“Hold on, just let me write this down—”
“Sarah? The store is going to close.”
“I know, I KNOW, one sec!”
I grab my magenta bullet journal and scribble, “4:30-4:50 PM Facebook, 4:50-6:00 PM wrote article for work,” under the column labeled June 10th. Then I dash out the door with my partner. We careen down the hill to the market, do our grocery shopping, and come back home. I write that down, too. I note how much time we spent unpacking and washing produce, cooking, and cleaning up. The subsequent hour and a half we spend transfixed by Casa de Papel also goes onto the page. I guiltily document the twenty-five minutes I spend Googling Very Important Questions on my phone (“where is JoJo now,” “cat screechy meow meaning,”) in bed before going to sleep. Then I wake up the next morning and do it all over again.
I don’t do this all the time, and I definitely don’t do it just for fun. But I spent the last several weeks experimenting with what is called a time audit, and let me tell you, it changed my life.
A time audit is just what it sounds like: a process in which you record and analyze how you spend your hours throughout the day, cut out time-wasting activities, and create more space for the important ones. Author Rachel Wilkerson Miller calls it a “personal timesheet,” in her book The Art of Showing Up. Just like a regular timesheet in the workplace, you have to write down everything accurately in order for the time audit to work, and it’s usually helpful to do it over the course of a week or two to make sure you have enough data to sift through for meaningful insights at the end of the experiment. Sure, Carol from finance won’t leave a passive-aggressive Post-It on your desk if your hours don’t quite add up, but as the saying goes, you’re only cheating yourself.
I’d been considering doing a time audit for a while, but the book gave me the kick in the pants I needed to finally give the exercise a go. I was burned out, feeling like I was simultaneously always working and never getting enough done. My time seemed to melt away faster than Julia Roberts’ gelato in Eat Pray Love. And unlike her sexy adventures through the streets of Rome, I had nothing to show for it.
I decided to hit my sense of overwhelm with the double-whammy of a personal and professional time audit. In my bullet journal, I kept track of all of the hours I spent outside of my day job. In my work notebook, I tracked exactly which tasks I worked on and when. I’m not exaggerating when I say that doing a time audit radically changed how I spent my days. I was able to see exactly how much I was working (too much), where I was wasting time during the workday, and when I was spending time outside of work in ways that didn’t align with my values. A month later, I can confidently say that I’m much happier and have begun to heal the burnout I experienced in the spring, and I’m producing better work in less time. Sounds pretty great, right? Read on for a step-by-step guide on how to complete your own time audit.
1. Decide if you want to audit your personal time, your professional time, or both.
During my time audit, I found it helpful to keep two separate logs for my work and non-work hours. If you’re working or studying and want to become more efficient, you might only want to track those hours. If you feel like it’s your “leisure” or otherwise non-working hours that need an audit, you can focus just on those. I felt like I needed to get a handle on how I was spending my time in all areas of my life, so I tracked everything.
2. Choose a defined period of time in which to complete your audit.
Decide for yourself how many days you want to spend doing a time audit. I chose to do it over the course of several weeks in order to get as complete a picture of my time as possible, but as few as several days could be all you need. The key is to come up with an accurate picture of how you usually spend your time so that you can make adjustments accordingly. Doing a time audit the same week you need to put in a ton of overtime for a big work project or when you’re taking a vacation probably won’t yield particularly useful information, so keep your schedule in mind.
3. Write. It. Down!
This step may seem obvious, but I can’t tell you how many times I slacked on recording an activity only to have to unsuccessfully dig through my fuzzy-at-best memory mere hours later. Trust me, your future self won’t remember the thirty minutes you spent down a Twitter rabbit hole. Keep your notebook next to you throughout the day and write everything down in half-hour or hour-long increments. If you leave the house, throw your notebook and a pen into your bag or pocket. You’ll thank me later.
4. Let’s get physical.
Okay, so some people might call me a Luddite in the comments for suggesting this, but I believe it is much more effective to record your time log with pen and paper than via digital methods. The primary reason is that it makes you much more likely to actually do the thing. How many times have you opened your phone, intending to go to Notes or another similarly useful app, only to surface from your ex’s cousin’s best friend’s dog’s Instagram post from 186 weeks ago an hour later? Yeah, me too. Phones are dangerous territory when it comes to disciplined record-keeping. Go old-school and use a notebook instead.
5. Analyze and adjust.
Arguably the most important step of the time audit is the one you take after all the documentation is done: analysis. Review your records from the time audit with a discerning but non-judgmental eye. Note any patterns that seem important: Are you spending way more or way less time on something than you previously thought? Do certain activities or behaviors tend to correspond to particular times of the day? How does seeing everything on paper make you feel? This step might be uncomfortable, but it’s necessary. As Wilkerson Miller writes in her book, “Doing a personal timesheet can be hard.” It might not feel great to see exactly how you’ve been spending every minute of every day (it certainly didn’t for me). Only after you digest and reflect on the information you learned, however, should you start adjusting your schedule accordingly.
A time audit does require commitment, but the time and energy you invest will come back to you tenfold in the form of better time management skills, more productive and efficient work habits, and an overall sense of control over your schedule.
Sarah Doyel is a writer and health justice advocate currently based in Washington, DC. When she’s not behind her laptop, she’s running, reading, or drinking an entire pot of espresso. Read more of her work at www.sarahdoyel.com.
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