A torturous, terrific tracking exercise

By tracking each little thing we did throughout the workday, we learned what was important—and how to shed the less important or time-wasting things.


As an exercise to confirm that our team is using its time wisely, we took 6 weeks to track everything that we do. We don’t have a management or software system that allows us to track our time on each item, so we went back to an old-fashioned method: We kept a spreadsheet of what we did.

This list of 99 tasks was broken into 14 key areas. We logged our time in 30-minute increments. And we logged everything we did, from phone calls to creating presentations to generating engineering content ideas to getting on an airplane to visit a client. It was tedious. It was torturous. And it was enlightening.

Because we were forced to track in 30-minute time blocks, it made us more efficient in many ways. Rather than jump from an email to a conversation to an article to a problem on one of our websites, we focused on one task for 30 minutes.

The average attention span for humans is now just 8 seconds (down from 12 in 2000), and as Time magazine reported, researchers have found that humans are losing to goldfish by 1 second. Adult attention spans, famously researched around the world in different settings, vary from person to person and from instance to instance.

Different sources, including the BBC, indicate that our attention span is task-dependent. Whether you can spend 2 hours creating a presentation is determined by many factors, including memory and recall, interest in the task, and external influences. And whether you have 6 hours to devote to that building rendering is dependent on deadlines, financial incentives, and the overall impression you want to make on a client or colleague.

For our team, along with removing inefficiencies from our workday—like checking email every 27 seconds—we learned how to focus on the task at hand. We also learned to “let it go” when we were forced to (such as leaving work for the day or taking a much-needed vacation) or when we could no longer have an impact (such as the 12th time reviewing the same 600-word article without adding improvements). We learned to work “in the now” and to be briefer in our communication.

Case in point: Senior-level leaders sometimes bemoan the briefness and abbreviated text or email messages they receive from junior-level team members. In a text, “you are” turns into “UR” and immediate one-word responses to questions occasionally seem hasty or not contemplative. But are they? Or are they more efficient and to the point?

By performing this exercise and turning inward to our own work habits, we each became a little more cognizant of what we were doing, and we could show when and where we’d put too much time into something with little to no return on investment.

Tracking our workdays was agony. However, I’m confident that, going forward, we’ll look at each task we do a little differently so we can focus on what’s important. 

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