Writing Down Everything I Did in a Day Weirdly Made Me Feel Calmer

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Photo: Debrocke/ClassicStock/Getty Images

Perhaps you can relate to this: There are times where I will glance over to the clock in the corner of my computer, usually around mid-afternoon, and blink. And then pull out my phone and check that, too, just to confirm that my laptop hasn’t somehow fallen wildly out of sync. It never has, but it’s always a disconcerting feeling — where, exactly, did all those hours go? And what do I have to show for them?

Which is why I’ll admit that I was a tiny bit skeptical when I first started reading about Laura Vanderkam’s time-tracking system in her new book Off the Clock: Feel Less Busy While Getting More Done. In it, Vanderkam — who has several other productivity books and a TED Talk to her name — makes a push for what she calls “forced mindfulness,” or being actively aware of how you spend each hour. That deliciously relaxed feeling of being “off the clock,” she argues, actually comes from paying very close attention to it. Enter time-tracking: the best way to understand where your time goes, and how to use it more efficiently, is to write down what you did and how long you did it for.

But Vanderkamp goes on to insist that this particular habit is a lot more low-effort than it sounds. It doesn’t need to be an hour-by-hour log; instead, just write down activities, regardless of how long they take — a ten-minute shower gets an entry, and so does a two-hour cleaning spree. “I was okay with broad categories,” she writes of figuring out the ground rules for her time-tracking project. Logging a few hours as “work,” for example, instead of breaking it down into an hour of emails, an hour-long meeting, and so on, “mean time tracking only took three minutes or so daily.” And it’s even speedier, she explains, if you take a few seconds here and there to dash off little reminders to yourself, so you that you don’t have to sit down in the evening and re-create the whole day from scratch. (“I want to be clear,” Vanderkam adds, that she’s not advocating for time-tracking as a till-you-die thing; to get a clearer picture of your time-management habits, she recommends doing it for two weeks, one typical and one less so.)

So I tried it, monitoring myself for a day over the weekend. At 1 p.m., I finished eating lunch, pulled out my phone, and put it down in my notes app: 20 minutes, ate lunch. I spent a chunk of the afternoon running a bunch of errands; into the notes app it went. Caught up on some work emails, washed a load of laundry, treated myself to a movie rental on Amazon — all tracked, either in the moment or later that night before bed. It really did take just a few minutes. And I won’t say it wasn’t satisfying to look back at a list of what I’d accomplished.

To be honest, though, I don’t think it’s something I’ll make a regular habit out of. (To be honest again, the reason is purely my own laziness.) But I do think it’s something I’ll turn to again to calm me down in times of stress — when I look at the clock and have that what-happened moment, or when I add up everything on my to-do list and go into panic mode, I imagine it’ll be soothing to go back over the day and create a log of what I’ve already accomplished in a 24-hour span. Which is the other, less obvious benefit of creating a visual representation of your time: Yes, it can help you zoom out to think more critically about how you want to spend it, but it can also help you remember just how many hours you have in a day to get things done.

Because the way to make a given stretch of time — an afternoon, a weekend — feel longer is to use that stretch to do things. Vegging out in blissful nothingness may feel more relaxing in the moment, but in hindsight, it’s novelty that makes time expand. And really, hindsight is what counts. One perception is fleeting; the other is what sticks in your brain. And tracking everything you’ve done, even loosely, forces you to realize just how long a day can be.

So while strategizing my time management doesn’t really feel like enough of an incentive for me to map it all out, feeling calmer definitely is. And while mindfulness may be a bit of an overused buzzword, there’s something to be said for being mindful of your time — not just as you move through it, but after it’s passed. Look at everything you did! Look at everything you can do. You deserve this bedtime. There’ll be plenty of time tomorrow take care of everything else.

Writing Down Everything I Did in a Day Made Me Feel Calmer