Funny How It Adds Up (Time Budgeting)

Posted in productivity bloggery -


We have too many things that we want to learn, and not enough time for them all. To help myself with this, I’m going to try working out a kind of personal time budget that I can actually stick to.

It’s the New Year, of course, which means looking at how many things that I want to do, and despairing at finding the time to do them all. (I know that I have the same 24 hours each day that Einstein did, etc. etc. That makes me feel even worse about it). Following this review by Russ Allbery, I got a copy of Secrets of Productive People, by Mark Forster and started reading. The author actually begins with time costs, to make the point that learning a new skill or carrying out a project will require a non-trivial investment of your time, and you have to deal with that.

OK, How Much Time Do I Actually Have?

It’s not difficult to work out a rough schedule, but the different slots of time that I will have available are not equivalent. The time that I have during (train) commutes is better in some ways than, say, time later in an evening, because I know that I will have more energy.

The train commutes give me about 30 minutes. There’s another complication, though: I don’t have Internet access during most of my commute.

For these reasons, I’m dividing my time slots into three kinds: Wide, Narrow and Consolidation (naming is hard). Wide slots are the times when I have Internet access and the energy to actively work on things, Narrow slots are when I don’t have much Internet access but could focus and do something useful, and Consolidation slots are when I can do low-intensity stuff, like reviewing code or reading.

Mondays to Thursdays:

  • Morning: 30 minutes (Narrow)
  • Evening: 30 minutes (Narrow)
  • Evening, after dinner etc.: 30-45 minutes (Consolidation)


  • Morning: 30 minutes (Narrow)
  • Evening: 30 minutes (Narrow)


  • Day off!


  • Morning: 30-60 minutes (Consolidation)
  • Afternoon, after lunch: 45-120 minutes (Wide)

This tells me that I can optimistically commit to up to 105 minutes in the average weekday, but no more than 16 time slots a week. That’s not enough to do a huge amount in each session, but it is still three slots of time, every day, if I can make use of them.

A nice side-effect of laying this out is that I’ve realised that if I could make a schedule and stick to it, I would not feel so guilty about spending time not working.

Expensive Distractions

Now that I know that I only have 30 minutes in most of my time slots, it’s easy to see that if I get distracted, I can lose a whole slot of time, and I only have a limited set of time slots to spend.

In the past, I’ve tended to be pursuing multiple areas of interest at a time, and realistically, if I try to focus on just one thing, I’ll get bored of it. On the other hand I’ll probably need to stick to no more than two projects or topics at once in order to make good progress.

Making the Time Productive (or Something)

Forster also makes the really important point that efficiency is a terrible way to frame time management. We are not robots, and efficiency isn’t a useful goal in itself.

Thinking about it, the feeling of accomplishment is crucial for me. If I can see some actual product that improves steadily as I work on it, I’m energised and happy. Equally, I know that I easily get fed up of plodding along towards a distant or vaguely defined goal.

This is probably the hardest part. Since I typically only have 30 minutes, I need to figure out a way to get a positive accomplishment from quite short sessions. Hmm.

An obvious solution is to spend one of my Wide slots laying out a plan for the week. The obvious problem is that sounds dull and serious, and I’ve just concluded that the way for me to actually be productive is to get enjoyment and a visible result from each time slot. There needs to be touch of fun and self-indulgence somewhere in this.

Oh, right…


I’m not time-poor, instead I need to think about how I structure my personal projects. The big challenge is determining how to get something that feels valuable and fun from quite short blocks of time.

Happily, an obvious answer presents itself for me. Since I enjoy writing, I’ll blog. Writing more than one post a week seems like it would be too much, so I’ll go for one post a week, each Sunday. The posts will have silly titles for my own amusement, but the technical content will hopefully be somewhat better.

Next Sunday: A Pocket Guide to Linting

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