Part 2: Measuring time does not have to be a straight-jacket
“What do you spend your time on?” It’s the age old question that every project manager wants to ask the creative people working in their team. Now that you work for yourself or are running your own small business you feel liberated from the pressure of having to justify your ‘billability’. Win.
It has become apparent to me that time sheets are the killer of creative deep work; they are designed by people who work in quantifiable ways on shallow task driven projects that can be ticked off on spreadsheets. I am a project manager but I can still agree with this.
The main reason timesheets are the enemy of creativity is because they are often used to calculate profits or margins based on hourly rates per project. This means that with every hour you spend on something it devalues your overall hourly rate – what a straight-jacket for creative thinking!
The problem with retrospectively calculating your hourly rate on a project (value paid for project divided by the hours spent on it) is that all it achieves in a business is promoting the types of projects which are not creatively excellent; those that inevitably take less time or; those that are done for clients who have the biggest budgets (and therefore typically the hardest to turn round to innovation). If you only listen to your margins you’ll end up with a business formed around quick fixes and compromise.
Even the idea that you’d have a ‘cash cow’ that brings in regular uncreative but well paid work and use the profits to ‘burn’ on small conceptually thrilling underpaid work is a model destined for disaster: Many business end up eventually being dropped by their cash-cow in favour of someone cheaper, and the never-ending spiral of devaluing creative work continues. Another effect of this method of doing business is the creation of another market: One for the desirable, cash poor clients who are offered ‘discounted’ highly creative work because creative professionals want to do the work ‘just for the love of it’. This seems honourable in its own right, there’s a real Robin Hood gallantry about it, but it turns out to be another form of creative devaluing in the end.
It is not possible to avoid margin measuring – in fact it would be foolish to not be recording your takings per project. I am mostly imploring the avoidance of heralding the-value-to-hours-spent ratio as king – allowing the bottom line to drive all business decisions. No. What I am suggesting, however, is going through the process of measuring your time in a timesheet fashion for a totally different reason. Not to straight-jacket your creativity but to understand your time, to educate you to make smarter decisions that will protect the value of your creativity.
More often than not we can go a day or a week and look back and wonder where all the time went and therefore feel ill-equipped to make changes because we don’t really know what went wrong in the first place. Or we can look back at last months or quarters takings and wonder how it was possible to be so busy and yet not take in nearly enough dosh to justify the hours.
I hope I’ve managed to convince you that for the reason of education alone, your time needs to be measured, not forever, but at least for a long enough period of time to understand some trends in the way you work, I’d say 6 weeks is a minimum. If you are interested in being taken through this step by step, please download my time tracking challenge here, it’ll be the easiest way to go through what I describe below without any commitment to pay for any of my services or any 3rd party services.
You’ll need to track the hours you spend on a day-to-day basis on:
- Client project work that you will bill for
- Client project work that you will not bill for
- Work that you can’t attribute to a particular client project for example
- New business activities such as networking, pitching, meetings, answering emails etc.
- Marketing activities such as social media work, portfolio or case study work etc.
- General business administration
- General business administration
Try and make sure that when you are tracking your time you leave gaps for breaks and that you record in detail when a billable piece of work comes to an end and a new project or non-billable piece of work starts, try not to blur the lines between the two. It’s likely that some days will be split up on an hour by hour basis as you flit between different shallow-work tasks whereas other days may be one long day of a single project, make sure you record it all no matter what kind of day you are having.
In the process of completing this task you’ll already become more aware of what you are working on, even possibly modifying your working behaviours a bit, for example, you may stop spending 2 hours a day on Facebook! But the real analysis should happen at the end of the 6 weeks, once all the information is gathered and can be presented in a digestible manner. I’ve created a how-to guide for presenting and analysing your time tracking data here so that you can go about the process of re-educating yourself of the value of your own work.
Remember this challenge to track your own time has been made simple with my downloadable time tracking how-to guide.
Come back next week for Part 3, to start thinking about how measuring your time can help you believe in the true value of your work.