Hours Don't Lie: Why Tracking Time = Getting Things Done (and Why to Live Abroad)
Plenty of us say we're working on a [screenplay, novel, song, portfolio, website, acting career] while we we're only [waiting tables, editing copy, being an assistant] to pay the bills. But the truth of the matter is, if we spend 40 hours a week doing [the latter] and we only find a few hours to do [the former], which of these tasks is more important to us?
The truest indicator of what's important to us is the amount of time we devote to something. Not what we spend money on. No what we say we care about. So for the last 16 months, I've tracked my time religiously. What have I found? Hours don't lie. Once you know where your hours are going, you can start changing your behavior in order to achieve your goals.
As the saying goes, "the first step towards change is awareness." Are you aware of how many hours you're spending on various activities in your life? How many hours did you spend at work yesterday? How much time sleeping? Pursuing your own creative goals? What about today? And then, how about all of last week? Hours add up quickly. No mere mortal can keep track of them all in his or her head. The best way to gain awareness -- the first step toward change -- is to find a source of objective analytics that cut through the powers of human rationalization. Perception and reality are two different things. Track your time, and you'll get a dose of unfettered truth. Then you'll find a way to start spending more time on what's really important to you.
Time tracking services
The first step in tracking time is to find a way to measure hours that isn't painful. Here's a list of time-tracking tools (and another). There are plenty of free time-tracking apps out there, and even some fancy automated approaches (both of which I experimented with), but I found myself most comfortable using Freshbooks because I've used it in the past (I've since switched to Harvest). I can't recommend either highly enough for freelancers and small business that need to keep track of clients and create invoices, but I've found that even post-freelance, I'm still using
Freshbooks Harvest every day simply to track my own hours. You'll want to use a time tracking app that works on multiple platforms (in the case of both Freshbooks and Harvest, there's a Mac dashboard widget (pictured), an iOS app in the form of MiniBooks, and an Android app in the form of TimeDroid). For those times when you're not using a computer or mobile app to track your time, you can always use the web interface to guesstimate time after the fact. Just be honest with yourself. Ultimately, use whatever time-tracking method you feel most comfortable with: the best method is the one you actually use long-term, not the one with the most features.
Only track what's important
You could take it too far and track analytics about absolutely everything in your life, as does Nicholas Felton. He publishes brilliantly illustrated books every year about his life, entitled "Feltron reports," and they've become so popular that people actually buy them (thanks for the heads-up, Raafi). In fact, since I have an appreciation for great infographics, here's his 2009 location report (click through for the full-size version):
For the rest of us, it's more about making every hour count than it is about counting every hour. The best time-tracking plan isn't the most thorough one, however -- it's the one you stick with. Sure, you could track your sleep, track your exercise (which I do when running, actually), and you could probably track your sex life, but I'm more interested in knowing how much work I'm getting done than I am in getting penetrating (ahem) insight into every aspect of my life. For a lot of people, tracking working hours is going to seem like enough of a chore, without tracking everything else; therefore I recommend only tracking how much work -- and what kind of work - you do. Leave your leisure time alone. For anyone who's thinking, "tracking any kind of hours doesn't sound like fun," well, no -- it's not supposed to be. If you want to have what other people don't, you have to be willing to do what other people won't.
The painful truth
Tracking time is not just about awareness: it's about change. I've been tracking hours for well over a year, so let's take a look at my total hours from 2010. Note that I'm sharing this graph not because I'm happy with the distribution, but because I'm not happy with it. Once you track hours and analyze them, the truth becomes clear. It might not be the truth you wanted, but that's exactly the point. Here is the breakdown of 2,097 hours I worked in 2010. For a point of reference, a full-time job in the U.S. is typically 2,000 hours a year (remember in my case these are actual hours spent working (most of them out of a suitcase), not hours spent at a place of work (which might involve a large portion of time surfing the web or otherwise being unproductive)). This is what I spent my working hours on last year:
As you can see, for me, 2010 was about this web site. I'd done the day job thing at MTV, I'd done the freelance thing on my own, and I decided that neither was going to allow me to get my projects made. When re-launching this site in January of last year, I knew that it would be a ton of work and would force me to push back my first feature, but it has absolutely been worth it -- and as a reader of this site, I hope you feel the same. (Delving deeper into the No Film School hours, it's important to note that the majority of those 1,224 hours were not spent writing content. They were spent designing and building the site, and more than anything, researching how best to run a website, build an audience, and monetize the content in an organic way -- without sacrificing content/design/credibility. Today I spend more time writing and far less time researching). Thanks to you, the site is not only treading water, but growing.
Once you have several months of time tracked, analyze those hours and see what needs to change. My 2010 chart made crystal clear what my hours were and what I need to change if I am to continue calling myself "a filmmaker first and a blogger second," as I do on the disclosures page. So now that we're at the end of Q1 2011, has the practice of tracking my time -- and taking an honest look at those hours -- affected change? Here's my chart so far for 2011:
No Film School's still taking up a significant portion of my time, but my main concern was not with that side of the pie, given most indie filmmakers have to do something other than work on their own projects to survive. I was mainly concerned with how much time I was (or wasn't) spending writing my first feature, and now I've already spent more time on my feature project in the first three months of 2011 than I did in all of 2010. That's why tracking time = getting things done: you can't lie to yourself. It makes you realize what you spend your time on, it makes clear where your priorities lie, and it motivates you to make your hours match your priorities. Track your time for several months, and one way or another you'll find a way to grow the slice of the pie that is most important to you.
Why live abroad?
You'll notice the second pie chart had a lot less slices to it. While I successfully reconfigured my working hours, that's really only part of the story. Think of it this way: there are 8,760 hours in a year. In 2010, I spent 2,097 of them working, and roughly the same number sleeping. Therefore, most of my time (the remaining 4,000 hours) was spent doing other stuff. So to get a jump start on 2011, I decided to eliminate some of that other stuff and live abroad. For the past ten weeks, I've been writing my screenplay (and updating this web site) from Costa Rica.
I wrote 200+ pages of screenplay in 2009 (despite forty something meetings, none of those pages made it to the screen... yet). Of those pages, about 150 of them were actually penned in Costa Rica. Thus I've been trying to replicate the creative writing energy of two years ago, in the same place. As Scott Macaulay said in Filmmaker Magazine's New Year's Resolutions for Filmmakers this January:
Review your productivity and alter your creative behavior. Conduct a review of your own best practices, the circumstances and behavior that lead to your greatest level of productivity and/or creativity, and more purposefully engineer the creation of those moments. If the best work you’ve ever done was at a mountain retreat when you were unplugged from the world, do that again.
Substitute "beach house" for "mountain retreat," and that's exactly what I did. I recommend you do the same, however possible -- whatever life circumstances you found to be the most creatively inspiring, try to recreate them.
Other than the great weather and proximity to a beautiful beach (pictured), there's another reason I'm in Costa Rica: it's cheaper to live here than NYC. Traveling frugally can require less money than living at home, especially if you can piggyback on existing travel plans. One of my college friends was getting married in Costa Rica in January, and because I had to buy a roundtrip ticket here anyway, extending the stay by three months meant the airfare was essentially free (I also shared the house with two friends, one of whom was fellow filmmaker Zack Lieberman (who's also working on a script of his own), so the rent (split three ways) was significantly less than my apartment in Brooklyn) I'm not saying everyone should go to Costa Rica (though it is beautiful) -- my point is, if you're taking a trip somewhere as it is, extending your stay is certainly one way to mitigate the cost (the other way is to sublet your apartment while you're gone -- which I've also done).
Did the trip have the desired result? Yes. The day before yesterday I finished the first draft of my screenplay. Today I'm headed back to New York. Now I can only hope that when I open my notebook in NYC, the scribbling makes as much sense as it did in CR...
Writing is a deep-sea dive
Creative writing requires exponentially more focus -- and hours -- than any other activity I know. As the writer Dave Eggers said:
Writing is a deep-sea dive. You need hours just to get into it: down, down, down. If you're called back to the surface every couple of minutes by an email, you can't ever get back down. I have a great friend who became a Twitterer and he says he hasn't written anything for a year.
Another quote to the same effect, this one from author Philip Roth:
I'm not writing when I'm walking around. I can only really write when I'm alone in a place that's mine, that I'm accustomed to, and there's no interruption. I don't have a phone. I don't have anything that can distract me. And I spend the hours ruminating. If you spend six or seven hours ruminating on your invention, the next part of it will come to you. When I'm walking the streets, I don't have that kind of concentration.
"If you spend six or seven hours... it will come to you." The challenge in our always-on, constantly-connected world is to carve out this uninterrupted block of hours. I found that living abroad helped. But if you can't pack up and live abroad, take a virtual trip -- away from the internet. Eggers recommends an application I've mentioned here in the past: a simple Wi-Fi disabler called Freedom, which forces you to disconnect from the great time-suck that is the internet. I love the web as much as the next person -- probably more, given I make my living on it -- but the world of information at your fingertips can be an irresistible temptress when the blank page looms. Give Freedom a shot -- it's helped me immeasurably.
Getting to 10,000 hours
Malcolm Gladwell argues in his must-read book Outliers: The Story of Success that it takes 10,000 hours of pursuing something to become truly excellent at it. 10,000 hours is a lot of time, right? That's three hours a day, every day, for ten years. Well, if your chosen pursuit is as important to you as filmmaking is to me, we're both going to find a way to get to 10,000 hours eventually. If you're fully committed to your craft -- and you want to be confident that you're putting in the work to succeed -- then I recommend tracking hours. If you don't, time can spiral away, not unlike the illustration at the top of this post.
I believe the single largest obstacle to achieving our dreams is finding the time to pursue them. I also believe tracking time is an effective approach to carving out enough time to achieve those dreams. Hours don't lie.