How To Do a Time Audit (With Actionable Steps)
Do you wish you had 30% extra time in your workweek? (Who doesn’t?) How about in your employees' work week? (Even better!)
It might sound like magic, but it’s much easier than you think.
In a 2017 study, the work habits of business owners, key executives, and employees were evaluated. They found that "time-wasting, low-value and no-value activities accounted for more than 30% of their workweeks."
Ouch. While we’re big fans of giving employees autonomy and frequent breaks to increase their workplace productivity, we also know that if left totally unmonitored some traditional “time-sucking” activities like checking social media, watching YouTube videos, and gossiping in the office can take a big toll on efficiency.
Managers are responsible for making sure their teams are set up for success as well, as the study showed that further time was misspent needing to respond to low-value emails and fending off low-priority requests from co-workers.
You can counteract all of those negative impacts and reclaim 30% of extra time each week. The strategy is to perform a time audit — and it's not hard to do.
What is a time audit?
Put simply, a time audit is the process of tracking exactly what you spend your time on for a consecutive period.
The results can be analyzed to arrange your time in a more efficient way. This, in turn, gives you more free time to work on what actually matters to you and your business.
Everyone has the same 24 hours in their day. The reason high performing businesses and leaders can be extra efficient isn’t because they have some secret high-performing time management tools up their sleeve. It’s because they’re able to identify which tasks need priority during their workday, and which do not.
After all, if you don’t make a record of what you spend time on, you can’t know which areas to pay more or less attention to.
Why should I perform a time audit?
You’re an ideal time audit candidate if you find that you’re struggling to achieve your business goals, you’re always “busy” but never get anything done, or if you always run out of time but can't seem to identify why.
If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, then it’s high time for you to start auditing your time.
Many of us go about our workday with no particular plan or agenda, unaware of what we spend time on.
This also applies to your team. You might set due dates, have regular check-ins, and encourage in-team communication but employees still can't manage to hand in work when it is due.
Then you run into the same old hurdle: "We ran out of time!"
Whether it’s for yourself or your team, time auditing is a perfect way to:
Reach goals and targets
Goals are usually unfulfilled due to poor or unrealistic time allocation. Having an honest outline of what you actually spend time doing vs what you think you spend time doing, will help you allocate time more in line with achieving high priority goals and targets.
Performing a time audit will identify the biggest "time wasters" in your day. This allows you to either eradicate that behavior or better allocate time to more productive tasks. You might not realize how much time is spent browsing irrelevant websites or checking social media until you track it.
Redistribute time efficiently
Being able to identify which areas of the day you are more or less productive is a major advantage of time auditing. Professionals who possess strong time management skills know the importance of redistributing time. When you take control of your time, rather than letting it control you, you will see the greatest results.
Daily vs weekly time audit
Should you conduct a daily time audit, or a weekly time audit?
The answer is both.
The idea is to take an audit of each day, with the intention of combining a week’s worth of data at the end of a five-day period. Only then can decisions be made based upon consecutive days of honestly reviewing how your time is spent.
How do you audit your time?
To conduct a time audit, first you need to establish a way to document what you spend time doing. This is called a time audit chart.
Before kicking off your time audit, be sure you have chosen a "normal" week to track.
Stay clear of auditing a week when:
you're picking up the slack of an absent co-worker
it’s midway during the holiday season
you're about to go on vacation
you're in the middle of negotiations with your biggest client
The purpose of conducting an audit is to identify areas of focus during a standard workday. So, be sure it is indeed a "standard" workday you are tracking. If you’ve got a ton of unusual meetings or will be out of the office for a while you’ll want to reschedule your first time audit for a better day.
Here’s a step-by-step list to conducting an easy time audit:
1. Use a software or alarm
First, you need to decide if you’re going to use a software tool or a manual alarm. Time tracking software is the most efficient and accurate way to track time and it’s an alarm system is built right in.
If you want to go manual, then any device with a recurring alarm, like a smartphone or a simple Chrome extension, will work fine.
2. Plan your categories
Create project categories around the activities that (you think) make up your workday. Some examples could include “Emails,” “Meetings,” “Client calls,” “Lunch,” or "Me time.” These will probably change after you’ve completed your audit and see what you really spend time on, but start with the areas where you ideally would have the majority of your time focused.
3. Set your time and track
Set your time tracker or alarm to ring at 15-, 30-, or 60-minute intervals, whichever suits your workday the best. Each time the alarm sounds write what you’re working on in your manual log or change between projects in your time tracker. Re-set your alarm for the same interval and jump back into work.
4. Take less than 20 seconds
This should be fast and easy, and you don’t want to overthink it. Each time you’re reminded to track, take note of what you’re doing and then jump right back into it. Be brutally honest with yourself — the point right now is to gather real insight into where your time is going, no matter the result.
5. Repeat for five days
Things will always come up in a single day that might skew your results. Track for an entire workweek (five business days) to get a decent-sized pool of data that gives you a true, robust audit.
You’ve done a time audit. Now, how to analyze the results?
Step 1 - Categorize your time into “time wasters” and “high priority tasks”
Once you have gathered a weeks’ worth of data, it is time to analyze the results to identify potential areas of improvement.
Sort through your workday and categorize each segment as either:
1. Time wasters: These are activities that are unproductive (such as browsing the web, checking social media), or can be limited or restricted to certain blocks throughout the day (such as checking email or lengthy unscheduled discussions with coworkers).
2. High priorities: These are activities that move you towards achieving your goals and objectives. A few examples of high priority activities might be completing work-related projects, pre-scheduled meetings or conducting research.
Step 2 - Increase your productivity
At this stage, you will have a visual representation of how you honestly spend your time.
The next step is to reshuffle your day to increase its efficiency.
A good place to start is by reallocating time blocks or delegating and consolidating activities. Consider also breaking up larger projects into smaller, achievable milestones.
Reallocate and delegate Tasks
Typically, time-wasting activities are done at unplanned, sporadic moments throughout the day.
First, identify if there are activities that can be cut out completely. A great example is checking social media, which not only wastes time but interferes with your focus levels.
If you absolutely must check Facebook, schedule in a small amount of time once a day where you allow yourself to indulge. At all other times, make a commitment to yourself that the workplace is a Facebook-free zone.
Are there tasks you complete personally which could be handled by a secretary or team member? If so, invest some time in training them.
If there are multiple time blocks per day spent on the same, or similar tasks, consider consolidating them into one scheduled activity that is completed once or twice a day.
A perfect example of this is time spent checking email. If your time audit reveals that you are a compulsive inbox checker, try allocating two specific times per day where you check your email uninterrupted.
Break large projects up into small milestones
When it comes to high priority projects, most of us know what we have to do, but have no specific plan as to how it will get done. This is why breaking these projects up into smaller, manageable goals is so important.
Once you have laid out a roadmap of the steps required to complete these larger projects, you can assign them to specific time blocks throughout your day.
Rather than approaching these projects with no plan in place, knowing what steps you will complete and at what point, will allow you to complete them faster.
Step 3 - Redistribute time to better achieve your goals and targets
Your Ideal Day vs a Realistic Day
Most of us underestimate how long it actually takes to complete a task. Before jumping into your calendar, calculate an appropriate amount of time to allocate to each task.
Try this time audit exercise; consider what a perfect workday would look like for you.
To do this, note down your most important high priority activities. A list of 3-5 projects or categories is a good place to start. Next, allocate a percentage of time that you would like to spend working on each.
For example, from your time audit, you might have learnt that you have 25 hours a week to spend on high priority projects. The “ideal” percentage you allocate to each task will be divvied up amongst those hours.
Here is a basic outline you can follow to get started:
Goal 1: Client outreach (Ideally 50% of the time)
Goal 2: Staff training (Ideally 25% of the time)
Goal 3: Marketing strategy (Ideally 25% of the time)
Next, look at your time audit and calculate how long you are presently spending on those activities. There may be some large discrepancies between your ideal percentage and the current percentage.
For example, if one of your main business goals is to secure new business, but you are only dedicating 10% of your high priority time to client outreach, it is unlikely you will acquire many new clients.
Set and schedule new goals with an action plan
Now that you have calculated your ideal agenda, you can begin restructuring your day.
Be sure to set new goals for yourself and build out an action plan to achieve it.
Here is an example to follow:
Goal 1: Client outreach (Ideally 50% of the time, Reasonable allocation 45% of the time)
Action plan to achieve it: Spend the first 2 hours of the day calling prospective clients before checking email
Once you have completed this process for every major goal, start penciling in calendar entries to establish a new routine for yourself.
Now that you have a much more efficient workday — you have to stick to the changes you've made.
This is understandably easier said than done.
Be kind to yourself and remember that the human brain is resistant to change.
To prevent yourself from reverting back to old habits, consider setting up a system of accountability to keep you in check.
Try creating a recurring reminder every month or every quarter to encourage you to refresh your time audit. You may also find that having an accountability partner in the office is an effective motivator to stay on track.
Don’t forget, the purpose of conducting a time audit is to streamline your day, so staying consistent with the changes you have made is by far the most important part.
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