Where does your time go each day? How to run a time audit in 5 steps [with Free Template]

“Is it 5 pm already?”

For some people, the idea that the workday flew past without so much of a thought is a dream.

For others, it’s a nightmare.

When you’re doing meaningful work, time is a resource you’d trade anything to have more of. But (unfortunately) it doesn’t work that way. No matter how much time you plan to spend on the work that matters, it’s how you actually spend that time that matters. 

Unfortunately, if you’re like most people, you spend the majority of your time each day meetings, calls, admin, interruptions, distractions, conversations, and appointments. Before you know it, the day’s over and you’ve barely scratched the surface of your to-do list.

It’s disheartening. But the answer isn’t to spend more time but to take back control of our time.

The simplest solution? A time audit.

How to run a time audit in 5 steps 

  1. Write down your intentions (how you’d ideally like to spend your time)
  2. Use RescueTime to see your actual data from the past month
  3. Set new goals and daily targets to realign your time intention and allocation
  4. Adjust your schedule based on your new goals
  5. Set up new systems to track your progress 

Grab the template and follow along!

We’ve put together a free downloadable Time Audit template to help you discover exactly where your time is going. Download the template:

What is a time audit?

The same way you might get audited for your taxes, a time audit is the IRS for your daily schedule

By examining how you actually spend your time each week/month/quarter, you take the guesswork out of time management and can set up a proper schedule for the future.

In its most basic form, a time audit involves a few steps:

  1. Write down your intentions (i.e. How do you want to spend your time?)
  2. Look at personal data (i.e. How you actually spent your time)
  3. Adjust and set up systems to monitor your progress

For example, if you want to write a novel (intention) but you’re only writing an hour a week (allocation), something’s not right.

The same goes for your work. If your main priority is to develop software, but you spend the majority of your days answering emails or in meetings, your intention and allocation are misaligned.

A time audit is designed to bring your time intention and allocation back into alignment. It keeps you honest about where your time actually goes and helps you create the right habits and routines around doing the work that matters to you. 

As Clay Christensen, author of How Will You Measure Your Life? wrote:

“Your decisions about allocating your personal time, energy, and talent ultimately shape your life’s strategy.”

When we set and stick to our time intentions, we not only get more done but feel empowered and motivated. Momentum begets momentum.

The tools you need to run a time audit

The most important part of the time audit process is gathering honest and accurate data on how you spend your time.

 There’s a number of tools you can use for this. And which one you choose will ultimately come down to how you’re used to tracking time, how much effort you’re willing to put in, and the level of granularity you want in your audit.

Your to-do list (app/pen and paper)

If you use a to-do list app like Todoist or Wunderlist or track your daily tasks on a pad and paper, you can use this to track how you spend your days. 

Pro: Gives you a clear view of the specific tasks you spent your time on (or wanted to, at least).

Con: No data on how your time was actually spent. 

Calendar

If you use your calendar to create a daily schedule and track tasks, you can use this as a good way to see how you wanted to spend your time. As an added bonus, your calendar contains all of the things that usually take you away from doing meaningful work, like meetings, calls, and appointments.

Pro: Shows you both how you wanted to spend your time and what got in the way. 

Con: Only an ideal version of how you spend your time. Plus, if you follow a recurring daily schedule, you’re dealing with pre-set chunks of time (intention) rather than actual time spent (allocation).

Time tracking app

A free time tracking app like RescueTime keeps detailed track of how you spend your time on apps, websites, and projects. It also works in the background, meaning you don’t have to rely on manually everything tasks or time. 

Pro: The only way to get an honest and accurate picture of how you spent your time. No chance of falling into the trap of rewriting your own history. 

Con: Doesn’t automatically show what project you were working on (you have to add this yourself using Highlights or Offline Time). 

Want to give it a try? Sign up for RescueTime for free today!

A simple 5-step time audit to realign how you’re spending your days

In its most basic form, a time audit involves simply comparing your time intentions with your allocation. However, we strongly believe that self-reflection is only worthwhile if you use it to make real change. 

By following this time audit process (and template) you’ll get both the information you need as well as concrete next steps to help you commit to changing your time management in the future.

Self-reflection is only worthwhile if you use it to make real changes. Click To Tweet

Step 1: Write down your intentions (how you’d ideally like to spend your time) 

Before you look at any data, you want to think about what your ideal scenario would be. What would a perfect workday look like for you? 

Start by writing down the time you would like to spend on each of your most important activities, categories, or projects. I like to start with a list of 3–5 goals and the time I’d like to allocate to them. 

Here’s an example of what this might look like:

  • Goal 1: Write blog posts (Intention: 50% of my time)
  • Goal 2: Research and education (Intention: 25% of my time)
  • Goal 3: Client and team communication (Intention: 10% of my time)

These intentions don’t have to, and shouldn’t, work out to 100% of your time. Time management is all about being realistic. And there is always a chunk of your time you can’t control that most likely will go to things like email, admin, and other tasks. 

Step 2: Use RescueTime to see your actual data from the past month

Using RescueTime (or another time tracking tool), you can now look at how you actually spent your time over the past month (your allocation). This is raw and honest data, not colored by productivity shame or rose-tinted glasses.

First, use the date picker to select the time you want to look at. For the sake of this post, I’m going to use July 2019 and filter that time for just during work hours

Here’s what that looks like:

The main RescueTime dashboard is full of insights that will help with your time audit. In my case, right away I can see that my time intention and allocation are off:

  • Goal 1: Write blog posts (Intention: 50%; Allocation as shown in RescueTime: 43%)
  • Goal 2: Research and education (Intention: 25%; Allocation as shown in RescueTime: 4%)
  • Goal 3: Client and team communication (Intention: 10%; Allocation as shown in RescueTime: 19%)

That’s not it, however. 

The goal of a time audit is to ultimately change your daily habits and routines. So I’m going to dig in further to my RescueTime data and look at when each task is happening during the day.

It’s much easier to build off a current habit than create a whole new one, so understanding how I’m working right now is a powerful place to start.

Looking at the data, I can see how writing (Design and Comp) happens mostly in the morning, while communication is present throughout the day but more prevalent in the afternoon. 

I can also look at when I’m most productive during the day using my Productivity by Time of Day report. This will help give me some clues on how to schedule my day better:

Lastly, I want to look at some data on the things that get in the way of my time goals. In this case, I’ll look at when I’m spending time on social media during the workday:

There’s tons of information to gather from RescueTime. But the key here is to look for patterns. 

When are your time intentions and allocation misaligned? 

What distractions or “urgent” tasks are getting in the way?

By understanding these key insights we can now set specific goals to realign our days with how we want to spend them.

Step 3: Set new goals and daily targets to realign your time intention and allocation

Now that you know how your time is actually being spent, it’s time to set new goals and create an action plan for each. Here are a few examples: 

Goal 1: Write blog posts (Intention: 50%; Allocation: 43%)

Action plan: Spend 3 hours a day writing (mostly in the morning).


Goal 2: Research and education (Intention: 25%; Allocation: 7%)

Action plan: Schedule 30-60 minutes in the afternoons for research.


Goal 3: Client and team communication (Intention: 10%; Allocation: 14%)

Action plan: Spend less time on email. Set a daily reminder if I hit over 30 minutes on email and chat.


Using RescueTime, you can set up systems for tracking your progress on these new goals and keep you accountable to your new intentions.

For example, I have RescueTime Goals set up for writing time, lowering my time spent on email, my total non-productive time during the workday, and my time spent on my phone:

As an added bonus, I can use RescueTime to set daily alerts that are triggered when I hit (or miss) my commitments.

Writing goal

For a detailed explanation on how to use RescueTime Alerts check out this post.

Step 4: Adjust your schedule based on your new goals 

With all this information in hand, you can now create a daily schedule that reflects how you want to spend your time. One method we find especially powerful for this is to use what’s called time blocking

Simply put, time blocking is the practice of planning out every moment of your day in advance and dedicating specific time “blocks” for certain tasks and responsibilities.

For example, you might set up a morning routine with time set aside for your most important activity. In my case, this would be writing: 

Kevin Taylor copy

Starting each day with a “full schedule” in this way means you’re taking control of your time, rather than being overwhelmed by requests and meetings. It also means scheduling your day based on real data, not just guesswork.

In addition, because RescueTime gives you deep insights into where you’re getting distracted or sidetracked, it’s easy to create a system to help keep you on track.

Here are a few strategies you can start with: 

  • New goal 1: Lower social media time by setting FocusTime sessions in the morning (RescueTime’s website blocker for distracting sites)
  • New goal 2: Boost productivity later in the day by scheduling non-cognitively tasking work during the afternoon (when my productive time is naturally lower)
  • New goal 3: Set a RescueTime Alert for a minimum of 30 minutes of research time in the afternoon

However, don’t forget to be realistic about how much time you actually have each day for deep work. If you know you have 10+ hours of calls or 5 recurring meetings a week, it’s probably not realistic to schedule huge blocks of deep work every day. 

It might take a few times around to get your schedule right. But once you do, you’ll be in a position to make every day a good one.

These are just a few examples of ways you can start to change your schedule to align with how you want to spend your time. For more tips and strategies, check out our in-depth time management guide

Step 5: Set up new systems to track your progress

Lastly, it’s important to remember that changing habits, schedules, and routines is never easy. The human brain doesn’t like change. And it’s easy to slip back into your old ways if you don’t have a system in place to keep you accountable. 

RescueTime Goals and Alerts are a great way to do this. But other options could include setting up an accountability partner or commitment device or even tracking your progress and streaks on a calendar. The most important thing is to make your progress visible and check in regularly. 

When should you do a time audit?

You can do a time audit at any point, but it’s good to have at least a few weeks to a month of personal data before you dive in.

If you can run through this list monthly, you’ll be able to fine-tune your schedule. However, quarterly or bi-yearly is good as well. Especially if you’ve been conscious of where your time is going for a while now.

Where to go from here

Time management is an ongoing process. And we’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the best ways to make it work for you.

If you want to do your own time audit and understand where your time is going, grab our time audit template and then sign up for a FREE RescueTime account:

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Jory MacKay

Jory MacKay is a writer, content marketer, and editor of the RescueTime blog.

4 comments

    1. Thanks John! I definitely agree that it’s important to act on the data you have available. It’s too easy to set-and-forget goals instead of using them to actually change your behaviors. And yes, 3 hours of writing a day is tough!

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