There is often a great discrepancy between the way you spend your time and the way you think you spend your time. A time audit helps you look at exactly how your time is being used so you can better understand where your time is going. One form of a time audit is to simply keep a log of your time. This works to a certain extent, but it tends to better show how you want to spend your time instead of how your time is actually spent. For a time audit to be effective, it needs to reflect your actual work history.
Here is a simple method for doing a time audit that will help show how your time is actually spent. Get some type of timer that can be set for a specific interval of time. You want to use 60, 30 or 15 minutes. Normally an hour is what you want to use. Set the timer to go off, but make sure you start at some odd time, like 8:11. You don’t want to start at the top or bottom of the hour because that tends to go off right when you are switching contexts (going to lunch, headed to a meeting, etc.)
Each time the alarm goes off, write down what you are doing at that moment, reset the alarm, and go back to work. The process should take about 20 seconds. It will interrupt you, but the data should be well worth the inconvenience. Ideally, you should collect time audit data from several different days. It might make sense to do the time audit Monday on one week, Wednesday of the following week, and Thursday of the next. Spreading it out helps keep it from becoming a habit and lessens the distraction impact of any given week.
Once you have all the data from your time audit, go through and analyze it. You can use any method that suits your needs, but in general you want to categorize what you were doing at each interruption point by how important that task was. At the very least, you should use three levels:
- Very important – the type of task that you should be doing all the time.
- Not particularly important – something that may need done, but doesn’t add significant value and should be minimized as much as possible.
- Worthless – Activities that you shouldn’t be doing at all.
If 75% of your time audit shows you working on Very Important tasks, you are doing extremely well. Many people will find that they are spending a lot of time on levels 2 and 3. Don’t be too discouraged by this. It is typical and partly a by-product of the fact that work days aren’t designed around being productive.
Once your time audit shows how you are spending your time, you need to ask yourself important questions:
- Can you modify the order of tasks or your schedule to make better use of your time? For example, if you found you were on hold for a good percentage of the time, can you place those phone calls earlier or later or on a different day when you are less likely to be put on hold?
- Are there distractions you can avoid? If you have a TV in your office and your time audit shows you are often watching the news, maybe you should turn it off or move it out of your office. Some people will save a lot of time by uninstalling solitaire.
- Can you stop low-value activities? Ask yourself, “What happens if I just don’t do this at all?” Sometimes the consequences are trivial once we actually look at what will happen.
- Can you shift to more high-value activities? This may mean delegating or automating. If you spend a lot of time running papers back and forth for signatures or faxing secure documents, perhaps getting your team to switch to Digital Signatures & Encryption would help let you focus more on your job and less on the tasks that add little value. You might be able to make use of a virtual assistant to help you focus on the more important things.
If you are a manager, you might be thinking “I should have my staff do this!” Maybe, but keep in mind the time audit is only useful if people are honest. You will probably get better results if you have them do a time audit and then discuss ways you can be more efficient as a team instead of trying to get each person to share their individual results.