Understanding productivity: Where does your time go?

John Maynard Keynes, the father of modern macroeconomics, had a rather optimistic view of the future. 

In 1930, he predicted that 100 years hence people would be working just 15 hours a week, or 3 hour shifts per day, because the standard of living would be so high and labor-saving technologies so omnipresent that the main concern of his grandchildren would be about how to fill their leisure time.

But as we know, things are pretty different from what Keynes imagined. Keynes’s own sister’s grandson said that he worked 15 hours a day.

Our day starts with us rushing to work, and we come back home exhausted just in time to unwind for a bit, grab dinner, and hit the bed. And the cycle repeats.

The Wire reported in 2021 that in India, urban men spend 53-55 hours and women 39-46 hours in paid work per week. And that’s not counting the commute time. In the US, 50-hour work weeks are becoming the norm.

Despite working long hours, we never seem to get anything done. This is not a trivially solvable problem.

A whole gamut of forces – both internal and external – affect our finite time and the activities that we must perform for a satisfactory personal and professional life.

In this series of articles on productivity, we will get deeper into each of these aspects.

First, we will explore why we have this ever present feeling that we’re always busy, but we never have time to do what we really need to do.

The digital age

The digital age and modern technologies are obvious culprits, so let’s jump in there first. 

The way we spend our time in the digital age is drastically different from how we have ever lived in the entire history of humanity.

The typical global internet usage is almost 7 hours per day. We sleep 7-8 hours, but we also spend almost the same amount of time staring at some sort of screen. It’s one-third of our day. That’s crazy!

To be fair, most knowledge workers are required to be online most of the time. But that’s not the whole story. If you dig deeper, social media usage itself takes up almost 2.5 hours per day, for an average person. 

Some of our  Undistractable — Digital Detox bootcamp participants have even reported 6 hours of Instagram usage per day. I’m not kidding.

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It is not just about the amount of time spent on social media, but how we spread this time across the day.

Context switching cost

Every time you disrupt what you’re doing to check a notification, you pay a context switching cost.

When the interruption has a different context than your current task, it introduces a significant disruption cost because it involves a cognitive shift of context to first attending to the interruption, and then reorienting back to the original task. Even switching between tasks with similar context can interfere with the primary task and incur a disruption cost.

Research shows that context switching can cost up to 40% of your productive time.


While I have given the example of social media, it is not just Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter notifications that are the problem. Even frequently checking your emails or Slack notifications incur the same context switching penalty.

Part of the answer to the question about where our time goes is that our time disappears in the cracks of context switching.

Our time is also sucked in by the attention economy, via our smartphones and computers.

Busy Bandwagons and Infinity Pools

In their book Make Time, authors Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky talk about two powerful forces that are competing for every minute of our time – The Busy Bandwagon and the Infinity Pool.

Busy Bandwagon

The Busy Bandwagon is our culture of hyperproductivity and hustle. Every minute of every hour must be filled with productivity

To be a functioning member of the modern workplace where everyone is always on top of everything and firing messages on Slack and email, you better step up and play the same game, else you are either going to be the bottleneck in communication or you’ll be the slacker who is always behind. 

Modern technology has evolved a new way of collaboration that just sucks everyone’s time away, but somehow we are expected to be productive despite that. No wonder we are stressed out, overworked, and overwhelmed.

Infinity Pool

The second force is the Infinity Pool, which are sources of endlessly replenishing content. 

Refresh your Twitter newsfeed and you have a fresh set of tweets to sink your time. Swipe up on TikTok or YouTube Shorts and you have a new video to watch. 

Infinity Pools never dry up. They are always available, and always serve up new content for your entertainment.

Our time goes into the Busy Bandwagon and the Infinity Pools.

Status games and speed of life

In 19th century France, aristocratic dandies called flaneurs (city street strollers) took to a new form of flamboyant theatrics by walking turtles on leashes down the Parisian arcades. Such an abundance of time was seen as a symbol of high social status.

Now, the situation has completely reversed. Being busy is seen as a symbol of high social ranking and status, and therefore people are not only keen to grind it out at work, but also take up more tasks than they can handle, almost as a badge of honour.

Elon Musk reportedly works upwards of 120 hours per week, because it’s “fun.” Doesn’t this subtly shame you into thinking that if the richest person in the world can work 120 hours a week, why can’t you?

A young entrepreneur shares her chockablock calendar, crediting it to how she built a $200M empire. Now, time-blocking is an excellent way to get important things done, but I wonder if that is the message that most people would take away from here.

Not to take away from the immense hard work of these individuals, but the message here is that if you can just figure out a way to be hyperproductive, money, success, and high status will be yours.

It also portrays productivity as a very personal problem – if you’re not able to find time to blaze through your task list and then some, somehow you are at fault. And then maybe the solution is to stop being lazy and work longer (like Musk does).

I do not believe that this is simply a personal productivity problem. Our current state of being overwhelmed and overworked, but still being way behind on our tasks is a perfect storm caused by several factors in our environment, our workplaces, and of course, also because of our inability to restructure our working style to meet the demands of the digital age.

There’s always tomorrow

Most of us genuinely believe that we are striving hard today, to live a better life tomorrow. 

Once we get that promotion, once we make X amount of money, then we will take it easy and relax. We will then spend more time with our children and aging parents. We will then pick up our enriching hobbies we’ve ignored so far.

It’s a universal problem.

Maynard Keynes predicted that people will simply decide to work less when they experience more prosperity. Richard Freeman, a Harvard economist, said in a chat with NPR that Keynes probably underestimated the human desire to compete, like how professional athletes continue to slog it out even after they’ve bagged multi-million dollar contracts – even one of which would set them up for a life of leisure.

It is worth noting that Keynes himself could not follow his own advice of taking it easy. He died as he was working way too hard without sleeping, and his heart simply gave out.

We forget that our life is not something to be lived tomorrow, it is what we are living now. This is our only shot at life. This moment.


We sink our time into the illusion of tomorrow.

Watch where your time goes

At the Centre for Time Use Research, University of Oxford, researchers maintain a huge archive of time use data from people across 30 countries, spanning the last 50 years.

Surprisingly, the data shows that in spite of the widespread perception of increasing busyness of life, there is not much indication that the average number of hours worked every week has changed much since the 1980s.

But we know in our gut that life in the 80s was definitely more relaxed and manageable than the frantic pace of today.

What’s happening here? An undeniable fact is that thanks to digital devices and constant distractions, our attention is so fragmented now that in a full 8 hours of work, we end up being productive only half the time, if that. We then work frantically to cover up for lost time.

Part of the solution then is to fix that. But it’s only a start.

Peter Drucker, one of the most influential thinkers on management, said that the first step to manage your time is to understand where it goes.

Drucker asked to record or track time rather than rely on memory, which is a poor judge of time spent. Your memory will tell you what you want to hear – that you actually spent your time just the way that you envisioned. The real story might be entirely different.

So for the next one week, log your daily activities. Track how you spend every hour of your day, including the tasks that you complete and the time you spend on each one.

This kind of tracking is a pain, yes, but it can give you critical insights on where your time actually goes.

Here are a few suggestions on how to do the tracking:

  • Use RescueTime, an app that you install on your computer and mobile devices to track all the apps you use, the files you open, and the websites you visit
  • Use Toggl, a time tracking app that allows you to track all your daily activities
  • Use a plain old pen and paper, which gives you the flexibility to track time that does not involve digital device usage.

Before the time logging exercise, write down your own assessment of how much time you spend each day on which activities.

At the end of the tracking week, compare notes. You may be surprised by what you find.

The time management problem

Time management is an important problem to solve for the modern day employee.

Poor time management can lead to missed deadlines, low productivity, and increased stress, which can negatively impact your performance and career. On the other hand, effective time management can help you to be more productive, stay organized, and meet your goals.


In the next articles, we will get deeper into the problem and see what are the possible solutions we can adopt.


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