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How did you spend the last three hours? The real way to be more productive.

Even when my days are rushed, it often feels as if I don't accomplish anything significant. I will set intentions to meditate or call a certain friend who has been on my mind—activities that take a small chunk of my waking hours—and still fail to complete them. I hesitate to write things on my to-do list because I hate the feeling of failure that comes with staring at the evidence of unfinished tasks at the end of the day.

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Why don’t I do the things I want and need to do? The answer is deceptively simple: I’m always doing something else. Every minute of my day is filled with one activity or another. The trick is to find out what I was doing to fritter away all my time. “Knowing where the time goes is the first step to spending it better,” says Laura Vanderkam, author of “I Know How She Does It: How Successful Women Make the Most of Their Time.” After spending years studying productivity and time management, Vanderkam has seen that tracking your time can create more change than simply putting the same task on your neglected to-do list day after day. “If you don't know how you're spending your time now, how can you know if you're taking the right steps to improve?”

Vanderkam’s method of tracking time for a week in half-hour increments seemed (perhaps counterintuitively) time-consuming, but since I couldn’t figure out where my hours were disappearing, I decided to try it. I expected to see change after the week was over, as I gradually became more masterful at managing my time. Instead, my habits shifted the moment I started my time log. “Simply being aware of certain habits is the first step to lessening their impact,” says Vanderkam. “Many people tell me that the week they tracked, they spent a lot less time on Facebook or surfing the web than usual. They didn't want to have to write it down on their logs, so they didn't do it! Likewise, people often don't want to write that the only thing they did on Saturday was watch TV, so tracking time inspires them to get out of the house and go do something fun.” As soon as I began tracking my time, I was hyper-aware of all the things I didn’t want to write down. Did I want block upon block stacked with “internet black hole” or “binge-watched DVR recordings”? Of course not. I wanted blocks of family time, productive housework, and dedicated work hours (no Facebook allowed). Keeping a log instantly helped me become more mindful of how I was managing my time and showed me that I had more time than I thought.

Tracking along the course of one week (which turned into two) gave me a better view of my life than simply trying to rearrange my daily routine. It became easier to see that I couldn’t fit in meditation at the same time every day unless I rearranged my sleep schedule, but I could develop the kind of practice I craved by working with the ebb and flow of my life. I found that each day had a slightly different rhythm—some fast and furious, others slow and laid-back—which meant my whole week could still feel balanced, as long as I was mindful of my time.  

“A week is the cycle of life as we live it,” says Vanderkam. “Think about it: what's a normal day for you? Is it Tuesday or is it Saturday? They both happen just as often and both have the exact same number of hours but if you looked at yourself on those two days you'd have a very different impression of your life.” There are 168 hours in a week; Vanderkam argues that even if you work 60 hours every week and sleep 8 hours per night, you still have 52 hours to fill. That is plenty of time to live a full life as long as you are being mindful of how you are stacking your "blocks.”

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