Never Always Look Back
Sep 22, 2015 is a date I’ll never forget. Not because anything special happened that day. Because something special started. It’s Day 1 of a practice that’s had a surprisingly huge impact on my life: keeping track of time.
A movie director named Robert Rodriguez inspired me to try. In his podcast interview on The Tim Ferriss Show, he recounted how he started the peculiar habit of journaling everything he does in college and never looked back since.
Actually, the opposite. He always looks back. And he attributes a lot of his personal and professional success to it.
That sounded good to me, so that same day I decided to give it a try.
And I haven’t stopped. Everything Rodriguez said was true. Keeping track of time has been a gift from my past self to my future selves that keeps on giving.
The Magic of Keeping Track of Time
Get More Sh*t Done
“I would look [at my daily log] and I’d go: wow, I didn’t have very much to write about myself at the end of that day. I’m going to have to give myself more things on the left so I have more to write stuff on the right. It really made you reflect on your day and realize I didn’t do much today.”Robert Rodriguez
One thing jumped off the page after my first few days of keeping track of time: how productive I wasn’t. I realized:
- I worked way fewer hours than I felt I did. In a week where I might have guessed I had put in a good 60 hours work, the reality was closer to 30.
- Most of what I spent my time on wasn’t important. Too much time spending, not enough time investing.
- Multi-tasking is as useless as they say. I never accomplished anything of substance when I tried doing two things at once.
That’s when a new character entered my life: My future self. I could feel him looking over my shoulder. He’d read my time tracking log and get pissed off at me for dicking around down YouTube wormholes or putting off important projects by staying busy with trivialities. Not wanting to let him down, I became more conscious of what I did with our time.
My future self and I are getting along better now. Keeping track of time is helping us communicate. And we’re getting way more sh*t done because of it.
Drop Out of the Race
I want to be the guy looking through the windshield, not the rearview mirror. But sometimes you can see better through the windshield if you look through the rearview mirror and look at some of the stuff that’s gone on.Robert Rodriguez
Until I started keeping track of time, I lived like I was in a NASCAR race, speeding around without rearview mirrors. I didn’t risk looking back because it would slow me down.
Not anymore. Time tracking as taught me to look at life as an exploration, so I dropped out of the race. While it’s exciting to explore further and faster, if I don’t keep track of where I’ve been and use that to guide me, I’ll get lost or go in the wrong direction. Or, like a NASCAR driver, I’ll go in circles.
Keeping track of time doesn’t slow me down too much anyway. Every time I move from one activity to the next, I log the time and a quick description of what I did. It takes maybe five to ten seconds each time and adds up to a couple of minutes a day total.
Keep the Past Alive
For anyone who is a parent, it’s a must. It’s a must because your children – and you – forget everything. Within a few years, they’ll forget things that you think they should remember for the rest of their lives. They’ll only remember it if it’s reinforced.Robert Rodriguez
You ask your girlfriend or your wife, what did we do last year on your birthday? They won’t remember. A year goes by and you will not remember the details. You go back and you see the journals, it’s even better the second time. You live through it again and you realize the importance of it.Robert Rodriguez
I regret not keeping any records of my early adulthood.
- Where all did I go during my misguided country-counting rampage I went on while working in Switzerland?
- What were the names of the characters I met during my South American pretirement tour?
- How exactly did that evening go when I first connected with Kim?
These key scenes in the story of my life have become hazy blurs. Others have vanished.
That’s not the case for any date after Sep 22, 2015. I can easily pull up any moment from my time tracking journal to rekindle and relive them in vivid detail with the people I experienced them with.
I’m grateful for it. And, as I keep accumulating more memories and locking them into my journal, my future self will be grateful, too.
Learn From Experience (and Not Forget)
“It’s really a learning experience. I’m just going to go make it, and I’m going to give a look back on my journal and see where I messed up. So it was really going to be a document so I wouldn’t make that mistake again.”Robert Rodriguez
Even though experience is the best teacher, I still manage to forget its lessons. And it sure feels stupid to have to learn a second time.
Keeping track of my time has kept that from continuing. By noting what I did, what worked, and what didn’t, I know what to do and how how to do it better the next time.
To give a couple of examples:
- Relationship lessons. When Kim and my relationship started getting turbulent, I went to my time tracking journal to identify the seemingly innocuous ingredients and patterns that combined to cause the storm. We then came up with proactive defenses, like our daily gratitude practice, to keep things smooth(-er).
- Tech-related how-tos. For example, it took me way more time than it should to figure out how to get a PDF into an easy-to-read format on my Kindle. When I had to do it a second time years later, it was a breeze because I’d written down the steps I took and linked to the guides I followed.
“I would find that you meet the same people over and over again. I wrote down specifics of people I would meet casually in Hollywood, knowing we would run into each other again. They ended up being great collaborators ten years later, or showing up in things. And I’d be able to go back and read them stuff from the early days and that would blow them away.”Robert Rodriguez
As Dale Carnegie said in one of my favorite “sledgehammer” books, “A person’s name is to that person, the sweetest, most important sound in any language.”
And it’s equally bitter when another can’t remember it.
Since my social skills are too weak to mask such bitterness, I make sure to record the names of people I meet in my time tracking journal. For an extra cherry and whipped cream on top, I note details like what they do, their interests, and trips or projects they have planned. That way, if and when I see them again I can refer to my modern Rolodex and make it a sweet reunion, not a bitter one.
So really capturing these ideas is the most important thing. And then as you go through it, you realize okay, this one I’ll never do, this one I’ll never do, you know, with your to-do list and stuff.Robert Rodriguez
As I’m sure is the case with you too, my brain’s a wild and messy place. All sorts of crazy new ideas, thoughts, and plans zoom in, out, and around it all day.
Thankfully I have my time tracking journal to corral them.
If I catch something special or urgent, I’ll add it straight to the daily or weekly to-do lists atop my time tracking sheets. But most random thoughts aren’t special or urgent… yet. Business and blog post ideas, topics to look up in more detail, theories to marinate on, and fun twists of phrase, for example. I capture them all and organize them into notes like bins in an attic. It doesn’t cost me anything to store them and it makes them easy to find if and when they may come in handy.
What did I learn that I can now use later? And it may take me ten years to figure it out but it’ll be there when I need it, and then I’ll be able to look back and check a journal and go: oh yeah, this and that equaled together.Robert Rodriguez
About a year after I started keeping track of my time and my ideas, I added a new dimension: keeping track of other people’s ideas.
It seems stupidly obvious now. Other people’s ideas, quotes, theories, and facts that I discover deserve just as much space in my idea attic as mine do. More, actually, since they almost certainly know better than me.
What has happened since is less obvious. Not only did the note-taking improve my recall and understanding, but all the ideas began interconnecting into a matrix. So when I look through my journal for ideas or inspiration on a topic, I usually make unexpected connections between different sources. My time tracking journal metamorphosed into a second brain!
A Growing Treasure
Now it’s become an addiction and it’s just so necessaryRobert Rodriguez
It’s been nearly five years since Robert Rodriguez first inspired me to keep track of everything I do.
And what a fabulous five years they’ve been!
I don’t think I could have done it all if not for the future-self focus and second brain-like creativity my journal has given me. What started as an experiment and a couple few pages of notes has become a library that is easily my most valuable possession. And it gets more valuable to me every day.
Is It Time?
Are you interested in seeing if keeping track of time can have an equally profound impact on your life as is has on Robert Rodriguez’s and mine? Do you have any doubts, ideas, or questions about it?
Let me know in the comments.