I put away my scale for the month of January. Generally, I believe in weighing myself daily, which research supports as helping with weight control. But I could tell I was investing too much in the flashing numbers, being buoyed or dismayed by small fluctuations instead of putting emphasis on real health: how I feel, how well I’m eating, and how regularly I’m exercising.
In the new year, I am also committing to avoid looking at my own reviews on Goodreads and Amazon. At this point, I’m not learning anything and it’s just become one more minor compulsion masquerading as “work.”
Analytics don’t always help us, especially when they keep feeding us information we already know or don’t really need to know.
Sometimes, however, data can be life-changing.
If you’re a writer, do you know how much you wrote (or revised, or promoted your work) last year? If you’re an avid reader, can you compare how much time you spent with a nose in a book instead of looking at news or your favorite social media site?
It’s one thing when you simply don’t realize how much time you’re spending at a given task. It’s even more surprising when you find out what you don’t know.
“Lost time is like a run in a stocking. It always gets worse,” said Anne Morrow Lindbergh.
But time not only slips through our fingers. It also confounds our perceptions.
Over a decade ago, I spent some time working on a book that involved looking at how Americans use their time. Among my findings was the foundational fact that people radically misestimate their time usage patterns. For starters, most of us think we work longer hours than we do. (Men overestimate more than women—which is a bit of trivia to keep in mind the next time you meet a guy who claims to work sixty-hour weeks.)
Modern jobs are particularly hard to track, of course, because we can both waste time while “at work” and keep working when we are supposedly off the clock.
This year, for the first time, I decided to track my writing-related hours conscientiously, inspired by writing peers who do the same. (What I’d give to turn back the clock and know exactly how long it took me to write and revise my first five books!)
In the past, I’d used a calendar or daybook, and this gave me rough ideas about time spent per project on a daily or weekly basis, but it was too much work to do a year-end review. So I never did.
Thanks to an app called Toggl, here’s what I know about 2021. For me, some of the results were alarming.
I spent twice as many hours on freelance work (including coaching) as I did on my own creative book revision and writing. I love coaching and I need to make a living, so this didn’t shock me.
I spent twice as many hours on revision as new writing. I revised a single novel six times in 2020-2021, and I intended to give it my all, so I suppose this shocks me only a little. Hey, Joyce Carol Oates says she spends 90 percent of her time revising. If anything, I should probably revise more.
I spent more hours on book promotion, public speaking and social media than on new writing. That gives me pause.
However I crunch the numbers, one thing is clear: new writing has taken a back seat to every other activity in my life as an author—and is only a few steps ahead of my hobbies. (I wrote only twice as many hours as I practiced guitar—and I’m a terrible guitarist who can play only three songs!)
The trend for 2022, so my inbox tells me, is to eschew resolutions and to sneer at productivity. We are tired! And stressed! And disappointed! We don’t want anyone telling us to do more or be more.
But how about at least knowing more?
Thanks to a year of conscientiously tracking, I know I need to remodel my morning routines. I know I need to spend less time on social media and even say no to some promotional events, which can be huge energy-sappers. I need to write more regularly, albeit in small chunks, and do whatever it takes to protect my focus and my confidence.
None of this means I spent 2021 unintentionally. I had meant last year to be more focused on platform-building, freelancing and revising than usual.
But now I have the data, and it feels like a warning, just in time. I picture it as a foghorn, blasting through the confusing mist of the forever-pandemic, trying to tell me that I’d better check my course before I hit the rocks.
Do you know where your time went in 2021? Do you track your writing, reading, creative or entrepreneurial tasks—or would you like to start? How do you differentiate between productivity and living a life with purpose?
Andromeda Romano-Lax is a book coach and the author of five novels including Annie and the Wolves (available in paperback 1/18/22), chosen by Library Journal as a Best Book of the Year and by Booklist as a Top Ten Historical Book of the Year. In 2022, she plans to finish a novel draft and return to a memoir she had previously set aside—especially if she can cut her social media time in half and generally dawdle less. Sign up for her newsletter here.