Time Is The Ultimate Self-Improvement Metric

A tech startup watches Daily Active Users. An eCommerce site tracks Conversion Rate. The stock market obsesses over Earnings Per Share. So what metric should we be focusing on when measuring ourselves?


Whether we like it or not, time is the best indicator for what is most important to us. Time explains why we are or aren’t reaching our goals. And it’s the ultimate gauge for how dedicated we are to living in a happy and fulfilling life. But as prevalent and simple as it sounds, time is not an easy metric to keep track of.

Time is what we want most, but what we use worst.

– William Penn

We settle for cliches when describing time–saying it flies, slips by, marches on, or runs out. But time itself is hardly the problem; it’s our self-delusion that is to blame. Every few days, Twitter and Facebook soak up a billion hours of ‘spare’ time. Where did that time come from? What did we do before social media was here? Weren’t we busy five years ago? Every year articles crop up that point out the amount of time the average American spends watching TV, (Last year it was two hours forty-nine minutes a day) and every year we ask ourselves, “Who are these (other) people with so much time on their hands?”

This discrepancy–between how we perceive our time is spent and what we actually do–is highlighted in the two methodologies used by Sociologists who study how Americans spend their time. One way is to use surveys, where researchers ask people to think back on how they spent their time. The other, employed by The Bureau of Labor Statistics, is “time-diaries,” where participants use diaries to track themselves as they go along. When it comes to how we perceive our time is spent at work, the difference between the two methodologies points out that, “those claiming to work 60-to-64 hour weeks actually averaged 44.2 hours. Those claiming 65- to 74-hour workweeks logged 52.8 hours, and those claiming workweeks of 75 hours or more worked, on average, 54.9 hours.” The difference doesn’t stop there. “The National Sleep Foundation claims that Americans sleep 6.7 hours (weekdays) to 7.1 hours (weekends) per night. The [time-diary study] puts the average at 8.6 hours.”

In the late nineteenth century Frederick Winslow Taylor noticed the lack attention to time in the setting of worker efficiency and as a result he strove to create the ultimate, efficient work environment. He eventually devised a system he termed scientific management.

We can see our forests vanishing, our water-powers going to waste, our soil being carried by floods into the sea; and the end of our coal and our iron is in sight. But our larger wastes of human effort, which go on every day through such of our acts as are blundering, ill-directed, or inefficient, and which Mr. Roosevelt refers to as a lack of “national efficiency,” are less visible, less tangible, and are but vaguely appreciated. We can see and feel the waste of material things. Awkward, inefficient, or ill-directed movements of men, however, leave nothing visible or tangible behind them. Their appreciation calls for an act of memory, an effort of the imagination. And for this reason, even though our daily loss from this source is greater than from our waste of material things, the one has stirred us deeply, while the other has moved us but little.

Frederick Winslow Taylor

Why such discrepancies between how we think we spend our time and how we actually spend our time? There are many plausible reasons, but I think the most likely and hardest to swallow is called out in Tim Krider’s article The Busy Trap, “Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day.”

“Too busy” is at best a euphemism, and at worst a scapegoat. There is always time for the things you put first. But instead of focusing on what’s most important, the solution most commonly applied is to improve efficiency — striving to get smarter, better and faster by using productivity apps, lifehacks and multi-tasking. Improving efficiency is a very rational response to the feelings of busyness and unproductivity. But the solution isn’t in getting more trivial things done. The solution is measuring the amount of time we spend on the things that matter most.

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