The Stopwatch Doesn’t Lie

by Kevin Stacey

© 2003  TrainRight, Inc.

The day flew by. The day dragged on and on. You finished your "To Do" list with time to spare. You worked all day, yet accomplished nothing. Even though every day has the same 24 hours, our perception of how much time we have varies constantly. If you can’t quite figure out where the time in your day goes, try putting yourself under the scrutiny of the stopwatch for one day. I call this exercise, "The stopwatch doesn’t lie." The goal is to use an objective measure to find out how you really spend your time.

For this experiment, the only tools you need are a stopwatch, a pen and some paper. Start out by choosing one item on your "To Do" list that you want to focus on that day. It may be preparing a presentation, writing a proposal, organizing files or anything else you need to accomplish that requires some dedicated, focused time. When you begin working on the task, start the clock. The minute you are distracted and lose focus, stop the clock. Write down how much time you spent on the task. Repeat this throughout the day every time you stop and start the project. Anything that breaks your concentration requires you to stop the clock, including answering a phone call, checking email, responding to a crying child or simply daydreaming at your desk. At the end of the day, add up the actual time you spent on the designated task.

What was the result? Were you shocked by how little time you actually spent on this task that was supposed to be a priority? How many times were you interrupted? How much time did you spend attending to distractions? Did you get dizzy from the constant stopping and starting of the clock?

This exercise is often both frustrating and illuminating. It can be frustrating because, despite the fact that you felt you were working all day, the stopwatch says you weren’t productive. It’s also illuminating because you seek in black and white just how you are spending your time. Since the stopwatch doesn’t lie, you can’t pretend you spent a whole day focused on your task when in reality it was only forty-five minutes.

Don’t be surprised to find that you spent much less time on something than you thought. The experiment often reveals that although you were at your desk all day, you were busy responding to interruptions, distractions and other people’s concerns rather than focusing on your own priorities. Once you complete this exercise a few times, you will have a much better sense of how you spend your time and how you might organize your day for increased productivity.

To stay motivated, look at your time breakdown at the end of each day and find a sense of accomplishment in the time you spent focused on a task. Maybe you didn’t finish it, but if you spent several focused hours working on it, that is an accomplishment. If you spent too much time being distracted, acknowledge that and use it to set a new goal for the next day. The goal may be as simple as spending ten more minutes of focused time on a project. You can increase this amount every day until you find a rhythm where you are carving out focused time and learning how to handle distractions efficiently. The new sense of accomplishment you will soon feel at the end of each day will provide motivation and energy for the next day.

You’ve all heard the expression that time is the great equalizer, meaning we all have the same number of hours in a day. How we manage those hours determines whether we remain equal with everyone else or rise to greater success. So take out the stopwatch and monitor your day every once and while. If you don’t objectively measure time now and again, how do you know how you’re spending it?

About the Author

Kevin Stacey helps companies and professionals achieve maximum productivity and effectiveness through stress management and time management training.  He is available to speak on these topics.  For more information visit or call 1-800-603-7168.

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