The Time Audit

As the adage goes: time is our most valuable resource.

Not only is time valuable, it is non-renewable. No matter what we do, we’re always paying. There is no way to press pause on the constant drip of the time-faucet; the only thing we can control is which bucket each drip falls into.

Given time is so widely understood to be (1) valuable, and (2) irredeemable, you would think we would do a better job of measuring our time. Every other consumable resource in our lives has a tacit audit trail of where it went. Our finances flow through bank accounts that track every debit and credit. More than half of US adults actively track their food consumption [1]. Smart devices are tracking our movement patterns and sleep intervals. Even our phones now track screen time and data usage with a weekly report, almost shaming us for our addiction. With so many measurement tools, it only makes sense that we would apply these same principles to the general clock that never stops ticking – but it seems no one does. At least I didn’t, until recently.

For as long as I can remember I have been a student of productivity. Marc Andreessen wrote a good piece in 2007 about his secret obsession with Productivity Porn, and I must say, it resonated. I generally try and stay away from the self-help section of the book store, but if I come across anything to do with time management, habit formation, or deep work, I am cancelling my afternoon to dive in. I, like many people, end up with this false sense of productivity from spending more time reading/thinking about how to be productive than actually being productive.

So one weekend, after indulging in far too many blog posts about productivity, only to realize I deferred all my critical weekend tasks I recognized something needed to change. I had the feeling I was being productive, but in reality my output was null. To reconcile these two things, I decided to perform an audit.

For two weeks I kept a detailed log in a spreadsheet of all the things I did, broken down into thirty minute increments. I was careful to track both activities and output. Far too often we fall into a fallacy of productivity because we are busy, but in reality we are not producing anything. It is important to hold ourselves accountable to results; the what not just the how.

It was also important to catalogue these variables at regular intervals to maintain the integrity of the exercise. I wanted to avoid revisionist history with my time allocation while at the same time, not confining myself to stop and pause every thirty minutes. I found for myself, cataloguing at each meal was an effective interval that maintained fidelity without disrupting the flow of my day.

After two weeks, I took this report and did a detailed analysis of how I was allocating my time. The results were surprising. I felt as though I was productive but in going through the results I found that I drastically under appreciated how much of my time was wasted doing menial things.

The purpose of this exercise was not to transform myself into a productivity robot where every minute of every day is classified as “high ROI”. The purpose was self awareness. There is a lot of value in “flex time” to sit in peace, to think, to meditate, to pray; which led to an insight in how to evolve the time audit: a mindfulness column. I wanted to get an understanding of how my daily time allocation affects my mental state to see if I could reverse engineer what gives me energy and what drains me of energy.

So I set out to redo the time audit, and this time also ascribe a general score (1-10) of how I was feeling, and also a few short notes to describe how I was feeling (grateful, anxious, tired, energized, etc.) When I went back through my audit this time, I was able to establish trends of what led to positive energy and positive output. By the same token that I don’t want to turn into a productivity robot, I also recognize the importance of getting stuff done. What was an encouraging finding was that there was a strong correlation between productive output (work, writing, exercise, etc.) and my mood. Days that had looming deadlines were also some of the best days for energy; and days where I meandered without getting much done were the days where I scored low on my energy scale. What I would venture to say is that the output was a contributing factor to my mood, not a causal factor because of my mood.

What this exercise did for me was identify the activities that led to the best output and the best mental state for myself. I have taken up this practice for two weeks out of every quarter as a way to calibrate and remind myself of what I should be doing more of and what I should be doing less of. As we are dynamic in nature, these audits produce new insights every time, and I continue to evolve.

I hope others find value in this as well.

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