Time Audit: If you can never find time for the “important” work, read this!

Time Audit: If you can never find time for the “important” work, read this!

Wondering where your week goes? Feel stuck doing things that aren't the right use of your time and skills? Time for a time audit!

Do you find yourself wondering where your week goes? 

Feel like you can never make time for the work you should (or want to) be spending your time on?

Do you feel like you’re stuck doing things that aren’t the right use of your time and skills?

The best starting place for answering questions about your time is to get an accurate understanding of how you’re spending your time now and then define how you would like to spend your time. Then leverage the CARD framework (outlined below) to get from where you are to where you want to be. Let’s dive in.

What is a time audit?

A time audit is a semi-structured process of capturing and then critically reviewing the way you’re actually spending your time. 

I would recommend doing a time audit whenever you’re feeling like there are not enough hours in the week and/or periodically (for me, it’s every 6-12 months). 

Your time audit will have 4 key stages:

  1. Define how you want to be spending your time
  2. Capture how you’re actually spending your time
  3. Review the difference between the actual and desired
  4. Make a plan for ways to get closer to your ideal

Set Your Goals

Take the time to think about both the things you want to spend your time on and how much time you want to spend your time. You should try to be realistic but don’t overdo it and pre-negotiate with yourself.

It’s best to focus your whole time audit on a fixed period of time, that way you can keep yourself in a single frame of reference. I’d suggest either a week or two weeks since most people’s day-to-day will vary quite a bit (especially product managers). Personally, my recurring schedule has a number of bi-weekly meetings so I focus on a two-week audit.

Try to set broad categories of types of tasks you would like to spend your time on. I’d generally avoid a singular “meetings” category since different types of meetings will have significantly different value and time requirements. For a product manager, I’d highly recommend a Discovery category.

Capture Your Actual Behavior

When trying to document how you really spend your time, there are two approaches you can take. You can use your calendar or you can use a time log.  You’ll want to do this over your time audit period (e.g. 2 weeks).

The most precise (and hardest work) is to keep a time log. Ideally, you’d create a spreadsheet (printing it can help a lot) that breaks your day into 15 or 30-minute increments. Then, throughout your day capture how that time is spent. If you’re a notorious multi-tasker who’s often working on unrelated tasks during meetings, I’d suggest creating a second column to account for the work done during meetings. When it comes to analysis, I’d suggest treating that time in addition to your workday but with a multiplier to account for the reduced time it would have taken if you’d not been in a meeting – personally, I use a 50% reduction. 

The second approach is to capture the time in your calendar so every part of your day is either a meeting or a “focus block” for the task being completed (when auditing, it can be helpful to specify the category too).  The time blocking approach covered in the bonus resource covers why this practice is beneficial even when you’re not conducting a time audit.

At the end of the audit period, you can review your calendar and catalog your time in a spreadsheet.

For the calendar approach, I find it’s helpful to keep a separate log of multi-tasking done during meetings – as I suggested for the time log approach. 

Personally, I’ve not used the time log approach in years because it feels like too much work so I procrastinate doing it. Pick whichever works best for you!

Review The Difference

Now that you’ve got the desired time allocation and a snapshot of your actual time allocation it’s time to compare and contrast. 

Which categories are you spending too much time on? Which categories are you spending too little time on?

What seems to be causing the imbalance? 

The goal here is to critically evaluate the difference and the likely causes. Try to resist jumping into solutions before capturing what you think the causes are.

Make A Plan

The critical final step of the audit is making a plan to move closer to your ideal time allocation. 

The best place to start clearing space and adjusting your time allocation is The CARD Framework: cancel, automate, reduce, delegate.

Cancel. What can you just stop doing? Look for things you’re doing that aren’t very valuable and should be dropped so you can spend time on more valuable things. You might not find many items for this tactic, but look hard and you could find some meaningful opportunities,

Automate. Is there work you could do once that would reduce the time required to do this work in the future? This could be as simple as creating an email template that you can reuse. It could be using a tool like Zapier to automatically generate and send a report. It could be setting up a workflow in Slack that posts a reminder for everyone to complete a recurring task. Often these items are less about freeing up time and more about freeing up mental cycles.

Reduce. Can you perform this task less often and still get similar results? Do you have a weekly meeting that could become bi-weekly? Could the one-hour meeting become a 30-minute meeting? This is your chance to apply Parkinson’s Law to your advantage. Parkinson’s Law states that a task will expand or contract to fill the time allotted to it. Even in cases where it doesn’t strictly apply, you might be able to spend half the time and get 80% of the result. Your goal is to evaluate that tradeoff and make it accordingly. One caveat here, I’d strongly recommend against anything less than 30 minutes a week spent on 1:1s with each of your direct reports. 

Delegate. Should someone else be doing it? Is this task better suited to someone else? That might be because you have more valuable things to do but the work still has to be done. It might be that someone else’s skills would allow them to do the job better or faster. It might be that you don’t enjoy the task and it drains your mental and emotional energy. Delegation doesn’t have to be to someone you manage, it can also be to a peer.

You might have other tactics you can employ, so think carefully about how you can bridge the gap between how you spend your time and how you want to spend your time. 

It’s important to write down your plan and commit to implementing it. I’d suggest making time to go over it with your manager in your 1:1. Not only can they help you stick to it (such as by endorsing your decision to reduce the frequency of a standing meeting), it clearly demonstrates that you’re thinking critically about how you spend your time.

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