Where does the time go? (Here's how to find out.)

Jun 13, 2023
2023-06-13 Intentional Productivity blog image - Time Tracker

Lately, I’ve felt slightly overwhelmed. Between summer plans, business growth, weekend travel, and garden projects—atop everything else day to day—June definitely has a pace of its own!

(This is why knowing how to rest and say no is so important.)

Even with boundaries, tools, and systems to keep me calm and focused, I’ve found myself asking, “Where did all the time go?!” on more than one occasion.

Sound familiar?

Last week, after a few days of feeling unaccomplished, I got curious. Where was all my time, energy, and attention going?

If this is a question—or feeling—you’re currently facing, I'll walk you through what I did to find the answer. 

Let’s dive in.



1 thing to apply


It's difficult to manage what you don't measure so try doing a time audit. This involves tracking how you spend your time throughout the day. (I promise it’s not as intrusive or time-consuming as it sounds.)

You can use one of the free time tracking templates I created to make this process quick and easy.


3 main benefits

  • Ensure how you’re spending your time and energy aligns with your vision and objectives.
  • Identify time-wasting activities so you can optimize your schedule, habits, and routines.
  • Understand what changes you can/need to make in your day to have time for your priorities.



Why this works


In The Effective Executive, Peter Drucker emphasizes the importance of "knowing thy time"—and with good (and entertaining) reason:

I sometimes ask executives who pride themselves on their memory to put down their guess as to how they spend their own time. Then I lock these guesses away for a few weeks or months. In the meantime, the executives run an actual time record on themselves. There is never much resemblance between the way these [executives] thought they used their time and their actual records.

One company chairman was absolutely certain that he divided his time roughly into three parts. One third he thought he was spending with his senior [staff]. One third he thought he spent with his important customers. And one third he thought was devoted to community activities.

The actual record of his activities over six weeks brought out clearly that he spent almost no time in any of these areas. These were the tasks on which he knew he should spend time—and therefore memory, obliging as usual, told him that these were the tasks on which he actually had spent his time. The record showed, however, that he spent most of his hours as a kind of dispatcher, keeping track of orders from customers he personally knew, and bothering the plant with telephone calls about them. Most of these orders were going through all right anyhow and his intervention could only delay them. But when his secretary first came in with the time record, he did not believe her. It took two or three more time logs to convince him that record, rather than memory, has to be trusted when it comes to the use of time.



5 minutes or less


Here's how to set up a quick and simple time-tracking system in the next 5 minutes:


Step 1: Choose your parameters

  • a) Hours: Do you want to track your workday or entire day?
  • b) Frequency: Will you track each hour? 30 minutes? 15?
  • c) Duration: Will you track your time for 3 days? 5? 7?

The “best” option for you is the one you’ll actually do. When I tried this out, I logged every working hour for 5 days, and I found this to be both manageable and effective in providing enough data to work with.


Step 2: Design your tracker

Set up a simple way to record your time based on the days and hours you want to track. You have a few options here:

  • a) Spreadsheet 
    Use Excel, Google Sheets, a table in Notion, or your tool of choice to track each hour or half hour of your day. This is a great option for tracking time spent on the computer.
  • b) Pen and paper
    This is the option I use and recommend since you can track time on or off the computer. If you want an analogue spreadsheet, I’ve created customizable templates you can print off or replicate.
  • c) Time tracking software
    There are a number of free online tools that can track the time you spend on certain tasks. I’ve used Toggl Track (where you manually input the task you're working on), but there are also fully automated tools like RescueTime. 

Step 3: Set hourly reminders

Set a reminder to check in every 30 or 60 minutes. A timer, phone alarm, or desktop reminder will do the trick. When it goes off, jot down what you’ve been working on for the past 30 or 60 minutes. (If you switched between tasks multiple times in that period, make sure to note that as well.)

Tip: Instead of writing “work”, consider creating categories based on the different modes of work in your day. For example: email, admin, research, writing, meeting, coaching, reporting, etc. You can also add a bit of detail: brainstormed newsletter ideas, drafted video script, designed presentation, and so on. Keep it short and specific.


Step 4: Track honestly

It can be challenging to be both the subject and the observer! In psychology studies, there’s something called the Hawthorne effect, which is when a participant's behaviour changes—usually for the better—as a result of being observed.

Remember that the goal is to gather accurate information on how you actually spend your time. Do your best to maintain regularly routines and ways of working while you do this time tracking experiment.


Step 5: Assess the results

Once you have your data set, review the results to identify patterns and necessary changes. Add up the hours in each category to see how you tend to spend your time on a daily or weekly basis.

  • Which categories got the most time and attention?
  • Which activities were an effective use of your time?
  • What do you need to eliminate, automate, or delegate?

The results may not be pretty, but now you have something to work with as you redesign your schedule and build new habits.



Conclusion: Like many effective practices, this one is unglamorous yet incredibly eye-opening. (It was for me anyway.) It reminded me that being intentional means putting in the effort to gain awareness, even when it’s somewhat tedious.

It also reminded me that this intentionality pays off as I can now see what's been eating my time and energy and what I need to rework in my day to make sure I spend those resources on what matters most.

If you're interested in giving this a try, grab your free time tracker templates and let me know what you find! 

Your time and energy are your most precious resources. As always, thank you for sharing some of yours with me today.

See you in two weeks!

— Melissa



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