When it comes to managing your time, you’ll find that some tools and techniques are more effective than others. There’s definitely no universal solution and it can be a case of trial and error when it comes to finding what works best for you.
But regardless of which tools and techniques you end up using, one exercise that will always be of benefit is a time audit.
Why audit your time?
Before we get on to how to audit your time, let’s start with why you should audit your time.
We can’t make any more hours in the day, so if we want to get more out of those 24 hours, we need to manage how we use that time as effectively as possible.
When you audit your time, what you’re looking to do essentially is reverse-engineer your daily behaviour, so that you can identify exactly where you are being efficient and productive and where you are not.
Armed with that information, you are then in a position to reconstruct your daily schedule and manage your time more effectively both at work and outside of work.
Put simply, if you can measure something, you can improve it. Or to use another analogy, if you know where you’re starting from, it’s much easier to pick a route to reach your desired destination.
Performing an audit of your time requires some planning and some discipline because, I’m not going to lie to you, it can be something of a tedious task.
Even the word ‘audit’ sounds dull to me.
However, if you’re serious about getting a grip on your time management, the data you collect during that audit period will be invaluable in helping you create new routines, habits and systems that have the power to not only turn your productivity around but also to generate some profoundly positive changes in your life.
And I don’t think I am being too dramatic in putting it that way.
You see, so many of us operate on a level that is wasting ridiculous amounts of time and we don’t even realize it.
It’s sad to say it, but it’s a fact that most people are more careful with their money than they are with their time, which is crazy when you consider that the latter is absolutely finite.
Sure, money is important for several different reasons, but time has to be more valuable than money – I don’t see how anyone can argue otherwise. It’s genuinely precious and we really should treat it as such.
What is the best way to audit my time?
On the face of it, when it comes to carrying out an audit of your time, all you are doing is writing down everything you do during the day and for how long you’re doing it.
But you need to be honest with yourself.
It would be easy to be a bit lazy and write down what you should be doing in advance, rather than what you actually did for real after or at the time of the event.
I attack this task using a couple of overlapping techniques, but before I do that, I like to remind myself of the things that I would do if I had more time. This will make the auditing process much easier, because you then have a ‘why’ and therefore, more motivation.
Firstly, set a countdown timer for one hour on repeat or set an alarm to go off each hour on the hour – whatever works for you. At the end of each hour, chronicle what you have done in 10 or 20-minute blocks.
You can use a pen and notepad, a Word document or a spreadsheet to do this. Your spreadsheet might look something like this one I made:
For sure, this will interrupt you and it’s going to feel a bit inconvenient, but you’re only doing it for a few days and the data you’re going to get will make you better at managing your time.
So, it has to be worth the trouble, right?
Another method, which I actually prefer, is to use your phone or dictaphone (if anyone even has these any more? Maybe you left it next to your fax machine!) and record notes as you are about to engage in a task or right after one has been completed throughout the day.
I felt a bit like one of those psychotherapists on the TV shows recording notes about their patients, or maybe Kirk updating his Captain’s Log, but don’t feel too self-conscious about it. It’s quick, easy, relatively unobtrusive (depending on the type of work you do, I suppose) and I think better than writing down what you’re doing every hour because it can be easy to miss stuff that took up your time, especially if you’re currently doing a lot of multi-tasking. (More on multi-tasking in future posts.)
Record the time and what you’re doing. For example, “It’s 09.15 am, I am checking my Inbox.”
When you switch tasks or doing anything else that is not checking your inbox, you record another entry.
So, you’ll end up with verbal entries sounding something like this:
It’s 09.14 – I am checking my Inbox. (Jeez, whole load o’ crap today)
It’s 09.35 – Boss calling me in for meeting (What have I done now?)
It’s 09.55 – Now back to my Inbox (Yay!)
It’s 10.06 – Client called me (PITA)
It’s 10.15 – Getting client folder to follow up on call. (If I can find it.)
It’s 10.32 – Checked info and called client back
It’s 10.40 – Bathroom
It’s 10.43 – Coffee. (At last!)
It’s 10.55 – Back at desk. Starting report boss requested. (Zzzz . . . )
It’s 11.06 – Reading news online (Okay – “news”)
It’s 11.17 – Working on report. (Or trying to.)
It’s 11.47 – Client call
It’s 11.51 – Working on report
It’s 12.31 – Lunch . . .
Etc, etc, etc. You get the idea.
At the end of each day, you can then transcribe your entries into a spreadsheet or whatever your preferred medium is.
I can tell you that the first day you try this, you will probably keep forgetting to record what you’re doing – at least, I did. If that happens and you only get partial data for the day, just repeat the process the following day until you have a full day’s data.
If your job involves working at a computer, then you should also run an app such as RescueTime parallel with this audit. This is a nifty little application that runs in the background and collects information on how you are using your devices, so you can confirm that you are writing reports when you say you are writing reports, and not getting sucked into that YouTube black hole or reading some nonsense about one of the damn Kardashians.
When I did this, I found that I was using certain time-wasting sites way more than I thought I was. RescueTime has a feature called FocusTime, which is available on the Premium Plan and allows you to block and/or limit distracting websites to during periods when you need to focus on whatever tasks you should be doing.
How long you run the audit for is up to you. Of course, the more data you have, the more meaningful it will be, so for that reason alone, I would recommend that you do this every day for at least a week.
You could also do several random days throughout the month, but I find it is easy to end up forgetting about it if it’s done this way.
Again, I don’t think it really matters too much, as long as you have a decent chunk of data to analyze.
What to do with the results
Once you have collected your data, it’s time to analyze.
There may be some periods in your daily routine that jump out straight away as areas that can be improved, or maybe confirm any previous suspicions you had. But there will also be some areas that require a bit more digging. In order to understand your situation, do the following steps.
1. Rank your activity
Take all of the tasks you have recorded and rank them based on importance. You can simply put them into one of three columns: Very Important, Not Important and Worthless.
Or, you could also use an Eisenhower Box like the one below to do this, but instead of listing tasks that need to be done, you are simply doing it retrospectively.
It is in the top two quadrants where you should be spending most of your time. Everything else needs to be removed or delegated.
Check out this post: What Is The Eisenhower Box?
2. Identify Time-Sucks
How much of your activity is being spent on tasks that are not related to your overall goals?
Most of those things in the bottom right quadrant of the Eisenhower Box are things you do and habits you have that are simply a waste of your time. Work on cutting down on these gradually.
A lot of these time-wasting activities are like (or might even be!) drugs, so it can be more effective to reduce them gradually, rather than going cold turkey.
3. Identify time vampires
You may find that it isn’t necessarily just tasks that are sucking your time, but also people.
If a lot of interruptions recorded were due to a certain colleague or client, you need to find ways to reduce the event of this happening and eliminate them. Well, not literally, of course.
I do not condone eliminating colleagues – I’m pretty sure that’s frowned upon in most places.
If you’re office-based, banter and relationships with co-workers is an important part of work-life, but if you want to improve your time management and create more time to do the stuff you really want to do, then some of this type of inefficiency needs to go.
If you’re running your own business and have clients that take up inordinate amounts of your time for very little return, you may need to review the situation and see if it is even worth keeping them as clients.
Tim Ferriss covers dealing with this in his book, The 4-Hour Workweek, which I have reviewed in this post.
4. Consider the way you schedule work
In the example above, you can see that the day was frequently interrupted.
If the report you’re writing is important, it may be better to block out time specifically for that task (and nothing else) and set yourself up so that you are free of distractions for that period, instead of being interrupted and distracted every 10 to 20 minutes and having your attention shifting to something else.
Check out this post: How To Use Time Blocking
5. Eliminate/reduce unnecessary meetings
As an example, can you cut meeting times in half?
We often set meetings to fit nicely into the calendar, usually a standard thirty minutes or one hour and we tend to start on the hour or the half-hour. But it isn’t essential to operate this way – it’s just we do things like this, because it’s accepted as the norm or because we’ve always done it like that.
Try setting meetings for fifteen minutes instead of thirty. Schedule times that are ten past the hour or twenty-five minutes past the hour. We don’t have to stick to neat blocks of time if it results in us losing time we could be spending on more productive activities elsewhere.
And how about those impromptu meetings with the boss?
Sometimes emergencies come up that require unplanned meetings, but this should not happen too often.
I had a boss in the past who was forever calling me into his office to ask for my opinion on this and that. It was never anything particularly urgent, but he liked to have a sounding board for his ideas and while I was flattered that he valued my counsel, it happened several times throughout the day every day and made it difficult for me to get into any kind of deep work.
Knowing what I know now, I should have asked to schedule one daily meeting each day or every couple of days at a set time to do this with him, which would have been a much better use of time for both of us.
Time Hack Hero Takeaway
Once you have audited your time, you should be in a better position to understand where your time goes each day and now you can start to reconstruct the way in which you operate. Simply put, a time audit helps to take the guesswork out of time management.
It may require some small changes, such as getting up earlier, or some bigger changes, such as working in a new way and using a new system, like the Pomodoro Technique. I’m going to be covering many different ways of handling time management in this blog, so keep checking back for new information or subscribe if you want to receive notifications when I publish new posts.
Remember though, whichever strategies you ultimately decide to implement, be sure to introduce the changes gradually and consistently in order to develop them as habits.