What is a Life Audit?
What is a life audit and why should you spend your precious time doing one? I’ll start by saying that if you don’t yet know what your core values are you should follow that link and do that first. Here’s why:
A life audit is a systematic way of measuring the ways you spend your resources against your core values. At its most basic, a life audit helps us see if we are investing our time/money/energy in ways that align with what we believe. To live authentically and well we absolutely must know what we believe and value, and we must live that out by investing our time, energy, and monetary resources in ways that align with our values. (You can’t do that if you haven’t gotten intentional about your highest values. So start there, it doesn’t take long.)
Much like an audit in the financial world a life audit is a way of taking stock of everything in our lives. We do it to know what’s really there. On the surface it seems like an unnecessary exercise, surely we all know what’s in our lives? But we usually don’t. We think we know what it is that makes up our lives. But so much of it is absolutely invisible to us.
Ever felt stressed, burned out, or over scheduled? Have you gotten to Friday without achieving any of your goals for the week? It happens to all of us. There’s never enough time for everything and it seems like there’s less time every year. The issue isn’t actually that we have less time, but that our lives have become so cluttered with things we really don’t care about that the things we do care about get squeezed out.
What mindfulness has to do with it
You might wonder what difference mindfulness makes. It changes your life audit from one more task, into an opportunity to change how you do everything. When you incorporate mindfulness into the life audit process you shift the way you approach your day. Mindfulness at its most basic is about remaining present in the ordinary moments.
We aren’t good at that. We are presented with a hundred thousand ways to distract ourselves through life. Whether it is our phone, or dreaming about a new car, or spending your whole workout on a business call. We are trained to try to do as many things as possible at the same time. And that leads to a couple problems.
First, we simply aren’t aware for a lot of the time. How often have you gotten to work with no memory of how you got there? How many times has your partner or friend asked you if you are listening? (And you maybe don’t even hear that question?) When our lives are overrun by distraction we not only miss out on the good moments, but we are so numb to the rest that we can’t take real stock of how we are spending our time, or make any real lasting changes. If you want to transform your life, make it more meaningful, joy filled, and rewarding, you need to be present.
Naming & Measuring
The first step is to collect data. I know your life is already busy but this will take a little bit of time to work through this exercise. If the time is broken up over a few different sessions that’s fine, it might even work better for you. Other than your attention you you will need a few simple tools:
- Paper and pencil. Ideally you will carry them with you for a week. Things will pop up that you’d forgotten about until you are in the middle of them. (If pen and paper don’t work for you use whatever technology does!)
- Your calendar (however you keep that) for home, work, family, etc.
- Planner or other way you track your time and activities throughout the day.
We’re going to start by making lists. The key here is that we need to make sure we’re accounting for all the places that you are spending your resources. You’ve got lots of different resources and some may not be so obvious. So let’s get started. Remember, it’s fine to make notes and come back to it later, update as necessary. You can’t do this audit well in just one sitting, something will get missed.
I suggest that you work on your life audit over the course of a normal week. What works for many people is to set aside some time at the beginning of the day to look forward to what you will be spending time and energy on. You can also take a few minutes in the evening to review what actually happened. Mix it up and see if that uncovers things you hadn’t thought of. The goal is to be as complete as possible so you can get an accurate picture of what takes up your time and energy.
Mindfulness will help you! Do your best to stay present during your day. Notice when you are reaching for your phone, or running Youtube videos in the background without really watching them. Make a note. Experiment with removing those distractions and see how your primary activity changes. Above all, not down where you spend your time and energy when you notice it!
The first and most obvious thing are those items that are on your calendar. You’ve likely got work, dinner with a friend, maybe a date or a yoga class.
All of the things that appear on your calendar should go on the list. You can group them as makes logical sense. So all the time you spend at work might get one note: work. Your exercise classes might be their own item, socializing with friends can have its own category as well. But it’s possible you’ve got something that really stands out, maybe you are training for a marathon in addition to your other exercise time. Then give that it’s own spot on the list as it’s taking a lot of your time, and energy.
There might be relationships that show up on your calendar that also note their own inclusion in the list separately from a group like “friends.” That’s OK, there is no judgement at this point. An item might go on the list because it’s a great positive thing or a negative. The only judgement is: does this take up my time or energy? If so down it goes.
Here is where mindfulness comes in. Pay attention throughout the day, because some of those events probably never actually happen (that girlfriend who always cancels, that yoga class you always skip). If so, put a line through them on your list.
This is a little more “fluffy” of a category, you probably don’t have a place where all these things are neatly noted down as with your calendar. But next it’s time to mark down the things that take up your energy. They almost certainly take up time too but often that time isn’t marked on the calendar, it’d dribbled out in fits and starts throughout your day in a way that’s hard to quantify. The bigger cost here is mental and emotional.
An example of something in this category would be caring for your elderly parents. You probably spend time worrying about them, making phone calls, or trying to talk them into moving into a smaller place. There’s a huge emotional toll to these sorts of things even though they don’t tend to show up on your calendar.
Good things might fall into this category too, perhaps your daughter is a budding soccer prodigy and you spend time very day helping her practice in the backyard, planning out her schedule, making calls to find just the right coach to help her work on some new skill. Just because it’s a positive thing doesn’t mean it’s not taking up a lot of your mental or emotional energy. Mark it down. These may be harder to sit down and write out easily.
So practice mindfulness, pay attention to the things you do every day and mark them down. As you find yourself spending energy on something write it down!
Ah the big one. If you already have a well crafted budget then you’ve probably got this handled, good for you! Now’s a great time to get a good look at what’s really going on in your finances if you’ve never done a budget before. If you’ve never done this before it might take more than a week to get a good idea of where your money is going. But there’s no time like the present to start. First sit down and list out the things you know: how much money comes in each month and the big stable expenses (like mortgage, rent, car payment, student loan payments, etc) that go out each month.
Either go back through last month’s credit or debit statement, or keep track this month and figure out where all the other money you spend in a month generally goes. You’ll have to do some general rounding off here but pay attention to utility bills, groceries, eating out, entertainment, debt payments, etc. We’re not doing a detailed budget at this point. But your money is a resource like your time, or your emotional energy and it will factor into our third step so get a general overview now of what income and expenses look like.
Mindfulness happens here too. Notice when you spend money: is it when you are stressed, or sad? Do you plan out your purchases, or are you more likely to click “buy” impulsively? Do you regret spending money on something this week? Make a note in your list about these things and you may see patterns emerge.
The Invisible Stuff
And now to the stuff that really falls through the cracks. This is the stuff that happens almost without us being aware of it. (And here we are at mindfulness again.) For me that’s things like restocking the extra toilet paper in bathrooms, refilling soap dispensers, laundry, grocery runs, and meal prep and cleanup.
Example: When my husband and I first got married and were both working outside the home we spent nearly our whole weekend cleaning the house. We did this almost every weekend. It was miserable. But we were hardly even aware of it, it was just one of those things that had to happen.
When we did a similar process to this life audit we were able to identify that formerly invisible annoyance: nearly all our free time together was spent scrubbing toilets and vacuuming, and being grumpy. We hired a cleaning service and have had one ever since, through three moves and three different cities. It transformed our marriage and our lives, that one simple thing.
So as you go through your week trying to be mindful pay attention to the “invisible” bits. When you become aware that you are doing something that has to be done regularly and just sort of “happens” write it down. You might be surprised how many things have accumulated in your life without you even noticing! This might take some practice, after all these things aren’t called invisible for no reason, but if you keep paying attention they’ll be there.
Making Sense of It All
By the end of the week (or however long you’ve taken for this step) you’ll have quite a list filled with all the activities, people, and “stuff” that take your time and energy on a regular basis. Right now it’s probably a pretty messy list without much order. You will probably also have some “ahah” moments, and a slightly better insight into where all your time and energy go.
It’s not terribly helpful as it is. (Keep practicing mindfulness though, it will help as we move forward.)
So the last step in this phase of the process is to get a handle on what’s really there in that big messy list of yours.
My preferred method is to group things by categories (work, home, family, etc) and then within those categories put things in order of just how much time or energy they require. So my horse is right at the top of my personal list because he takes a lot of time, energy, and money. I adore him and it’s all worth it, but the truth is having a horse is a big commitment. Right now we’re not applying any judgement to these lists we’re just trying to get a handle on what’s there and what is taking the most of your resources. Be as dispassionate as possible.
If you like you can put a happy face or sad face next to those things that are really life giving and happy for you, or those that you hate or wish you could jettison. We aren’t to the stage of actually changing anything yet, but it can be interesting to see how many of those sad or happy faces ended up at the top (most time/energy consuming) of your lists.
So you’ve got all sorts of lists, what do you do with a life audit? Next we work on aligning the things you invest in (that’s everything on your life audit) with your values. This won’t happen in a few hours, or a day. It’s an ongoing process which is why we’ve spent so much time preparing for it. But it’s worth the hassle. When the things we devote our time and energy to actually align with our values the result is a life lived with authenticity. It’s easier to build a life you love when you are actually devoting yourself to the things you care about most.
(Pst. To make this whole process easier I’ve got a handy worksheet to help you through the Life Audit process. Download it below.)