Want to know where your time is actually going? Do a Time Audit.
A 5-step plan for re-aligning how you spend your days
“Is it 5pm already?”
For some people, the idea that the workday flew past without so much of a thought is a dream.
For others, it’s a nightmare.
We plan to spend time on the things that matter. But then meetings, calls, admin, interruptions, distractions, conversations, appointments (aka life) get in the way. Before we know it, the day’s over and we’ve barely scratched off 50% of what we wanted to do.
It’s disheartening. But the answer isn’t to spend more time and burn the candle at both ends. It’s to take back control of our time.
The simplest solution? A time audit.
Grab the template and follow along
I put together a free, downloadable Time Audit template if you want to fill it out as you go through this post.
What is a Time Audit?
The same way you might get audited for your taxes, a time audit is the IRS for your schedule. By diving into how you spent your last week/month/quarter, you can take the guesswork out of time management and properly set your schedule going forward.
In its most basic form, a time audit consists of 3 simple steps:
- Write down your intentions (i.e. How do you want to spend your time?)
- Look at personal data on how you actually spent your time
- Adjust, set new intentions, and track progress
For example, if you want to write a novel (intention) but you’re only working on it for an hour a week (allocation), something’s not right.
The same goes for your work. If your main priority is to develop software, but you spend the majority of your days answering emails or in meetings, your intention and allocation are misaligned.
A time audit brings your schedule and your intentions back into alignment.
It makes sure the efforts you’re putting in each day are going towards the right work. Not just what’s in front of you.
As Clay Christensen, author of How Will You Measure your Life? wrote:
“Your decisions about allocating your personal time, energy, and talent ultimately shape your life’s strategy.”
When we set and stick to our intentions, we not only get more done, but feel compelled and empowered to keep moving forward. Momentum begets momentum.
How to gather the information you need for a time audit
The most important part of the time audit process is gathering honest and clear data about how you actually spent your time.
There’s a number of tools you can use for this. And which one you choose will ultimately come down to how you’re used to tracking time, how much effort you’re willing to put in, and the level of granularity you want in your audit:
Your to-do list (app/pen and paper)
If you use a to-do list app like Todoist or Wunderlist or track your daily tasks on a pad and paper, this is one way to look at how you spent your days. While it gives you a clearer view of the specific tasks you spent your time on (or wanted to, at least), the downside is less visibility into how time was actually spent.
If you use your calendar to create a daily schedule and track tasks, it’s also another good place to see where your time went. As an added bonus, your calendar contains all of the things that usually take you away from doing meaningful work, like meetings, calls, and appointments.
Of course, because you’re manually entering everything, there’s a chance your calendar was created with rose-tinted glasses. Plus, if you simply follow a recurring daily schedule, you’re dealing with pre-set chunks of time (intention) rather than actual time spent (allocation).
Time tracking app
A time tracking app like RescueTime keeps detailed track of how you spend your time in the background, meaning you don’t have to manually enter tasks.
Plus, as it is an honest representation of how your time was spent, you won’t fall into the trap of rewriting your own history. The one potential downside, is that in most cases you’ll get a higher-level view of how time was spent (what app you were using) rather than specific tasks like you would on your to-do list.
A simple 5-step time audit to realign how you’re spending your days
Wait a minute, didn’t we just say a time audit was only 3 steps?
Well, in its most basic form, yes. But reflection is only worthwhile if you use it to make real changes.
Our time audit template not only gives you information on your intention and allocation. But helps you commit to changing your time management in the future.
Step 1: Write down your intentions from the past month
Before you look at any data, write down an ideal scenario for how you would’ve liked to have spent the past month (or whatever time period you’re looking at). This could be time spent on activities or projects.
Write down your 3–5 biggest priorities (ongoing goals are fine as well) and the time you intended to spend on them.
For me, this might look like:
- Goal 1: Write blog posts (50%)
- Goal 2: Research and education (25%)
- Goal 3: Client and team communication (10%)
These intentions don’t have to, and shouldn’t, work out to 100% of your time. Time management is all about being realistic. And there is always a chunk of your time you can’t control.
Step 2: Use RescueTime to run a time audit from the past month
Using RescueTime, I can now look at how I actually spent my time. This is my allocation.
This is raw and honest data, not colored by my shame of spending too much (or not enough time) on certain tasks.
First, use the date picker to select the time you want to look at.
For the sake of this post, I’m going to use January 2018:
And only look at working hours (6am–8pm Monday to Friday):
Here’s what that looks like:
Right away I can see that my time intention and allocation are off:
- Goal 1: Write blog posts (Intention: 50%; Allocation: 43%)
- Goal 2: Research and education (Intention: 25%; Allocation: 7%)
- Goal 3: Client and team communication (Intention: 10%; Allocation: 14%)
Next, I’m going to scroll down and look at my daily breakdown of when each task is happening and see when I’m most likely to do certain work. It’s much easier to build off a current habit than create a whole new one, so understanding how I’m working right now is a powerful place to start.
For me, Writing happens in the morning and a bit more in the late afternoon.
While communicating and scheduling is present throughout the day, but most prevalent in the afternoon.
I can also see my productivity by time of day, which can give me some clues on how to schedule my day better (our next step):
And even drill down into when I’m being distracted by things like social media:
There’s tons of information to gather from RescueTime. But the key here is to look for patterns. When are my intention and allocation misaligned? And what’s getting in the way?
This way, we can set specific goals to realign our days with how we want to spend them.
Step 3: Set goals and targets to get you realigned
Now that I can see where my time is being spent, I can start to make action plans for each goal:
Goal 1: Write blog posts (Intention: 50%; Allocation: 43%)
Action plan: Block off mornings (8AM–12PM) daily for writing.
Goal 2: Research and education (Intention: 25%; Allocation: 7%)
Action plan: Schedule time in the afternoons for dedicated research time.
Goal 3: Client and team communication (Intention: 10%; Allocation: 14%)
Action plan: Spend less time on email. Set a daily reminder if I hit over 30 minutes.
From my research into how I’m actually spending my time, I can also see where there is room for improvement in other aspects I wasn’t aware of before:
- New goal 1: Lower social media time by setting FocusTime sessions in the morning (RescueTime’s website blocker for distracting sites)
- New goal 2: Boost productivity later in the day by scheduling non-cognitively tasking work
As an added bonus, I can use RescueTime to set daily alerts that are triggered when I hit (or miss) these commitments:
For a detailed explanation on how to use RescueTime Alerts check out this post.
Step 4: Adjust your schedule based on your goals, productivity, and time research
With all this information in hand, you can proactively set your daily schedule to reflect how you want to spend your time.
Starting each day with a “full schedule” means you’re taking control of your time, rather than being overwhelmed by requests and meetings.
It also means scheduling your day based on real data, not just guesswork.
For example, I know from my time audit that my productivity is lower in the afternoon and that I’m more likely to be distracted and not write. So, I should schedule that time for research, email, and other less demanding, yet important tasks.
Step 5: Block out set time for meetings, calls, breaks and interruptions
A big mistake you can make here is to assume that all your time is going to be productive.
Despite our best efforts, interruptions, meetings, and distractions do come up. As part of a remote team, I’m lucky enough to be able to spend most of my time on my core work (writing). However, the nature of your job might not allow that.
When doing this exercise, remember to be realistic about how you’re spending your time. If you know you have 10+ hours of calls or 5 recurring meetings a week, it’s probably not realistic to schedule huge blocks of deep work every day.
It might take a few times around to get your schedule right. But once you do, you’ll be in a position to make every day a good one.
When to do a time audit
You can do a time audit at any point, but it’s good to have at least a few weeks to a month of personal data before you dive in.
If you can run through this list monthly, you’ll be able to fine-tune your schedule. However, quarterly or bi-yearly is good as well. Especially if you’ve been conscious of where your time is going for a while now.
Do your own Time Audit
Time management is an ongoing process. And we’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the best ways to make it work for you.
Hey, I’m Jory!
I help companies and interesting people tell their stories through smart and focused writing. Want to work together? Email me at email@example.com
A version of this post was originally published on the RescueTime blog. Check us out for more essays on productivity, focus, and motivation.