Keeping track

A tree trunk that caught my eye on my last walk through Golden Gate Park.

A tree trunk that caught my eye on my last walk through Golden Gate Park.

I’m noticing a theme in the books I’m reading: tracking creates awareness, and awareness creates the possibility of change.

This theme came up in The One-Page Financial Plan, by Carl Richards, and it’s coming up again in Laura Vanderkam’s time management books. (I read a slim one, What the Most Successful People Do on the Weekendslast night after Edmond recommended it on our morning walk along the Embarcadero. I liked it, so then I dove into Off the Clock: Feel Less Busy While Getting More Done.) All of these books recommend tracking where resources go (money and time)—a suggestion I’m no stranger to. The difference is that these particular books also bring up people’s resistances to tracking, hold those resistances compassionately in view, and then slowly dissolve them.

The resistance is that tracking and perfectionism seem to go together. Why track at all if you’re not planning to do it perfectly? And then what would you do with the information but use it to try to be more perfect? Wringing the juice out of every minute; redirecting every bit of cash to nobler causes.

Richards addresses this directly in The One-Page Financial Plan: “Many of us view budgeting as a punishment: a way to hold ourselves back from buying the things we want, a way to feel guilty about paying for the things we need.” I read that and thought: yes, that’s exactly it! For me, tracking means punishment, the end of freedom, the return of rigidity. But Richards is good about weaving soothing words in. “You will no doubt recognize some inconsistencies between your values and your behavior. Don’t worry. We all do. That’s just part of the process of trying to live a more aligned life.” And this: “An attitude of flexibility goes a long way toward dealing with uncertainty. There is something very powerful about having specific goals but not obsessing about them.” These claims, crammed all together, started to open my mind. What if awareness didn’t have to lead to the end of flexibility? What if it was just a tool?

Vanderkam goes head-on in Off the Clock, too. “Time passes whether or not we think about how we are spending it. Tracking forces me to think about it. But when I mention my time-tracking habit to people…I get nervous laughter.” The thing is, “many people do not want to track time at all. If I get an explanation, the reasons fall into two categories. The first is that a time log will show how much time the person is wasting—just as a food log reveals an I-swear it’s only-a-few-chips habit—and that is not really a reason, at least in the sense of being unique to that person. We all waste time. I know I do.”

The time management consultant wastes time, too? Maybe the productivity books I’ve read in the past included such admissions, too, and I just glossed over them—imagining that if I tried hard enough, I’d be able to design a bulletproof system. But I have a sense that Getting Things Done, for time and task management, and The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, for organizing, really did have an undertone of everything could be perfect from now on. In fact, I think that’s what appealed to me in them.

There’s at least one more angle on tracking and perfectionism, and it has to do with the tracking itself. Vanderkam writes: “People claim they don’t have time to track time, which is patently false. What they mean is that they don’t want to track the, usually because they feel that being cognizant of all their time would make them feel anxious or overly preoccupied with their minutes. Their lives would be tethered to lines on a spreadsheet.” I know this belief well, both sides of it: the thrill of starting an ingenious system, and the tightness that comes with believing it will all be for nothing if I don’t get it exactly right.

But tracking is just a tool, not a reckoning. And I’m starting to get that if I bring a compassionate eye to how I keep track of things and what those tracks show me, I can use the tool to do things in a new way. Not forever, not perfectly. Just day by day.

Diana Berlin