Essays on Technology and Culture

Quantified Time and Knowing Thyself

Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers defined an amount of time needed to become an expert in any task: 10,000 hours of deliberate practice. Not 10,000 hours of simply performing a task, but 10,000 hours of practice, which is work that tests skills, finds and breaks limits, and helps improve your craft. Don’t confuse the two. Gladwell’s 10,000 hour figure’s been tossed around a bit, including in So Good They Can’t Ignore You, which is why it’s fresh in my mind.

Elsewhere in the book, Cal Newport writes about venture capitalist Mike Jackson, who tracks how he spends his day with an Excel spreadsheet, allocating the time he spends on the various aspects of his job. The intent of the spreadsheet is so Mike could “become more ‘intentional’ about how his workday unfolds,” and it caught my attention. How many of us know exactly how much time we spend on our work, each day? Freelancers with excellent time tracking and invoicing software need not answer. [1] I immediately thought of the Quantified Self movement, whose adherents wear sensors and use gizmos to track nearly everything about their body, and often beyond. While there’s plenty of valid criticism of what the Quantified Self movement will do to the lives of its adherents, there’s plenty of practical applications for QS technologies to improve our work.

In my own life, working for a startup company with no set hours and the ability to define my own workday do a large degree has resulted in me being more than a bit unanchored. Building some structural scaffolding to my day would help me greatly. At the very least, it would keep me from crawling out of bed at 10 AM, and getting to work around “lunch time”. I’ve been increasingly eyeing some Quantified Self technology, but what I want to quantify most is how much time I spend doing what I need to do, and how much time I spend doing… something else. There’s plenty of tools out there, high-tech and low-tech, to assist, ranging from RescueTime to “The Unschedule” of assigning yourself defined periods of free time.

Data is relentless. The mantra at any web-based startup is “test, track and quantify.” It’s important to see what works, what doesn’t, and iterate mercilessly to improve what does. This takes time, data, and analysis. Can we not apply this to our lives too? The tools we use and their endless potential to distract us with alerts, status updates, text messages, and more also hold within them the potential to help us improve ourselves. Let’s quantify not ourselves, but our time, so we know what we should be focusing on, and what we should not. The answers to those are going to vary for each of us, but if we know that, for example, we’re blowing an hour a day checking for status updates on social networking services at work, we might be able to stop that, and leave work an hour early without guilt. Alternatively, it’s an hour we’ve reclaimed to use towards working to become an expert. We have the tools. Let’s use them.

  1. Actually, if you have any suggestions for good time tracking software that works on the Mac and iOS, please e-mail me. I don’t need to write invoices.  ↩