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.
Brian Landi says
Thanks for the post. I may try this method out. It makes me think of what one of resident advisors in prep school told me once. He said you have to “Distract the Distractions.” My principal offense to this methodology was my habit of leaving my door wide open during study time. The result of this practice was that every time someone walked past my door I would look up from my desk taking my attention away from my work. Heeding the data at the top of the page that would mean every time someone walked past my room I was giving them 15 minutes of my day.
The very simple solution to this problem was to leave the door only slightly open (we weren’t allowed to close our doors during study time.) That way people could walk by to their hearts content and they weren’t going to affect my attention.
The fact is I’m probably not going to be able to avoid all of the 2-second distractions. But if I can “distract” some of them, I am already ahead of the game.
I use Wakoopa to know how I spend my time at the computer. Very effective.
One lecturer who spoke of giving a similar test to his leadership class. He instructed them to write down every 10 minutes what they had been doing, and do so for two weeks. They then had to swap logs with each other, and provide some constructive feedback for the next two weeks.
In this class on Time Management he gives a lot of practical advice on how to really use time, and get things done. He applies it to a verse of the bible which talks about gathering up all the small pieces of time that are wasted:
We’re starting to think more about task types and time usage too. One of the other themes seems to be how ‘hard’ a task is, or how much effort it requires. Often things we think of as ‘hard’ are actually quick tasks, while some seemingly simple and easy ones take almost forever! Having a way to learn which is which is a great productivity win!
Craig Thomas says
Nice idea. I may have to try that out, although – I don’t think I’d look forward to the results. >.<
My company has software called UMT Plus that can automate your time audits. You can have the software on any mobile device (iOS / Windows Mobile / Palm / Android). You can program an alarm go off at specified or random intervals to collect samples of what you are doing. We call this “Work Sampling” you can also use the software to perform on going time studies. The software then gives you accurate information about how your time is being spent and provides you with analytical charts and graphs. Lots of information is available on our website: http://www.laubrass.com Hope you find it useful, Erin Metcalfe, Laubrass Inc.