J.D. Moyer

sci-fi writer, beat maker, self-experimenter

Activity Audit – Where Does All The Time Go?

At some point everything drops …

December and January brought more freelance coding and database work than expected, but now I’m in a quiet stretch. It’s given me the opportunity to experiment with my ideal schedule. That is, working on writing and music as much as I want to, without a heavy load of client work. For the moment (and as long as I’m comfortable with how much I have in the bank) I can pretend I’m a full-time artiste.

It’s fun! I’ve been writing fiction in the mornings (with more optimism these days–I recently had another story accepted for publication at a pro rate, bringing me that much closer to SFWA active membership). In the afternoon I head to the studio and make beats, or work on Loöq Records, or do whatever needs to be done around the house. Pretty much my ideal weekday schedule.

But large swaths of unstructured time can be dangerous. I’ve had similar opportunities in the past, and squandered them, losing whole days to video games or trying to read the entire internet. Those of you who are self-employed may be able to relate.

A few years ago, in response to my own “Where does all the time go?” question, I ran an “activity audit,” a detailed analysis of all the activities in my life that require work/effort. After listing all the major activity areas (database/coding work, fiction writing, music production, household/parenting, etc.), I asked myself a series of questions about each activity.

Honing on in the what, why, and how for each activity gave me a great deal of clarity. It also improved my focus throughout the day (especially my ability to resist distractions), and helped me decide what to do each day, and in what order.

In the long run, the activity audit was more effective than any other productivity technique I tried, like locking myself out of certain internet sites, or depriving myself of coffee until I’d started writing. If I’m clear on my purpose and intended direction in life, and how the things I spend my time on fit into that picture, distractions are less of an issue. I still use quotas and have production targets, but I don’t rely on those for motivation.

Here are the questions I asked myself in regards to each activity:

  1. How does the activity support my life purpose (my best understanding of what I’m trying to contribute to the world in this life)?
  2. Why do I do this activity? What are the benefits and potential benefits?
  3. What’s my main objective in regards to this activity? (Answering this question in seven words or fewer adds an additional challenge. Same for any question on this list.)
  4. What is my strategy or game plan for achieving this main objective?
  5. What my mission statement for this activity?
  6. What’s my method or system for this activity? What is the approach or regular practice?
  7. When during the day or week do I engage in this activity?
  8. How much time do I spend on this activity each week?
  9. What the ideal amount of time I would spend on this activity each week?
  10. What is the ideal pace for this activity (or output or rate of production, if applicable)?
  11. What is my improvement plan for this activity? How do I get better at it?
  12. What are the risks or costs associated with this activity?
  13. What traps or common pitfalls should I work to avoid while engaging in this activity?

Audit Results

Coming up with truthful, succinct responses to each of these questions for each activity area in my life took a long time. It also made me realize I was trying to do too many things, spreading myself too thin, and the audit made it clear which things had to be cut, scaled back, or put on hiatus.

The exercise helped me decide what commitment level I had to each activity. I ended up with two categories: 16-20 hours per week and 4-6 hours per week. In order to make time for those things I really want or need to focus on, I had to reduce my commitment level in a few areas.

But I didn’t completely cut anything that was bringing in something positive (income, strengthening relationships, progress towards my artistic goals, a sense of purpose, feeling good, etc.).

The exercise did force me to get more realistic about my hobbies. I can’t run a complex D&D campaign, search for treasure with my metal detector, make tables in my backyard, AND also make a living, be a good dad and husband, make music, and write fiction. At the moment there’s room for one hobby at a time, a few hours a week. I can live with that.

Since completing the activity audit, I review and update my responses at least a couple times each year. As part of this review, I update the following additional categories for each activity:

  • “Current focus” (the main thing I’m working on–could be a project, or interpersonal, or developing a skill)
  • “Pipeline” (all other current projects and the status of each)
  • “Idea cloud” (projects I’m considering but haven’t yet started or committed to)

So, that’s my “activity audit” system. Feel free to adapt for your own use!

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6 Comments

  1. I have been wrestling with something similar this month–more time to focus just on writing, and the realization that I haven’t prioritized it as much as I’d like. I’m going to apply your questions to my activities, since I’ve also been struggling to figure out which of many commitments to devote more time to and which to drop. Sometimes I wish I had a 9-5 job where someone else tells me exactly what to work on! (Just kidding. I love the freelance life.)

  2. Andrew Reeder

    Wow another fascinating post. I think the reason I love your blogs so much is because they feel in the same vein as Malcom Gladwell. Has anyone ever told you that? I would love to see a whole book of all subjects related to your blog posts intertwining to make several good points. A convergence of all your favorite subjects would be an amazing book! Anyway I have a question about how you recorded your activities. Did you just keep a note pad all day and make a note ever hour what you did? Just curious. Ok take care.

    • Thanks, that’s a huge compliment!

      I have used time tracking software in the past, and I may have even used in the first time I did this exercise. Can’t remember what I used though …

      I do tracking writing time in a spreadsheet, and of course I track my work for clients so I can bill them. I also make blocks in Calendar (I just use the built in Apple software) for anything that takes an hour or more.

  3. First let me say I truly enjoy what you have written here, and am amazed that you have so much in-depth nutrition understanding.

    Since I am a recently officially retired computer programmer and have somewhat of a daoist perspective, I want to suggest another approach to “activity.” It appears to me you are probably just doing what you want to do, but you are spending some time finding rational reasons for what you are doing or not doing.

    I’ve been experimenting with having no rationale, but simply making sure I don’t push upon myself anything but what my mind unconsciously decides to do sans rationality. I find everything gets done that I want to do and I feel liberated to not have a rationale for everything. Perhaps this does not result in maximal productivity, but hey! stuff is still getting produced and it is pretty good or else I lose interest in it, such as my recent music composition attempt where I was trying to write something in F minor that had no D flat, only C sharps, but at the final F my mind plays a B natural, the tritone of death that says, no, you have not successfully established your tonality, why don’t you try again later.

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