Do you ever reach Friday afternoon and wonder what the heck you did all week? Do you find yourself working 60+ hours a week and wondering how some academics manage to get everything done in less than 45 hours? If so, you should do a time audit. This is an exercise I’ve been doing with my clients — and for myself. Here’s how it works: I document what I do for each 30 minute block of time throughout the day, then I check it against what was actually on my schedule (read this post for how I structure my day). If there’s a discrepancy, I write a quick note explaining why and how I felt. It generally takes about two weeks for patterns to emerge, although it could happen faster.
I don’t do time audits because I want to have some self-inflicted “gotcha” moment where I see that I’m not doing what I planned. In my approach, there’s nothing punitive about a time audit. Instead, I do it so that I know what I’m doing all day. That knowledge is essential for making better decisions about how to use you time.
I learned that I can’t do much additional work on a day when I take coaching calls. There are days when I have 4-5 coaching calls that range from 30-45 minutes. Although that’s a significant amount of time on the phone, I was convinced that because it was, on average, only about 3 hours in a day that I should be doing more work. So I scheduled tasks in between calls. My time audit revealed that I really spent that time reading blogs, making tea, or grabbing a snack. When I thought about why I wasn’t doing the work I had scheduled, I realized that I really need that time to decompress from my call. That’s a good thing, because it means I’m refreshed for my next call.
My coaching clients have been doing time audits with great results. Here’s one example. A client — we’ll call her Maria — regularly scheduled writing time after teaching. Her rationale was that since she finished teaching around 3, she should write for about two hours so she could end her workday at a reasonable hour. What Maria’s time audit revealed was that she didn’t actually write during this time, because she was tired from teaching. She ended up procrastinating, then feeling guilty because she wasn’t writing.
What we determined (after some mindset coaching), was that Maria wouldn’t use that time for writing. Instead, she’d do routine administrative tasks – some related to research and some not. Ultimately, she decided to batch small tasks during this time. She used shorter time blocks throughout the week when her energy was higher to work on her writing. With this new approach she got more writing done in a shorter amount of time.
You’ll discover when you do your best work.
Before a time audit, your work hours might be wildly inconsistent. There may be some weeks where you’re getting twenty-five hours of useful work done, and other weeks where you’re working forty hours straight. Unfortunately, you likely have no idea why there’s so much variation. A time audit will reveal not only what you’re doing, but how you feel as you’re doing it.
You’ll determine when you’ve reached your limit.
At some point, there will be diminishing returns on your time investment. When you begin to see patterns in your behavior (for instance, when you end up spending thirty minutes zoning out after class instead of firing up your Word document and writing as you had planned), you can adjust accordingly. Once you understand your limits, you’ll be on the path to taking breaks with less guilt.
You’ll learn how to manage your time and your energy.
It might sound a bit woo-woo to talk about energy management, but hear me out: you can’t always force yourself to work if you don’t have the right mental energy. But don’t worry, this doesn’t mean you just stop working. You can use your low-energy time to respond to email, enter grades, or attend to tasks that are urgent but unimportant. When you start effectively managing your energy, you’ll find that you procrastinate less, feel better about your work as you’re doing it, and in some cases work faster.
In closing, for a time audit to be truly successful, you must analyze your behavior from a place of compassionate curiously. A time audit is not an opportunity for you to be harsh or punitive towards yourself. Instead, think seriously about what types of adjustments you can make to not only work better but also feel better.