As any parent watching their children grow at warp speed will know, time goes by so fast. So how we spend it is crucial.

And of course, the unicorn in the haystack seems to be free time. There never seems to be enough of it, does there?


Jeff Sanders, author of The Free-Time Formula, says, ‘All of your time is free time—every minute.’ It’s your life, and your life is made of time.


So sure, some of that time needs to be spent on activities to keep you alive, like procuring food, but you still have choice of how you do that. For most of us that means a job that pays us money so we buy food, but you get the idea. The job you do to earn that money is ultimately your choice (note: I appreciate, though, that changing career to something you love – or finding something you love that also pays the bills – is easier said than done. But it is possible). And how you approach doing that job is largely up to you, too.


I’m a big fan of periodically tracking my time. How do I spend (or dare I say, waste) it? Are there any pockets of time I could use better?


When I’ve done this before, it’s largely been at work, where I tracked time so I could make my work day more productive and leave the office satisfied. I’ve managed to cut some of the fat from my day at work, so I can get everything done (or mostly everything done) and still leave on time for the nursery run, so this practice definitely works well for working parents.


But as I round the halfway point of my final maternity leave, I am putting loads of pressure on myself to make it count. This is my last baby, my last break from work for the foreseeable future, and the time is just rushing past me! I feel as busy as ever but look back at the day exhausted and struggle to name three things I did that don’t sound incredibly lame and lazy or boring. And from conversations I have with new mums all the time, I don’t think I’m alone. The shift from career to keeping a little human alive and happy is a big one. So much of what we do is hard to pin down and flies under the radar.


So I have been doing this again, maternity leave edition. Here’s some of the things I’ve been learning.


I am multitasking, big time


As in, I am frequently reading/nursing. Or washing up/singing to baby. Or listening to podcasts/going to pick up my son from school. Or helping my one son with his homework while changing the other one’s nappy. There is very little time when I am just sitting and mindfully doing one thing.


Most people can probably relate to this as multitasking is widespread. But I have actually been a big believer in NOT multitasking and being mindfully focussed on one thing at a time for a couple of years. I even wrote a blog about it. And the science backs me up: we are not built for multitasking.


I think being a parent, especially with young kids, you have to adjust a little. But I also thought that maybe I’d feel better if I did just a little bit less slashing as my time tracking experiment went on. Frankly, it’s exhausting constantly doing lots of things at once.


I started to allow myself to do just one thing. By having 15-minute increments, I knew it didn’t have to be for long. I found it easier to cut back on things that I did while doing something else (ahem, Facebook), in part because I didn’t want to have to log ‘nursing/facebook’.


As the experiment went on, I started to have more, small chunks of time devoted to just one thing, like “being with baby” and “playing with the boys”. A 15-minute game of Memory with my elder son was fun for both of us and I really cherish that little memory. It also helped me give myself guilt-free permission later on to ‘just’ cook dinner and let him play on his own. I knew that we had played together and would likely play together again, so it was okay to spend time doing something productive and let him entertain himself for a bit.


Approaching my day as a lot of smaller chunks of time meant there was less pressure to make each activity be more elaborate than it needed to be, or bigger than I could afford for it to be.


Little and often matters more than once in a while


Kind of related to the above, I could steal 15 minutes of reading twice a day everyday much more easily than a half hour of dedicated reading time once a day.


Knowing I could probably find another 15-minute block of time to write later meant I didn’t start to panic when a blog post I was writing wasn’t coming together and my baby was no longer entertained sitting on the floor surrounded by toys. Pre-experiment, my approach would have been to try to find more toys that would entertain him just until I could finish what I was doing. Inevitably each toy would fail and he would become annoyed (fair enough) and anything I did manage to write would suffer as my mind would be partly on trying to keep the baby happy, partly on trying to finish and partly entertaining an undercurrent of guilt (‘here I am writing and waving a Sophie Giraffe instead of attending to my baby’s needs immediately and gathering him in my arms straight away…’).


The frequency of opportunities has made up for the short duration and being fairly constantly in demand, from either or both of my boys. Maybe I only have 15 minutes to write today, but I won’t have to wait a whole week before I can write again.


As Gretchen Rubin says, ‘What you do every day matters more than what you do once in a while.’


I do more than I thought I did


Particularly in my case, I was amazed how many times I’d finish a 15- or 30-minute block of time and type in the word ‘housework’ in the iPhone calendar.


Washing dishes, tidying the lounge, doing laundry…it’s the kind of housework that needs doing almost as soon as you’ve done it. It’s a slog that happens every day, sometimes multiple times a day. It doesn’t warrant the big ‘ta da!’ of accomplishing other household tasks like deep cleaning the kitchen or decluttering a wardrobe. But it’s there, and it needs to be done, even if it can seem invisible.


Facebook didn’t miss me, and the feeling was mutual


I cut back on my social media time. Even though no one but me would see my time tracking, I was very aware of what I wanted to log and what I frankly didn’t want to have to type into my calendar. I started to concentrate my facebook time into five minutes or less (I think because in my mind that didn’t warrant being logged).


And five minutes was really all I needed to get what I enjoy from facebook, but still short enough that I closed it down at just about the point when a) I’d feel envy at someone else’s seemingly perfect life; b) start reading a depressing news article about Trump that didn’t serve me or make me a better citizen, just an angrier one; or c) I’d find myself starting to debate with someone I last saw nearly 20 years ago about a topic where neither of us would likely change our viewpoint.


Activity: Want to do it yourself?


It’s simple. Track how you’re spending your time. I choose minimum 15-minute intervals, which I tend to log it in my diary, either on my iPhone or in my Outlook at work. But find something that works for you. It needs to be easy and ideally done in the moment, as it’s nigh-on impossible to remember at the end of the day and do it all in one go. After a chunk of time has been spent, rounded to the nearest 15-minute mark, I log it as a diary appointment. At the end of a two-week period or so, look back and categorise the appointments and see where your time is going. Added benefit is if you can reflect during the experiment on which days were particularly happy days, which ones dragged or felt empty. How were your energy levels? And how did these relate to how you spent your time? If you can keep a top-line (literally, 1-3 sentences per day) mood diary, it might be interesting to see if there are any trends you can take with you.


A word of caution


Tracking your time can exacerbate a feeling of scarcity. As Paul Dolan writes in Happiness By Design:
“The moral of these various studies is that you are less happy when you are paying attention to time (and especially to time as money) rather than to the activities you are engaged in.”


This activity can provide insights, but is best in the relatively short-term, so you can take those insights into your daily life and enact small changes to either how you spend your time or how you engage with it. I did find by the end of my experiment, I felt rich with time and unburdened by not having to track it anymore.


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