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WORK-LIFE BALANCE

How to Reclaim the Hours You Lose Each Day

If you feel like you're always behind, it's because you've lost more time than you know.

Carlos Slim is currently the wealthiest man on the planet. (He, Bill Gates, and Warren Buffett often bump one another out of first place.) So, you'd figure on a hard work ethic, and he likely has one. But Slim recently told the Financial Times that people should have more time off each week.

A lot more time off. As in a three-day workweek.

"Having four days [off] would be very important to generate new entertainment activities and other ways of being occupied," Slim said at a recent conference.

We all know that no people reading this are about to move themselves or their employees to a three-day week, at least not at full week wages. And Slim is in the media and entertainment business, so he's got an agenda of his own.

But there is a point to this. Most people don't work anywhere nearly as hard or as long as they think. That's true even in absolute "here are the hours I'm on the clock" terms. Data from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis shows that Americans work 1,700 hours annually, or 34 hours a week with two weeks off a year.

But it's worse in relative terms. Most people fritter away hours a day. You may very well be among them.

Here are three steps that will let you find out and then address the issue:

1. Track where you spend time.

People face a basic difficulty in that their memories and estimates of time they spend doing things are far from realistic. They are often wildly off. The only way you can start getting time back is to see where it's going.

That means filling out detailed timesheets. Doing so for a whole week would be good, but even if you only manage it for a full day or two, the results can be enlightening. You'll want to make up a tally sheet or spreadsheet with multiple general categories. Here are some examples:

  • work
  • family
  • meals
  • personal computer use
  • leisure activities
  • household chores
  • travel

Don't take the categories as the only way to check your day. Make up your own, although remember that they will need to encompass everything you might do. It's also good to create some subcategories for various categories. For example, how much work time is spent doing work, attending meetings, or having someone drop into your office to say hello. Split personal computer use into games, social network use, online shopping, reading news, and surfing.

Record each activity as it starts and stops. One hint from the consulting world: Track time in minimum increments of six minutes and you can treat all the periods in decimals. For example, instead of writing down that you took 45 minutes for lunch, make it 48 minutes, which is 0.8 hours.

The important thing at this stage is to do as you would normally do. Don't change your routine or usual reactions at all. You aren't trying to prove anything to anyone and no one else will see the timesheets. But if things are to get any better, you need full honesty.

2. Add it up.

Add up all the times by category and subcategory for the number of days that you recorded it. Now divide each category and subcategory total by that number of days to get the average. Look at the numbers. Now go get a cup of coffee and look at them again. Yes, that's the amount of time you spend.

I've not only done this myself but used the tool in teaching employees and in courses I've given. Those who actually do the task to the best of their abilities are always shocked. If you're anything like most people, you'll find that you had no idea how much time you spent doing various things.

You may feel compelled to change your ways, eliminate all useless waste of time, and otherwise become a model of efficiency. Don't yet. You need the cold, hard, sobering look at how you spend your time.

3. Plan out your new days.

Once you've digested everything, you take an active role in how your days will proceed in the future. There is no right or wrong other than what gets you closer to where you want to be. You may leave a specific amount of social network fun and uninterrupted periods with family or friends--and clearly you need to eat and sleep.

What you really need is not a set of requirements to flog yourself with, but rather informed decisions. Perhaps you can skip personal computer time on Thursdays when you have a staff meeting and have been running behind schedule for everything else. There might be days where you have extra down time to recover from the rest of the week.

No matter what your choices, you will be better off because they will be based on knowledge and insight. Your schedule will no longer simply happen. Plus, you will find a lot of time, possibly hours a day, goes into activities haphazardly. Because you can see it now, you can adjust priorities and free up time for things that are more important.

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Last updated: Jul 22, 2014

ERIK SHERMAN | Columnist

Erik Sherman's work has appeared in such publications as The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times Magazine, and Fortune. He also blogs for CBS MoneyWatch.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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