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How to Use a Time Budget

Updated on July 18, 2010

Managing time is nothing new.  The internet is filled with articles about time management and tips for better use of one’s time.  People spend thousands of dollars consulting experts, and businesses spend even more trying to make their operations more efficient.  In the war of time management, a time budget is one of the most effective tools.

Like managing time, budgeting is nothing new.  When we think of a budget, however, we think of money.  A financial budget helps a person, family or business to organize money, keep track of income and expenses, and cut wasteful spending.  A time budget accomplishes the same ends with time – keep track of time and how it is spent.

When using a time budget, several factors should be considered: the total amount of time available, what overall activities need time (ie, family, work, and relaxation) and how much time will be allocated to those activities.  How much total time is available will vary little from person to person.  There are only 24 hours in a day and on any given day, every person sleeps an average of eight hours and works an average of eight hours, leaving eight hours for family, relaxation, commuting, the gym or whatever other activities are important.  The most important part of the time budget is prioritizing activities and allocating time based on those priorities.

There are four steps to creating an effective time budget – organize, allocate, track, and review.

Step 1 – Organize the Key Areas

This step can be specific or broad in nature.  This not the place to name specific tasks, but rather the areas that need time invested in them.  Most people will name work and family.  Other areas could be socializing, exercising, studying and self-knowledge.  More specifically, those areas could be named reading with the children, emailing friends, going to the gym or spending time alone. 

Step 2 – Allocate Time

In allocating time to the key areas, it is easy to get caught up in “the now” and how time seems to currently be spent.  However, this step should represent the ideal amount of time to give to each area.  If exercise currently only gets four hours a week but ideally it should get six, allot six hours to exercise.  Another factor to consider when starting the first time budget is contingency time.  Surprises and emergencies happen so try to be conservative at first.  Allocate perhaps 50% of the available time and adjust accordingly in the future.

Step 3 – Track the Spending

A blank schedule comes in handy for this step.  Use it throughout the day to keep track of where the time is spent and which key areas receive time.  Some people refer to this as time-boxing.  Divide the day into increments, such as one hour increments.  Each hour is one box.  Instead of tracking the actual time spent, track the number of boxes used.  For example, eight hours spent at work would be tracked as eight boxes in the key area, work.  The beauty in time-boxing is that tasks are worked on for the specified amount of time only – say, reading and sending email for one hour – and at the end of that time, the task is set aside whether it is completed or not.  Time boxing has been used extensively by businesses to improve productivity and allocate time to several different projects.

Step 4 – Review

Review the time budget every week to see if the goals for allocating time were met, where and on what the time was wasted, and how to improve the budget.  Make the necessary adjustments and lay out the following week’s time budget.

Using a time budget brings peace of mind to an otherwise hectic schedule.  Much like a financial budget, it enables a person to cut out wasteful spending and invest time in the areas that are most important, creating a serene and stress-free day, week or month at home and at work.

A Sample Time Budget

A sample time budget.  Notice that the actual time used does not meet how it was budgeted; however, this budget allows one to make adjustments and corrections to either the budget or how their time is spent.
A sample time budget. Notice that the actual time used does not meet how it was budgeted; however, this budget allows one to make adjustments and corrections to either the budget or how their time is spent.

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