The Value of a Time Inventory

The Gist:

  • You have the same twenty-four hours as every other human.
  • You invest time when you do the things that are valuable to you and others, providing you a return on your time. You spend time when you waste it on things that provide no value to you or others.
  • A time inventory will help you recognize how you use your day, make adjustments, and improve your results.

A few years ago, I created a time inventory database in Airtable. I literally tracked everything I did for ninety days, no matter how important or insignificant, as a way to see where I was investing my time and where I was spending it. That distinction deserves an explanation. When you invest, you expect to gain something more than what you contributed, an addition (and hopefully a multiplication) in value. When you spend your time, you are not expecting a return.

My inventory reflected the fact that I invested a lot of hours in work. To my surprise, I also invested a lot more time with my family than I realized. Overall, though, it showed that I wasted too much time, had too much administrative work (including the dreaded email inbox), and that I needed to better prioritize my major projects.

Taking an Inventory of Your Time

Taking an inventory of your time is relatively easy, but being honest with yourself can be more difficult. You can set up a fancy database to track what you do, something I found useful because it makes it easy to sum up total time by category. A spreadsheet is another option, but even a legal pad or the notes app on your phone will work.

You want to track the date, the task, the time you started, the time you stopped, and the task’s main category. You might also want to write down a note about what you accomplished as a way to judge the value of the task. Like keeping a food journal, you have to be honest with yourself. If you ate a jumbo bag of M&Ms, you have to write it down.

It might pain you to record that you decided to open your browser and eventually fell down a rabbit hole, a place where both time and your priorities cease to exist, but you’ve still got to record every single thing that you do. The value of an honest time inventory is that it provides you with insights about where you invest time and where you spend it poorly.

People create calendar to take inventory of time

Twenty-Four Seven, Three Sixty-Five

Each of us has twenty-four hours in a day. Those who are most productive with their time invest time in results, while those who spend their time that don’t target their alleged goals lose the time they might have put to better use. Use your time inventory to evaluate where you are on that continuum.

First, assess what it is that you are doing with your time. Not every minute of your life needs to be scheduled (but your workdays do), and there is no reason to believe that you should not invest in recreation and renewal, something critical to doing good work and avoiding burnout.

Second, identify the areas where you invest more time than necessary. You might be surprised that the report you worked on for two hours really only takes thirty-minutes if you avoid distractions and leave your inbox and browser closed.

Third, acknowledge where you waste the single, finite, non-renewable resource that is your time. The reason you want to hyper-schedule your workdays is so that you don’t start the day staring at your laptop and trying to decide what to do—something that will surely drive you to open your email instead of using the first block of your day to do some meaningful piece of work.

Making Adjustments

The time inventory provides you with an accounting of what you do with your time now, while also showing you where you might make changes to gain more time. Of course, you won’t actually get any extra hours, but it will feel that way when you use your twenty-four in ways that are more valuable.

Once you know what you allow to “steal your time,” you can steal it back. The time you spend on things that don’t serve you can be invested in the few things that make the greatest contribution to your success and happiness across all the dimensions of your life—not just your work.

By budgeting your time, you make room for what’s important and exclude what is of no real value. “But wait, Iannarino,” you say, “I want more free time to do nothing. I am a free spirit.” Value is in the eye of the beholder. Give me two hours to do with what I will, and you’ll find me browsing the shelves and stacks of a locally-owned bookstore, hopefully one with good coffee.

Do Good Work

  • Keep a time inventory for no less than a month. During that time, don’t do any analysis.
  • Be completely honest with yourself and make certain that you have data integrity, i.e., don’t lie to yourself.

At the end of the month, review your time inventory and analyze it objectively, as if a colleague gave you their journal and asked you to help them improve their results.

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