It’s Monday. Do You Know Where Your Time is Going?

Posted 08.03.2009

Clock1 Last week was a vacation week for me and this week sort of, kind of is. What’s the difference?  Well, one big difference is location – Laguna Beach, CA vs. Northern Virginia.  I learned last week that when the Pacific Ocean is a three block walk down the street from where you’re staying that it’s pretty easy to lose track of time. And then there’s the three hour time difference between the West Coast and the East Coast.  That always throws off my rhythm a bit.

So, still being in vacation mode, I was really interested to see a graph in the Sunday New York Times  that draws on an annual survey conducted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics that asks Americans to track how they use their time over every minute of the day. The printed version compared the differences in time usage between employed and unemployed people. No big surprise that people with jobs are more likely to be up by 6:00 am than people who aren’t working. Likewise, it may not be that big a surprise that people without jobs tend to socialize more and later into the evening than people with jobs. Wonder if there’s any correlation between the longer evenings and the later wake-up call? Nah, probably not.

If you share my tendency to be a data geek, you’ll love the online version of the graphs prepared by the Times. I just spent 20 or 30 minutes (Hmmm, how do I account for that?  Working, leisure, computer use?), toggling back and forth on the differences in time usage between age groups, education level, ethnicity, employment status and kids or no kids at home. It’s pretty fascinating and raises some questions as well as provides some answers about where we are as a society.

For instance, it looks like the third most common activity at any given point in the day after sleeping and working is watching TV and movies. Playing sports is way down on the list as is relaxing and thinking. As a matter of fact, it looks like no more than 2% of Americans are relaxing and thinking at any given point in the day. (The implication being, I guess, that relaxing and thinking and watching TV or movies are mutually exclusive.) It really makes me wonder what the impact on the quality of our work is when we spend so little time relaxing or thinking.  

As I’ve written here before, the lowest ranking item in our Next Level Leadership™  360 degree survey of high potential managers and executives is consistently “Paces himself/herself by building in regular breaks from work.”  Here’s something to consider. How long can you stay with the same task (e.g. answering e-mails, staying engaged in a conversation, writing a report, prepping a presentation) before your performance degrades?  (It’s what economists call diminishing returns.)  Most people I ask that question of tell me it’s somewhere between 45 and 90 minutes. What would it do, then, for your productivity to be intentional about inserting some reenergizing relaxation or think breaks into your day?  They don’t have to be long.  Five or ten minutes of breathing, stretching or walking around the block could do the trick. Give it a try this week and see what happens.

And , for my fellow data geeks out there, take a look at the interactive graphs from the Times and let me know what’s in the “how we spend our time” data that makes you go hmmm.