168 Hours

How do you spend most of your time? If you’re like me, your immediate response is probably one of “working” or “sleeping”.

Is that really accurate, though?


In each week, there are  168 hours. Just for fun, I did some back-of-the-napkin type accounting of how I spend my time. I’d encourage you to do the same.

Of those 168 hours, I found that I personally spend approximately:

  • 45 working, commuting to or from work, and eating lunch at work
  • 60 sleeping
  • 12 cooking and eating when not at work

Which leaves about 51 hours every week for “other stuff”. That’s more time than I spend sleeping, and more time than I spend working. But for some reason, it never registered for me.

Catching the Time

And, if you’re like me, you might just look at your own numbers and say “my God, where is all that time going? What am I doing with it all? And what do I have to show for it?”

Here’s the thing. Every week, we all have 168 hours to do with whatever we want. That could be working, eating, sleeping, reading, exploring, exercising… whatever.

This is especially good news for scanners. That’s a lot of time to spend exploring your various interests. When I realized how much time I had, even apart from work and sleeping, I realized that I could pick ten different activities or interests, and spend 5 hours on each of them, every week.

Making the Time

Now that’s all well and good, but for as much as the numbers say I have that much time, I can’t remember the last time I spent 5 hours a week on something — never mind on ten somethings.

As I was re-reading The 4-Hour Workweek last week, I realized why. In the book, Tim Ferriss discusses Parkinson’s Law, which states

Work expands to fill the time available for its completion.

In other words, I spend 45 hours a week doing things related to work, and my work tends to fill that time (regardless of how much of it is really just shuffling paperwork around). I spend 60 hours sleeping, because that’s how much time is between going to bed and my alarm. I spend 12 hours cooking and eating because I eat fast and J does a lot of the cooking 😉

But I spend 51 hours “doing nothing” because that’s the amount of time allotted to “doing nothing.”

Now, we all need time to do nothing — to chill, relax, whatever. But I probably don’t need 51 hours worth.

Choosing Your Big Rocks

There’s a popular metaphor for time management, made famous by Stephen Covey. There are many variations on the story (and mathematicians will recognize this as a version of the Knapsack problem), but the gist of all of them is this:

Take a glass jar, a pile of rocks, a pile of pebbles, a pile of sand, and a pile of water. How can you fit the most of everything into the jar?

If you start by filling the jar with water or sand, and you won’t be able to fit anything else in. All you get is water or sand.

If you start with the pebbles, and then add water or sand, you’ll be able to get more in because the water or sand will creep in around the pebbles. But you won’t be able to fit in any big rocks.

The key is to fill the jar with the biggest rocks first. Then add pebbles, shake up the jar, and let them settle in the cracks. Then add the sand, and finally the water.

When all is said and done, you’ll have a very full jar — filled with the most of everything.

Jars of 168

If the metaphor isn’t already obvious, the meaning is simply this:

We each have week-sized jars that hold 168 hours. We can fill our time with one or two large rocks (work and sleep), one or two pebbles (eating) and then fill the rest up with water and sand (doing nothing).

And while the week will be full, it won’t have as much in it of the things we would want — like going for walks, reading books or catching up with friends. It will seem like there’s no time for doing what you want.

But if you first establish what you want your big rocks to be, and make time for them first, you’ll be able to fit them in. Parkinson’s Law will take care of the rest.

Note: for most of us, there are a couple of big rocks that seem fixed in size and importance: work and sleep. But there’s almost always room for one or two more — or, if you’re a scanner, you may not need more big rocks, but instead just focus on filling up your jar with lots of pebbles (small projects) before you add the sand and water. And maybe in the future, I’ll also write about some ways that people have been able to shrink the size of those biggest two rocks.

Making the Numbers Work for You

Take five minutes now, and figure out what your weekly breakdown is. Determine how much time you have, each week, to spend on things that you never seem to have the time for. Then make the time — book it off with yourself — and start making room for those pebbles and rocks.

Your numbers might be less (you may have kids, or work longer days, or have a longer commute), but the key is to realize that you do have time. We all have exactly the same amount, every week, to spend how we will. It’s our choice how we fill our jars and our hours.

What are you doing with your 168 hours?

Scanner Productivity: The Gather Sheet

After last time telling you how I got my inbox from overflowing to empty, it seems only natural that I also share another of my little time-saving tricks: my handy-dandy Gather Sheet.

Really, The Gather Sheet is just one part of how I manage my time as as scanner. So, I’ll focus on that for right now — but if you all are interested, in a future post, I can explain how I combine it with things like TimeBoxing and the Scanner Daybook.

Why I’ve Hated To-Do Lists

I actually really hated writing to-do lists growing up as a kid. It probably didn’t help that most of them consisted of such enjoyable tasks as “clean your room” or “vacuum the living room”.

And then there’s that scanner part of me. You know, the part that finds to-do lists constraining and confining. The moment something went onto my list, it would haunt me: “Do me… do me! Even if you’re on a completely different scanner track, I must be done!”

Why I’ve Loved To-Do Lists

On the other hand, I’ve found that — especially when I’m extremely busy — I get stressed if I try to just keep all of my “to-do” items in my head. In some ways, writing things down was my security blanket: I didn’t have to worry about forgetting things, because I knew I could just go back to my list and all would be fine.

This “clicked” for me when I read David Allen’s fantastic Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity. As much as I hated them, I consistently found that to-do lists (especially the way that Allen proposed using them) tended to keep me a little more sane.  It was immensely freeing to not keep everything in my head.

The Gather Sheet

It’s taken me a while, but I think I’ve finally found a solution that works for the scanner in me (that’s the part that craves flexibility in when I do things) and the sanity part of me (that’s the part that needs the peace of mind that comes from writing things down). I call it The Gather Sheet.

The gather sheet is what you used to call a to-do list. But it’s not a list of all the things you must get done at a certain date or else lightning will strike you down and locusts will swarm and the plague will hit and the world will end (whew!).

It’s simply a collection of projects that will be tackled sooner or later. What I’ve found phenomenal is how just that simple mind shift can relax the inner scanner!

Understanding the Gather Sheet

Here’s a PDF version of my Gather Sheet; feel free to download it and use it as you so desire. Here’s what all those various fields mean to me:

1) The Date

At the top goes the date. I create a new Gather Sheet every day, because it doubles as my work to-do list.

2) The Requests

Next to get filled in is everything that I want or need to get done. These might be things from my daybook, they might be things that my boss says I have to do, or whatever. I call them “requests” because really, that’s all they are: requests for my time.

In the order they come in, I write these “requests” under (surprise!) the requests heading. It’s really important to include these in the order that they arrived, rather than some ‘priority’ system. If you try to prioritize things, you’ll basically have created just another to-do list, complete with outside pressure and timelines.

I also try to keep my requests as detailed as possible. In Getting Things Done terminology, I include only my “next actions” — the very next actionable thing I could take on any one project. So, instead of “Write Novel” it might be “Create a character sketch for my novel protagonist”. Basically, you want the task to be actionable.

Every time you get another request for your time, it goes on the request list. (The one exception I have here is for appointments — I put those on a calendar because I need the visual reinforcement of timelines.)

3) The Carry-Forward Flags

Now, for each request, go through and fill in the “CF” box. Basically, I use this as an indication of how long a certain request has been sitting on my list.

  • A number represents how many days it’s been carried forward.
  • A “W” means that I’m waiting on someone else before I can do anything with the request
  • An “N” means that the project is brand-new and hasn’t been carried forward at all yet

I’m sure there are other flags that you could come up with, but really those are the only ones I’ve found useful for me.

4) The MIT, APPTS and LHF Fields

MIT means “Most Important Task(s)” and APPTS is short for “Appointments”. This is where any non-negotiable stuff goes. Things that I could get fired for not doing, for example 😉

The MIT box is where I put the one most important thingon the requests list that I must get done on that day. It’s my “keep self honest” box. If there’s something that I would procrastinate on but which I really must do, it goes in this box and is completely non-negotiable.

I typically keep my appointments separate, in a calendar, but you could put them down as requests if you found it more useful.

LHF is shorthand for “Low Hanging Fruit”. What goes in this box is any request that I can get done, fast — generally 30 minutes or less. I love the feeling of accomplishment that comes from getting things done, so I usually try to have at least 2-3 LHF every day.

5) The “Notes” Field (Blank Column on the Left)

This one’s like my mini-daybook, notepad, and call log all in one. It’s place where I can jot ideas as they come to me, phone numbers of people I need to call, details of upcoming projects, sketches of upcoming designs, etc.

Basically, it’s free space that allows me to use my Gather Sheet as my primary collection device in meetings, on the phone, or just when daydreaming.

Getting Stuff Done, Gather Sheet Style

Once you’ve got your gather sheet set up the first time, using it is pretty simple.

  • New requests for your time go at the bottom of the request list, with a CF flag of “N”
  • Every request that gets completed gets crossed off. If there’s a “next step” to a request (for example, after writing a character sketch for the protagonist, I might want to rite one for the antagonist), it gets its own line as a new item
  • MIT gets done first thing — no checking email, or the weather, or anything else until that’s done
  • LHF usually gets done next, since they’re things that I can get done quickly
  • When deciding what to do next, I usually look for items with the highest CF values and work at them. This helps me not procrastinate on things for too long, but gives me the flexibility to work on things as I feel like it

That’s pretty much it. Use it throughout the day as new requests come in, old ones get done, etc.

The last bit of the system is: before the end of the day (be it the work day or before you go to bed), review all that you go done the previous day!

  1. Look at everything you finished! Do any have follow-up items that you should write down as new requests? If so, do that first.
  2. For any request that didn’t get crossed out, ask yourself: do I still want to do this? (or, if it’s a work task, “does this still need to be done?”). If yes, it gets an arrow drawn in under the arrow column. If not, it gets an X.
  3. Flip to a new page, and write tomorrow’s date at the top.
  4. Copy, in the same order that they appear on today’s page, any request that you drew an arrow beside. Increment the CF by one (since it’s been carried forward an additional day).
  5. Look at your calendar and write down any appointments, including time and location.
  6. Decide what your MIT and LHF are for the next day. Write them down. Don’t be afraid to make your MIT something that you want to do, rather than something your boss or significant other wants you to do!

And that’s it. Put it somewhere you’ll see it, first thing — at the kitchen table if you’re using it at home, or maybe on top of your computer keyboard if at work.

The Benefits

Like I said before, the Gather Sheet is what’s worked for me — and I hate to-do lists! The reasons it works are many:

  • It gets stuff out of your head, and on to paper. Very de-stressing!
  • It respects your time, by allowing you to see everything that you’ve got going on at a glance
  • You have the flexibility to cancel items that no longer interest you, or that no longer need to be done
  • On a similar note, you can see at a glance you can see what you’ve been procrastinating on — and either get it done, or leave it behind
  • You can get things done quickly, because you’ve identified things like low hanging fruit and most important tasks
  • It allows you to do things when you want to, rather than based on a priority system that’s imposed on you or arbitrary

What about you? Do you have a time management tool that you like to use? Or maybe you’re trying the Gather Sheet for the first time — how’s it working for you? Feel free to share your insights and ideas for the rest of the readers!