Where Does The Time Go: Tracking Time And Your Writing Life

As I talked about last Sunday in Will Eating The Frogs First Help You Write More?, it’s easy for time to get away from you, especially if you’re working full time (or more) in another job or profession, raising children, and/or have other significant life responsibilities. Even in a slow week, whatever time you thought you’d have to write can melt away.

So how do you hang on to that time so you can use it?

First, you need to figure out where your time–all of it–is really going. Then you can choose how you want to spend it.

Tracking Your Time

You already know the large tasks and responsibilities. It’s the 10 minutes here or half hour there that’s unaccounted for. It might not seem like much over the course of a morning or a day. But over a week or a month it adds up.

It’s easy to track to your time. Some people use spreadsheets or apps or special programs, but all you really need is a piece of paper or a screen (on your phone or computer).

Write down or type today’s date and the time. Yes, right now. Now write what you’re doing. A short description, like “read blog.” When you finish, you’ll write the time again, note the next thing you’re doing, and when you finish that. And so on for the next week.


One day might look like this:

If you have kids, or you work longer hours, or you’re caring for an ill relative, you’ll probably have more entries, but you get the idea.

If this sounds like a lot of trouble, remember, it’ll pay off. Because once you know what you’re doing with your time, you can make choices.

Adding And Evaluating

At the end of the week, group your tasks into categories and add up how much time you spend on each one.

Look for these things:

  • Tasks you could spend less time on by being more efficient
  • Activities you could skip
  • Tasks you can group together
  • Time spent unintentionally
Spending Less Time

Tasks you can spend less time on each week are ones that could be done more efficiently another way without harming your life. For example, if you can take a train to work rather than driving, you might free 40 minutes a day for writing while you commute.

If you spend an hour and a half a week driving to and from the grocery store and shopping, you might be able to free half that time by shopping on line and having the groceries delivered.

If you watch news 30 minutes a night to keep up with current events, look for a website that provides highlights you can read in 10 minutes a day. That saves 2 hours and 20 minutes a week. Which means you could write for 2 hours and still have an extra 20 minutes one day if you want to read a news story in depth.

Skipping Time

You’ll probably find some activities you don’t really need to do. Maybe you went on-line to pay bills, which should have taken 10 minutes, but spent another 20 scrolling through social media sites or articles. Or you watch more TV than you realized.

Whatever those activities are, consider each one. All of us need time to wind down and relax, and if those activities help you do that, you don’t want to cut them completely.

But be sure whatever it is actually helps you relax. Does reading social media posts help you unwind or make you angry? Does watching a talk show before you go to bed help ease you toward sleep or get you thinking too much about world events, kicking your brain into high gear?

If it is quality relaxation time, consider cutting it by half for week so you can write and seeing how you feel. You might find that works out fine. If not, you can experiment and adjust.

If the activity isn’t helping you relax, cut it completely and write instead.

Grouping Tasks

When we switch from one task to another, we lose time. We spend a few minutes figuring out what to do next, putting together what we need for that task or getting ourselves situated for it, and adjusting our mental state.

By grouping similar tasks, you can cut that time without losing out on anything you want or need to do.

For example, once a week I take out my calendar, my general To Do lists, and my list of monthly goals and I write a rough schedule for each day of the following week. It takes me about 15 minutes a week but saves me about 15 minutes a day.

Similarly, if I need to shop on-line, I try to cover all my shopping for the next week or two in one 30-minute session. I visit Peapod to buy groceries and Amazon for things like office supplies, bird food, soap, etc.

If I’m working on a legal matter (which is rare, as I don’t take a lot of legal work anymore), I set aside an entire morning to research, write, and make phone calls on the same case. That way I get my file materials and shift my brain into lawyer mode once that week, rather than shifting constantly between fiction and law.

Unintentional Time

All of the above should help you spot unintentional time–time on tasks that don’t matter and to which you don’t mean to devote minutes let alone hours.

If you’re talking to or texting with your brother because you want to catch up and care about your relationship or there’s something important to discuss, that’s intentional. If you’re reading emails with links to articles that don’t interest you or answering texts from a friend who doesn’t have enough to do at work and is just passing the time, that’s unintentional.

With each activity, ask yourself if it makes you happy or serves a purpose that matters to you. If not, that’s time you could spend writing instead.

All the examples I gave might or might not be ones you personally can use.

You may never watch news or TV. You may work a much longer day at your office or devote your evenings to your kids, only turning back to your own tasks after they’re in bed. And that’s exactly the point of doing the time audit. It lets you can figure out where your time is going, find whatever pockets there that allow some flexibility, and choose how best to use them.

Even if you find only 30 minutes a week, that’s significant–it’s a little over 2 extra hours a month that you can write. And, as we talked about in Writing A Novel 15 Minutes At A Time, you can get a lot done in a lot less time than that.

Good luck!

Until Friday–

L.M. Lilly