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How to run an accurate time audit (with a little help from automation)

Last updated on
September 24, 2021

Time is the most valuable resource we have, and one of the few things we can never buy back – but that doesn’t mean we can’t figure out how to use it better. Interestingly, most of us have no real idea of how we’re really spending our time, but in order to be more productive we need to know exactly where our hours and minutes are going. This is why doing a time audit is so important; here’s how to run one accurately without wasting time in the process.

What is a time audit?

A time audit is like an investigation into where your time is really going. The problem is that the way we actually spend time is often wildly different from the way we think we spend time. This is called the intention/action gap, and it affects most of us, even though we’re often not aware of it. If you’re a freelance writer, for example, how much time do you actually spend writing as opposed to planning, speaking to clients, researching, etc? If half your day is being spent on non-billable tasks, you’re losing money – but you won’t be able to rectify the problem until you recognize it.

When you run a time audit, you’re digging deep into everything you do. You’re finding out exactly what you do in a day, how long certain tasks take, what your biggest time drains are and where you’re getting distracted. It provides you with measurable, quantifiable results to identify the behaviors and processes you need to change. Once you have that information, you can form realistic productivity goals, optimize your schedule, and remove low-value apps and tasks from your day.

Running an accurate time audit

There are four basic steps to running a time audit:

  1. Write down your most important goals for the week, as well as a to-do list. Recording what you want or intend to achieve is how you’ll measure how successful you actually are.
  2. Track all your time accurately. You want an empirical record of where every minute’s going, free from manual error, guesstimates and bias.
  3. Analyze your results: what took longer than anticipated? What things didn’t you account for? Did you complete your goals? Then, draw up a plan of action to improve on this.
  4. Create a system to track your progress and meet your goals.

Reliable data lies at the heart of this whole endeavour; to be worth anything, your time audit needs to be accurate. That means having mathematical precision and oversight over every little thing you do. Yet some people still choose to do step two by hand by hand – using a weekly chart to note down what they’ve done every half hour.

Aside from threading an unproductive admin task into your day, this type of manual time audit  produces bad data. Humans simply aren’t designed to track everything they do in minute detail: we’re unintentionally biased in what we report; we miss and forget things; we can’t estimate time passing without constantly attending to it. To try and record our time accurately, we would need to permanently split our attention between our work and the clock – which doesn’t lend itself to productive working.

Automate your time audit

The good news is, today you can actually collect all your time data automatically. Automatic time tracking apps like Timely offer supreme accuracy with minimal effort, recording everything you work on – not just the parts you remember. You can see all the time you spend on clients, tasks and projects, down to the apps and websites you used.

With a flawless account of the way you work, you’ll be able to identify your peak productive hours and create smarter daily schedules. It lets you organize task intensity around your energy levels, so you don’t try and slog away on something complex when you’re at  your most deflated.

You’ll also be able to surface unconscious behaviors and processes that interrupt your focus or – like the cyclical website searches that lead to procrastination, and the internal communications that pull you off-task.

Ultimately, time audits are administrative tasks that don’t make best use of human creative thinking, so it makes huge sense to automate them. Without manual timers or note taking, you’ll have more mental space to focus on the important work that actually matters.

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