The Productivity Wheel: How to Manage Your Time to Accomplish Your Dreams

What would you do in a day if Father Time told you that you could have five extra hours to do whatever you wanted? Would you be time’s version of the Prodigal Son and squander it, or would you accomplish one of those amazing dreams collecting dust on your bucket list?

While time management can be tricky business (each of our days and lives are so nuanced and often unpredictable), I’m a believer that a simple awareness of how we spend our time–and, in addition, how we compartmentalize our time into clearly defined objectives–can make us much more capable of managing our time to accomplish our dreams.

In what I’ve labeled as the Productivity Wheel (below), you can see how making a few simple adjustments to your time can actually make you far more capable of accomplishing your dreams. Ever wanted to learn the piano or write a book or run a marathon but said to yourself, “maybe next year; I just don’t have time right now”?

Don’t worry, you’re not the first. But you might be surprised at how easy (well, at least, how possible) it is to accomplish your dreams–and you can do most of them in a year or less. If you want to delve into the full graphic, click on the image below to enlarge. Otherwise, read further below for some insights I’ve learned as I’ve studied the data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ American Time Use Survey along with information from experts about how much time it takes to accomplish some of the most common sought after goals and dreams.

First Off, You Have More Free Time than You May Think

Four years ago, Laura Vanderkam of wrote an article that suggested most Americans have more free at their disposal than they may realize. I reviewed the most recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (2015 is the latest report) and, sure enough, the average working adult ages 25 – 54 has roughly 5 hours per day of what BLS calls “leisure and sports” time (note that the BLS Time Use Survey is one of the most respected and thoroughly researched data collections on how Americans use time). That’s five hours per day when you’re not sleeping, eating, cleaning your house, taking care of kids, or working.

Now, granted, if you have kids, that “leisure time” dips a bit, but the data suggests that childcare tasks somehow merge into other aspects of your life–maybe during the household activities portion or the sleep portion or the work portion you take care of the kiddos–but even adults with small children have somewhere in the vicinity of four to five hours per day of “leisure” time. (Remember that this is an average, and it does include weekends.)

If you simplify the BLS data into smoothed-out, hourly increments per day (on average), your day likely looks something like this:

Second, It’s Is Not that Simple…But Time Management Is Also Not Real Complicated

When you look at the chart above, I know what you’re saying: “yeah, right! Where does taking care of my kids fall on that list?” Or “but…it takes me an hour just to cook dinner–what about that?” or even, “who actually gets eight hours of sleep anymore?”

Well, you’re right. Simplifying a typical day isn’t as easy as saying “9 hours for work, 8 hours for sleep, and one hour for personal care,” and it certainly doesn’t all happen in continuous, segmented blocks like that. Most of us eat three to four times per day at different times per day. If you’re watching kids, you’re likely helping them while you’re helping yourself (and you may very well get less than eight hours of sleep).

But we have to remember that these are averages over an entire day as determined by research that was evaluating an entire average week. When BLS does their interviews, they don’t ask people to fill out a chart of how many hours they spend doing each activity (most people would be wrong if they tried to do that). Rather, BLS asks people (thousands and thousands of people) what they did the day before, walking them through the entire day’s activities. So the collected data is a compilation of working adults recalling their minute-by-minute schedule for a real day. Then the data is collected for the various days of the week and averaged out in time segments for a seven-day period, weekends included.

The reality of time management, as we know, is nuanced and idiosyncratic. We’re usually doing more than one thing at once–like watching TV while cleaning the house (is that “leisure” or is that “household activities”)?  And…our days are all chopped up. We may eat for 14 minutes in the morning, 27 minutes at lunch, and 42 minutes at dinner. But…lunch happens while we’re at work and dinner doesn’t actually take 42 minutes to eat (maybe 20 with some socializing and some cleaning.)

All that said, though, the data is clear that there are times when we do pause to do other things outside of sleep, work, and chores–we read, we watch TV, we play on Facebook, we relax. It may not be all at the same time, but it is consistent. On average, during a week, we have somewhere around 5 hours per day on average where we’re doing “leisurely” things. Some of that time may be “thinking” while in the shower (if you take long showers), some of that time may be surfing the news or Facebook on your phone, some of that time may be chilling with your spouse on the couch, but by the end of the day, you’ve spent roughly five hours of time in “leisure” mode.

If we can just compartmentalize how much time we spend in each leisurely activity, we can see the areas where we could, should we choose to, do other things.

Again, if you simplify those five hours of free time–into 15-minute time blocks–on average your daily leisure time likely looks something like this:

Third, We Spend a Lot of Time Watching TV

You’ve heard the statistics before and you’ve probably heard a lot of statistics about time spent on social media and smart phones. It’s difficult to quantify it all because we often use social media while we’re at dinner or even while we’re watching TV or while we’re at work. The BLS quantified “computer games” but that could be anything you might poke around on on your cell phone other than, say, the news, which might fall more under “reading.” Regardless, whether it’s watching TV or playing games or sending a SnapChat or Instragram, we’re in front of a screen for the majority of our free time.

The BLS suggests that 45 minutes per day are socializing, but many people do that online, too. With the exception of the green, red, purple, and pink sections noted above (reading, exercise, thinking, and “other), about 80% of our free time is with TV, computers, and socializing.

Fourth, Some Components of “Leisure Time” Are Non-Negotiable and That’s Okay

While we may look at that chart and see nearly three hours of TV per day and say, “okay, I could cut some TV,” we shouldn’t look at that chart and say, “I should cut out my socializing or my exercise or my reading.” Those are good, quality things that make us happy, healthy, and smart. But don’t worry–you can still do all those good things (and even watch a little TV) and still accomplish your dreams.

Fifth, Most Dreams and Goals Can Be Accomplished by Cutting Out Only Some TV and Computer Time

Many of us have dreams and goals and most of us may think we don’t have the time to accomplish them. We want to run a marathon or write a book or start a blog or learn a musical instrument. But then we mutter to ourselves, “But when am I ever gonna find the time for that?”

While it’s true that time is tricky and can be difficult to segment, you might be surprised at how little of an adjustment you would have to make to your leisure time to accomplish a fairly big goal. In researching a variety of expert commentary on topics like running a marathon, learning the piano, and writing a book, I discovered that most major significant goals can be accomplished or developed within a year and no goal requires more than 2-1/2 hours per day (many only take 15 – 45 minutes per day to accomplish.) Did you know, for example, that if your long-time goal has been to read the entire Bible, you would only need to devote 7 minutes per day for year to accomplish that?

This is the amazing thing: you could write a book or start a master’s degree or run a marathon, and you would still have time to watch TV everyday, have time to socialize, and have time to exercise. Most goals are very doable if we just compartmentalize the time and do them every day. If you carve time out of your leisure activities each day to insert time for your goals, you can accomplish a lot in a year.

Do What Works for You, but You Can Do This!

As you look at the Productivity Wheel, you can see the bright red squares where you would block out your time (in 15-minute intervals) to accomplish your goal. In more than half of the common goals listed above, experts suggest that you only need 45 minutes per day to accomplish the dream. In the chart, I’ve typically inserted the goal time in place of TV time, but you could modify the chart to work for you. And, in goals like running a marathon or getting a master’s degree, I’ve removed exercise from the former and reading from the latter because, obviously, you’d be doing those things anyway with your new goal time.

Don’t get me wrong, here: managing your time differently takes discipline. Running a marathon or writing a book or learning the piano isn’t exactly easy–that’s why so many people never end up doing those things. But when you realize how much time you may be inadvertently losing each day to “leisure” activities and when you see how little time it actually takes to accomplish major goals, maybe a tiny little spark inside will tell your goal-setting self, “Wow. I can do this.”

I, for one, believe in you. You can do amazing things!

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Bureau of Labor Statistics Time Use Survey:

Washington Post (on time to read Bible):
Daily Writing Tips (on writing in journal):
Daily Writing Tips (on starting a blog):
REI (on running a marathon):
Piano Teachers Federation (on learning the piano):
Effective Language Learning (on learning languages:
FFeathers (on writing a book):