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How to do a time audit (step-by-step guide)

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November 18, 2022
min read

It’s Monday. You’re taking a look at your calendar for the coming week and *ping*, another Zoom meeting invite, *ping* an urgent Slack message from your colleague, *ping* an essay-long email from a client. Suddenly, your to-do list is as long as your arm and you’re already exhausted from a week of work, despite the fact it’s only Monday.

But, are any of these urgent tasks actually necessary for you to achieve your goals or complete the important tasks? Do you really need to be in all the meetings you are invited to?

If you’re wondering the same, it’s probably high time for you to run a time audit.

Let’s learn what a time audit is and how you can perform one for your organization to understand the answers to these questions. We’ll break the process down into four easy steps.

What is a time audit?

A time audit is a complete deep-dive into where your time is really going. The problem is that the way we actually spend our time is often wildly different from the way we think we spend our time. This is called the intention/action gap, and it affects most of us, even though we’re often not aware of it.

If you’re a designer, for example, how much time do you actually spend designing and creating as opposed to planning, team meetings and reviewing, etc.? If most of your day is being spent on tasks that do not advance your to-do list, you will not be able to achieve your goals – but you won’t be able to rectify the problem until you recognize it. When you perform a time audit, you’ll want to answer three questions:

  • What is working in your current schedule? E.g. A no-meeting day on Wednesday to allow for more focus time.
  • What is not working in your current schedule? E.g. Spending too much time responding to Slack messages everyday.
  • What can you improve? E.g. Too many meetings that can easily be emails.

Why should you perform a time audit?

When you run a time audit, you’re finding out exactly what you do in a day, how long certain tasks take, what your biggest time sucks are and where you’re getting distracted. It provides you with measurable, quantifiable results to identify the behaviors and processes you need to change.

Time audits should ideally take a few consecutive days to achieve a better idea of how you spend your time. Ensure that you avoid completing a time audit during times when team members are on leave, when you’re going on vacation, or launching a new product, as your workload could look very different to your “standard” work day.

Once you have the information from your time audit, you can form realistic productivity goals, optimize your schedule, and remove low-value apps and tasks from your day.

What tools do you need to run a time audit?

Option 1: Pen and paper

If you’re a fan of the old-school techniques, this one's for you. Simply note down the start time, end time and what task you were doing, and you have your time audit.

Pros:

  • Pen and paper is the most accessible time audit method.
  • You can use this method for tasks that do not involve using your computer.

Cons:

  • It isn’t very accurate and will probably not take into account multitasking.
  • You’ll have to remember to start and stop your timer or look at the clock.

Option 2: Spreadsheet

For those that prefer to use their computer for everything, this is for you. It’s essentially the same as the pen and paper method, but you note your time audit into Excel, Google Sheets or any other type of spreadsheet instead. You can use this template to get started:

Snag your free time audit template >

Pros:

  • If you use your computer to work from, your time audit and work will all be in the same place

Cons:

  • Like the pen and paper technique, there is a lot of room for error with this method, plus, following a week or two, the time suck for completing this would be huge.

Time tracking apps

Our personal recommendation (of course).

Pros:

  • The most accurate and least work. Using a tool such as Timely means that you can do all your work as normal without even thinking about writing down what you are doing, or starting and stopping timers, or whether you’re multitasking or not. Timely captures it all and puts it in a nice timeline for you to review. Plus there’s a free two-week trial for you to easily get started.

How to get started with your time audit

There are four basic steps to running a time audit:

Step 1: Write down your most important goals for the week

Recording what you want or intend to achieve is how you’ll measure how successful you actually are. Setting realistic goals is key – setting a goal to eradicate all distractions just isn’t very feasible. Instead, opt for goals such as reducing the amount of time you spend on slack or your email during the week. You can do this by creating a project called Communication and logging all time associated with Slack or your email to this project.

Using Timely to create projects around activities that usually make up your workday, like emails, meetings, client calls, dog walks, lunch etc, will help you build a report at the end of the week with an accurate view of what you do. If you tend to keep a to-do list to help you understand your tasks or goals, opt for apps such as Asana or Todoist as these integrate directly with Timely.

Step 2: Track all your time accurately

You want an empirical record of where every minute’s going, free from manual error, guesstimates and bias. To manually execute this step, you’ll have to set a timer to record when you are working on a particular task, and then remember to stop the timer when you are finished with that task. Otherwise time will escape you and you’ll have to rely on your (flawed) memory.

Aside from threading an unproductive admin task into your day, this type of manual time audit tends to produce bad data. Think about it: humans simply aren’t designed to track everything they do in minute detail. We’re unintentionally biased in what we report, we miss and forget things, we can’t estimate time passing without constantly attending to it. To try and record our time accurately, we would need to permanently split our attention between our work and the clock – which doesn’t lend itself to productive working.

Reliable data lies at the heart of this whole time audit endeavor. To be worth anything, your time audit needs to be accurate. That means having precision and oversight over every little thing you do. And since your memory is flawed, going the manual route is not your best option.

The good news is, you can actually collect all your time data automatically. An automatic time-tracking app like Timely offers supreme accuracy with minimal effort, recording everything you work on - not just the parts that you remember. You can see all the time that you spend on clients, tasks, projects and admin work, down to the apps and websites you use.

Without manual timers, or note taking, you’ll have more mental space to focus on the important work that actually matters.

Step 3: Analyze how you spend your time

Now that you have an overview of what a few “standard” days look like for you, you’ll be able to identify your peak productive hours and biggest time sucks. This will help you create smarter daily schedules with the aim of achieving your high-priority goals and objectives. For instance, maybe you notice in your audit that you spent three hours scrolling on LinkedIn during the week, despite the fact that you have an urgent task due before the end of the week. This is something to pick up on when analyzing your audit.

Try weighting your tasks in order of priority so that you can spot any time wasters or less valuable work that's taking you away from your important tasks. You might prioritize your tasks by looking at the deadline, or the direct impact it has on your colleagues, clients or customers.

You might also see that some of the tasks you are doing should be delegated entirely, or that chunks of your time each day are going to one task. Write these observations down in order to take action on improving them.

Step 4: Plan and prioritize your work

Now that you have analyzed your time audit, you’ll be able to identify your key action points, and create smarter daily schedules. This analysis will allow you to gain a greater understanding of how long your priority tasks generally take, as it will provide you with an overview of all of the elements of the task, whether that be communication, meetings, ideation etc.

You can then use this valuable information to begin building your schedule. Planning and creating smarter schedules enables you to manage your time in a more effective way. You can begin by acknowledging and planning for the distractions that you usually face, such as watching YouTube or sending Slack messages. By understanding these, and accepting that there will always be distractions, you’ll be able to schedule your priority tasks for when you are most productive, effective and least likely to get distracted. This will reduce the impact of those time-wasting activities. Some action points you might note from your time audit might be:

  • Setting up time to train up a team member on how to complete some tasks that you could delegate.
  • If chunks of your time each day are going to similar tasks, consider consolidating them into one batched time block (e.g. check Slack and your email in the last half an hour of the day).
  • If you see that you’re most productive in the mornings, move your most complex tasks to before lunch when you have more energy and capacity to focus.

Parting words

Time is the most valuable resource we have, and one of the few things we can never buy back – but that doesn’t mean we can’t figure out how to use it better. In order to be more productive we need to know exactly where our hours and minutes are going, and by tracking your time in the most accurate way possible with Timely, you can begin to create a daily schedule that works for you.

Sign up to our free 14 day trial to start your time audit today >

The original version of this article was published in
June 2022
It was most recently updated in
November 2022
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