Science of Success

A time-management expert shares the simple daily habit that will make you more productive

Tracking every minute of every day for 3 years led to this surprising lesson
Tracking every minute of every day for 3 years led to this surprising lesson

According to a recent Gallup poll, 41 percent of adults in the U.S. feel like they don't have enough time to do everything they want.

As a result, 44 percent say they also feel stressed in their daily life, with working parents experiencing the most stress as it relates to time.

In her book "Off the Clock: Feel Less Busy While Getting More Done," Laura Vanderkam explains how one simple step can be the key to greater productivity.

"I really recommend that anyone who wants to know where the time really goes try tracking their time, because you know people always say, 'Well, I want to spend my time better,'" she tells CNBC Make It. "But if you don't know where the time really goes, how do you know if you're changing the right thing?"

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In March of 2017, Vanderkam recruited more than 900 people to see exactly how people spend their day. On one day, she asked the participants to give a general description of how they think they utilize their time. On the next day, she asked them to actually track their schedule, hour by hour.

More people felt better about their time when they tracked it than they did when they didn't.

"First, people who feel like they have enough time are exceedingly mindful of their time," she writes in her book. "They take ownership of their lives and think through their days and weeks ahead of time. They also reflect on their lives, figuring out what worked and what didn't."

In her personal life, Vanderkam says she tracked her daily activities for three years and was surprised to discover that she spent close to an hour each day reading. Beforehand, she says she always felt like she was too busy to read. But after discovering that she actually spent a lot of minutes reading mindless magazines and scanning daily headlines, she decided to be more intentional about that space in her schedule.

Suzy Welch: This is the productivity hack that top CEOs swear by
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"I started building 'book deciding time' into my life, where I'd think about what I wish to read next and look at reviews and figure out what other people are reading," she says. "As a result, not only was it that I started reading more, I started reading a lot more interesting books, too."

While she admits that tracking your routine for three years is extreme, Vanderkam says you can start on a much smaller scale by creating a weekly spreadsheet that is broken into half-hour and one-hour blocks. Each day, she says you should check your spreadsheet roughly three times to fill in the activities you've been doing. She recommends that you avoid wasting time by recording tedious tasks like bathroom breaks, and instead focus on tracking tasks like work, sleep, driving, making dinner or hanging out with your kids.

By doing this, she says you will likely discover that no matter how busy you are, you still have some space in your schedule that can be rearranged for more meaningful and enjoyable activities. You may discover, for example, that you spend a lot of time before bed browsing online or doing unnecessary things around the house. Now, with a spreadsheet that tracks your day, you may see that you have room to go to bed earlier so that you can wake up earlier to work out or have that leisurely family breakfast that you always felt you were too busy for.

"I think it's about seeing where the time goes and then you can ask, 'Well, am I spending my time in ways that are meaningful and enjoyable to me and the people I care about?'" she says. "And if not, how can I change that? And if I am, let's celebrate that because that's really awesome!"

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