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Time Tracking and the Reality of Self Care

Everyone likes to talk about the importance of self care. I did a podcast episode on it last fall. I think where we are in the discourse on this is that what we call self care for some people we call indulgence for others, and this is tied to class and race. For some reason pedicures seem to be the thing people talk about the most. That isn’t at all appealing to me, and speaking of class and race problems, pedicures are also a gold standard for those.

What I call “self care” is usually a not all that fun thing to do. Getting exercise or going out to professional networking events aren’t necessarily fun, but you rarely regret having done it. Self care is about creating an appealing life for yourself, but with the recognition that creating long-term happiness requires a lot of day-to-day unhappiness and sacrifice. The reality of this struck me about six weeks ago when I did a 168 hours time tracking project, as described by Laura Vanderkam. She’s a prolific writer and has four kids, so she knows about making use of time. I read her book I Know How She Does It last summer and expected to disagree with it. I’d been a devotee of Cal Newport and Deep Work for some time, but the ideals of that book are hard for me to work right now, and I was spending a lot of time feeling bad about myself because of that. Basically the two are saying the same thing: figure out what you need/want to happen, and make the time to do it. But I Know How She Does It is about looking at the entire tapestry of your life and figuring out where things go, and not feeling bad about how it looks. You can work a lot, spend a lot of time with your kids, and sleep a lot, but it takes some thought to see how things are going and what needs to happen to improve it.

The way she has people does this is to fill out a spreadsheet with your entire week in 15 minute increments, and then track how much time you spend on each thing. For instance, the week of March 28 I got approximately 7.8 hours of sleep on average per night. Not bad! I spend about 4.5 hours a day on average with my kids, though with a lot more of that on the weekends, and some at 3 in the morning. On the other hand, I only spent 4.5 hours total the whole week doing what I would characterize as truly relaxing. My other non-work time was (that week) doing an 8K race, going out for a pre-race dinner, doing yoga, attending a book group, pumping milk (4.25 hours), shopping, podcast recording, and many other things. It was a weird week, but showed me I could get a lot done in a week that made an interesting life. I did this for another week as well, and got similar results, but managed to not fill out the whole thing. It was a good exercise to make sure that I was thinking about what way I was using the next 15 minutes.

And that, right there, is the crux. You can’t do everything. If you want to work out for 15 minutes, you can’t spend that 15 minutes cleaning. If you want to read for 15 minutes, you can’t write during that same time. You can listen to an audiobook while cleaning, or write while commuting by train, etc. But mostly, you have to pick what to do. Looking at that tapestry of a week you have to figure out what to sacrifice to make something else happen. And with kids or other care taking responsibilities, you often don’t get to pick–your plans can change in a moment. I meant to write this post weeks ago, but kept postponing because other things came up. Today I am procrastinating on another project, so I decided to spend my 15 minutes writing. I’ve sacrificed another opportunity, but in acknowledging that I can also acknowledge that what you do shapes your life, and you should choose when you can.