, so if I know exactly how much of a trade-off is required, that’s information definitely worth having.
Practice – 204 Hours
This category was much harder to get a grasp on. Unlike work which has an element of necessity attached to it, one could argue that practicing guitar is much more a lifestyle choice, and one that has quite a subconsciously romantic element attached to it. Musicians love to talk about how many hours a day they manage to practice, but I always find myself a little bit dubious of this. What they’re telling you there is the ideal day they have in mind, not necessarily what happens on a regular basis. I know that before this I was the same, with an average in my head that I thought I was putting in, but it was only until I started timing my practice sessions that I realised these were fewer and further between than I first realised. I also got a glimpse into how I best digest this kind of information. I would rarely play for many hours on end but would have half hour sessions throughout the day.
The reason I believe this is an important thing to address is that romanticism that I was talking about. Musicians love to talk about the coveted “10,000-hour rule” and that quantity almost becomes a goal to reach in itself, as opposed to the content and structure of each practice session. I think because of this, and the broad discussion about how many hours in a day one should dedicate to practicing, musicians will likely warp what they think they do every day to match this ideal in their head. For example, if you hear your favourite guitarist say that they play 5 hours a day, my suspicion is that over time you’ll move your goalposts far closer to their alleged playtime as opposed to being honest about it. I say this only because this was definitely my behaviour. In college, I’d have this idea that I played 4 hours every day, because that was what I time-tabled out for myself. I have no way of proving it, but looking at this breakdown, that seems far from likely.
I think this is for the best though. Being able to keep my romantic brain in check with what actually happens every day allows me to remain objective about my performance and my needs as a player. I’d much rather 5,000 hours of dedicated, quality time than 10,000 hours of counter-productive playing to fit that quota set by musicians with different needs and requirements to me. And while that number may be staggeringly small compared to other instrumentalists, I’ve made a great deal of improvement this year that I’m really happy with, and I know there’s plenty of room to expand clearly.
This also brought out another feeling that I didn't expect to have, which is that of hours spent on something being oddly... final. I can say I've played guitar for 15 years, and that's true in the abstract, but to say I've played or about 5,000 hours really feels much more like I've dedicated a serious chunk of my life to it.
Year of Everything preparation – 95 Hours
Given how much this project weighed on my mind for the latter half of last year, I’m surprised this number is as low as it is. I was writing and planning every day, but very much in the abstract. I only really ended up time-tracking when I was sitting down and doing something that involved physically making something, be it recording, writing with an instrument in my hand, or the blog writing I’m doing right now. That might be part of why this number is lower than I expect, but it’s likely that it suffers from the same subconscious inflation that practice hours did. I’d mention in conversation that I’d been spending months on this whole process, and in my mind I totally had been. But when it came to actually sitting down and putting the work in, this is a surprisingly low number given the amount of time I’d just been thinking about it. A large chunk of this was probably recording, but I’ve not used any kind of system to differentiate the different kinds of activities (which Toggl does have available in the form of “tags”) so this number is slightly more vague because of that.
Playing live – 55 Hours
Where the practice section was time spent on playing music at home, this was playing music live in whatever capacity. A big chunk of this amount of time probably comes from pit shows in theatre, given that they’re all a couple of hours or so at a time. Much like practice, this isn’t something I’m necessarily trying to maximise or optimise in any way, it was just interesting to see the raw numbers in conflict with what I thought I was doing.
Up ‘til now, this has been in descending order of hours. This last one is actually the second largest section but I wanted to leave it til last because I think it sums up a lot of the psychological element behind time tracking.
Travel – 423 Hours
Travel was my demon in 2018. Early in the year, I had difficulty readjusting to my new life outside London and found myself virtually paying rent on Southern Rail. The way I rationalised a lot of it is that the Brighton-London train journey is only around an hour, often less. That is true, but I was wilfully omitting the travel either side of that train journey, which virtually doubled the journey time in most cases. On any given week where not much travel occurs, that isn’t necessarily much. On the other hand, on hectic weeks (I had one week of commuting to Windsor for example) that can quickly put 10s of hours on the clock. That had a huge effect on my mindset. To log into Toggl and see a huge section of my pie chart just black weighed on me after a while. Much in the same way, seeing that black section shrink over the course of a few months was a huge positive reinforcement for me.
Of course, travel as an activity is a total necessity, people need to get to places. Not only that but having removed myself from things that are still necessary for me to be at, I’ve turned the travel lever up voluntarily. But this isn’t a case of falling down on either side of a binary, it’s about finding a balance that works with how I want to live out the next phase of my life. That’s why most of these hours are probably in the first half of the year, where I was still finding balance. Balance would have been way harder to find had I not been able to see the facts, as opposed to my version of events.
Retrospectively, I can confirm that tracking my time and being able to correlate that with my emotional state is a perfect example of being able to use good data as a stimulus for change. As more of the categories I wanted started to increase in strength, I felt more productive, happier and generally more stable. I found out that I had an unhealthy relationship with moving around, and I was able to address it.
That said, I do think there’s a limit to how much you should do this, and that limit lies within each individual. For example, I’m a workaholic, and I’m very competitive with myself. I believe that time tracking for any extended period of time can become a slippery slope to this being quite an intense, uncomfortable exercise. I started to almost "gamify" being as productive as possible, seeing these numbers not as an honest report of what I’ve done, but a high score I can manipulate by living my life a certain way. It’s important that time tracking serves the work you’re doing, and it doesn’t need to make it’s way into anything you don’t want it to. There are plenty of categories I tried to track over the year that simply didn’t stick. I tried tracking trips to the supermarket and doing the dishes. The problem with this, I realised, is that these things don’t need optimising, they just needed doing. I won’t gleam a great deal of value from my performance as someone who does the dishes, nor will I save any great deal of time. These are just chores that need to happen. I tried to track leisure activities like video games and reading, but this led me to the same conclusion. As time tracking should be about optimising productivity, it should almost stay away from things that are intentionally unproductive. It’s simply about finding the things you want to examine further in your life, and taking it from there.
NeIertheless, ths has been a hugely positive process that I’m going to keep going with for now. Time tracking is inherently valuable because time
Nevertheless, this has been a hugely positive process that I’m going to keep going with for now. Time tracking is inherently valuable because time itself is immensely valuable. You’ll often hear the term “time is money”, and while that’s half true, there’s a fundamental difference between the two. You can’t be frugal with time. You can’t save it and spend it when it’s most convenience like you can with money or (to a far lesser extent) physical energy. We’re all spending our time at exactly the same rate, and some of us happen to be far better investors than others. Your access to time and priorities where you spend it are yours alone, and to understand where your time goes and control that is simply another step to getting the best out of what you have.
Also, the new song on Tuesday is gonna absolutely slap and I can’t wait.