The Time Bank Productivity System

Time Coin

Earlier this year, I wrote a survey of the Productivity Habits that I’m using to keep my project moving along. This week, I’m going to focus on one habit, which I’m calling Time Bank. I’ll also share a handy spreadsheet that makes it easy to try out this system.

Project Hours

As I wrote in the habits post, I find it useful to keep track the time I spend on project work, even though this is a side project and no one is asking me to fill out timesheets. There are various reasons why you might want to collect work time data. One reason is for planning purposes, and another is for building good habits. Today I’m going to focus on the second benefit.

If you’re trying to accomplish a long-term goal, it helps to have smaller goals that you can track along the way. If you’re writing a book, you could measure the number of words you write per day. If you’re working on a software product, the number of completed user stories per week might be a good metric.

You have to be careful not to take these metrics too literally. Some people, when they hear about these types of metrics, come up with scenarios like writing filler sentences that don’t make it into the book, or coding features that no one asked for. Sure, you could do those things. But the important part of a project is the end result, not the metrics. Metrics can’t make a project successful on their own, but they can increase productivity in a system that is already working.

So let’s stipulate that that measuring words and features can be unreliable. Now I’m going to suggest a metric that is even easier to manipulate: number of hours worked. Spending more time doesn’t automatically get you a better result. But in a productivity system that isn’t already dysfunctional, there is a reasonable correlation between how much time you put into a project and the chance that the project will succeed. It also helps if you’re measuring your time voluntarily, rather than having the practice imposed by a bureaucracy.

One advantage of using hours worked as a metric is that it can be applied to any task, even one where it’s hard to find another appropriate metric. But that’s not the main reason I like to use it. The main reason is that it’s consistent. If you’re measuring completed user stories, some stories may require more effort than others, despite your best efforts to balance them. If you’re measuring words per day, you may find it hard to measure a day where you’re mostly editing. But an hour worked is an hour worked, assuming you’re reasonably focused.

Consider this idea: To make consistent progress on a project, pick an amount of time, and commit to spending that much time on it every day. I’ll get back to that idea in a minute.

Write Every Day

In “Write Every Day” is Bad Advice: Hacking the Psychology of Big Projects, Cal Newport identifies a problem with establishing a daily work commitment. He uses writing every day as an example, but his argument applies to any plan that requires working on a strict schedule.

The problem: the “every day” requirement is an essential part of a strict daily goal like “write every day.” “Write most days” or “write every day unless you don’t feel like it” just doesn’t work as well. If, as is likely to happen, you miss a day, your system breaks down. Once you miss one day, it becomes more likely that you’ll miss more days. This is the double-edged nature of this system, which is often called “don’t break the chain” or “the Seinfeld Technique.” A long unbroken chain provides motivation to keep up a daily habit, but one broken link can make it more difficult to get started again.

In a subsequent article, Cal has indicated that “write every day” may be useful for some types of activities. But in cases where it doesn’t work, he recommends an alternative approach based on creating a custom schedule for each day. This allows you to plan around the unique activities of the day, rather than trying to meet a strict goal that doesn’t take into account other events going on in your life. Cal elaborates on this approach in Deep Habits: The Importance of Planning Every Minute of Your Work Day.

Time Bank

While Cal’s custom daily schedule approach is compelling, it’s not an easy system to get started with. Here’s how Cal described it this month in Spend More Time Managing Your Time:

It’s not unusual for me to spend two or more hours at the beginning of each week playing with the puzzle pieces that are my commitments, big and small.

It’s hard work figuring out how to make a productive schedule come together.

It’s hard work not just because planning your week takes two hours. It’s also because you have to build up the experience and discipline that it takes to make this system work. So I think there’s room for a process that addresses the drawbacks of “write every day” but doesn’t require you to adopt the full-blown “plan every minute” system in one step. I’m calling it Time Bank.

Simple habits

“Write every day” is popular because it’s simple, and simplicity is a plus if you’re trying to create a habit. For Time Bank, I’d like to keep that simplicity. So the core of Time Bank is this habit:

Spend two hours every day working on your project.

Let’s break that down:

  • Two hours: For people who have a day job, as I do, two hours per day can be a reasonable goal for a side project. It’s an amount of time that you can realistically carve out of an existing schedule, and it’s also enough to make real progress on a project. But the exact amount isn’t critical to making the system work. If your schedule is already packed, you can use one hour or even fifteen minutes. If you’re working full-time on a project, you can increase the target.
  • Working on your project: This means working towards a definite goal that you’ll only make progress on through self-motivation (i.e., no one else is keeping tabs on you on a daily basis). If you’re writing a book, then writing or online research related to the book would be considered project work, but miscellaneous email or web surfing would not. Or you could be even more strict and only count time spent directly working on your manuscript. For me, project work currently consists of writing a weekly blog post and a monthly email newsletter, and solving 462 programming puzzles, one at a time.
  • Every day: That’s what we’ll get to next.

Working every day

Cal Newport’s main criticism of “write every day” is that it requires an impossible success metric. Since most people who aren’t full-time writers will eventually miss a day of writing, they shouldn’t set themselves up for failure by relying on a system that requires perfection.

I think Cal’s criticism is valid, so let’s look at potential solutions, some of which come from the comments on Cal’s post:

  • Custom daily/weekly plans: This is Cal’s suggestion. I think it’s a great system to work towards, but I consider it an advanced technique. Let’s find something simpler to start with.
  • Don’t be so rigid: Rob Haskins writes in the comments: “Personally, I cannot write to demand, for me it is the rigidity of the thing. I have noticed the more creative the person the more rigidity repells.” As I have mentioned before, Mason Currey’s Daily Rituals book provides a counter-argument to this point of view. He documents how artists throughout history in various fields have discovered that predictable schedules are essential for creative results.
  • Just find the time: In response to the concern that you won’t be able to hit your target some days, user WriterWrite in Cal’s comments says: “Sounds like [an] excuse – you can spend 30 minutes writing every day. You WILL find time. The average American spends 3.5 per day watching TV.” I like the idea of giving up TV or aimless web surfing to work on a side project. That definitely frees up time on the average day. But the problem we’re trying to solve has to do with the exceptional day (when your schedule blows up), not the average day. So I don’t like this solution.
  • Use a different granularity: A few commenters suggest using a weekly rather than a daily goal. For example, Brian suggests using four days per week as a minimum and targeting six days as a stretch goal. Daniel uses exercise as an example, and suggests targeting eight times per month. The problem with the weekly/monthly approach is that habits are a lot harder to create for intermittent actions than for daily actions. So I’m not going with this one either.

The Time Bank approach

Here’s how the Time Bank approach works:

  • Pick a daily work target, like two hours.
  • Set up a spreadsheet to record your actual work time every day.
  • If you work more than your target, you get to deposit a percentage of the extra time in a virtual Time Bank, which your spreadsheet tracks automatically.
  • If you can’t make your target on a particular day, you make up the difference by withdrawing time from the bank.
  • Do whatever it takes to keep your time bank balance above zero.

The advantages of this approach:

  • It’s a daily habit: On any given day, you don’t have to decide whether to work on your project or not. You know in the morning that you have to get two hours of work done before the end of the day.
  • But you have some flexibility: If you run into scheduling problems, you can adjust your work time for the day, at the cost of drawing down your balance.
  • Gamification: Your time balance is worth something. You can do anything you want with that time, like take the weekend off and go on a road trip. So there’s a game-like thrill in watching it increase when you put in extra project time for the day. And that extra time means you also get more work done on your project, which is the reason for using this process in the first place.

Implementation

Time Bank is slightly more complicated than “write every day,” but I created a spreadsheet that takes care of most of the bookkeeping details. If you’re working on a writing project, you could even use the process to bank words instead of hours. In that case, there would be essentially no extra bookkeeping effort (assuming that you’re already recording your daily word total somewhere). But I want a process that can handle any type of project, not just writing.

Here’s the layout of the spreadsheet. Not all of these are required for the system to work, so if you’re making your own spreadsheet, you can leave out the ones you don’t use.

  • Column A: Date. The spreadsheet uses a row for each day.
  • Column B: Time. The time you spent on project work, in hours:minutes:seconds format. This is the cell you update at the end of the day.
  • Column C: Hours. Time spent, in hours (converted from B).
  • Column D: Total. Cumulative total time spent. This just for informational purposes, not for any of the calculations.
  • Column E: Weekly. Time spent for the week (useful for week-to-week comparison).
  • Column F: Blank (for formatting/readability)
  • Column G: Earned. Time spent, in hours (just a copy of C).
  • Column H: Borrowed. Time borrowed from the Time Bank on days where Time is below the target.
  • Column I: Total. Total time, including borrowed. Will always be greater than or equal to the target.
  • Column J: Goal. Your target daily work time, in hours. Since this appears on every row, you can adjust it if necessary, but you’ll generally want to leave it alone once you find a number that works for you.
  • Column K: Extra. Hours worked beyond the target (calculated).
  • Column L: Blank (for formatting/readability)
  • Column M: Factor. The percentage of your extra time (K) that is added to your Time Bank balance each day. See below for more details on this value.
  • Column N: Balance. Your Time Bank balance.
  • Column O: Change. Increase or decrease (in minutes) of your balance from the previous day.

This may seem complicated, but most of these columns are calculated automatically. To use the spreadsheet, you just need to enter your time once per day and keep an eye on your balance.

The extra time factor (Column M)

One way to customize the Time Bank system to work best for you is to adjust the extra time factor in column M. The spreadsheet uses this value to calculate how much time to add to your balance, based on any extra time for the day. For example, if your project time target is two hours per day, you spend three hours today, and your factor is set to 50%, then your time balance will increase by one hour.

Here’s how various choices for this factor affect the nature of the system.

  • If you set the factor to 0%, then the system turns into the “write every day” system. Once your balance drops to zero, it never increases, so you have to meet or exceed your target time each day to avoid a negative balance.
  • If you set the factor to 100%, then you’re really using a weekly or monthly goal. Which one you’re using depends on your balance and daily target. For example, if your balance is twelve hours and your daily target is two hours, you could skip the first six days of the week and then make it all back with a twelve-hour work frenzy at the end of the week.
  • Since this system is designed to be used daily (for ease of habit building), I recommend starting with a 50% factor. That gives you a reasonable incentive to stick to your target, since you have to work two hours to make up every one missing hour. For example, if your target is two hours and you work one hour today, your balance will drop by one hour. But with a 50% factor, you would have to work another two hours the next day to make up that one hour.

The target and factor should be set high enough to provide a bit of a challenge, but not so high that you give up on the system.

The Benefit of Systems

If you’re not used to tracking your work at this level, it might seem like a poor use of time. In my experience, the time spent using a good system is more than repaid in increased productivity. This is especially true if you work in front of a network-connected computer, aka the device of infinite distraction.

Whether you use Time Bank, Cal’s plan every minute system, or another system that you find useful, it’s usually better than no system. The system isn’t the goal (so don’t keep shopping around forever), but it can help you get there.

(Image credit: Elliott Brown)