Surprising Things I Learned from 3 Months of Tracking All of My Time
When I was in the corporate consulting world, keeping a timesheet was incredibly annoying. It didn’t feel like a helpful productivity tool, but more like corporate bureaucracy run amok to give a detailed accounting of every quarter hour.
There are a lot of things I love about being my own boss, but I especially love the control of getting to decide what’s important and how much time I need to spend on it. I don’t have to get anyone’s approval to do what I know I’m supposed to do.
With all this being said, it may seem odd that, after freelancing since 2012, in January I decided to go backwards and start keeping a detailed timesheet. For the past three months, I’ve been tracking not only my “billable” client work, but everything that I do in my business, including: administrative work, such as invoicing, bookkeeping, email, and even cleaning my desk; marketing work, from email to blogging to Instagram; and networking, like attending events and getting together with folks for lunch. I’ve tracked it all to the quarter hour.
Why would a small business owner adopt a habit that wreaks of corporate bureaucracy? I’d like to say that I had a grand philosophy behind it. To be totally honest, I was just curious about what I could find out from the process, and I was also curious about how much time I was actually spending on the different elements of my business.
The actual discipline of timekeeping has produced a lot of immediate benefits. I am more intentional about spending time on important, strategic things. I am less tempted to excessive task-switching. And, I am more accountable to putting in enough hours each and every week.
But, on top of these benefits, here are some surprising things I have learned from tracking all of my time since January 1, 2018.
Time Tracking Makes Outsourcing Easier
Every business owner fantasizes about outsourcing the tasks they hate. We all think, “if only I had an assistant,” or “if only I had an intern,” or “if only I had a social media manager.” But, how do you know when it’s the right time to hire someone? It can be really scary to actually pull the trigger and get the help you desperately want.
Over the past few months, I’ve teetered on the edge of bringing on an assistant so that I can have more time to spend on the mission-critical elements of my business. I’ve wanted to do it, and I understood in theory how it could help my business, but I didn’t feel confident about taking the leap. However, with three months worth of hard data telling me exactly how I am spending my time, it became abundantly clear that a little help could make a big impact. I saw exactly how much time I was spending on administrative tasks and exactly what other, revenue-producing, activities I could be doing instead.
Hiring is hard, period. But it’s even harder to hire for a job that you haven’t done and that you don’t fully understand. Time tracking is a simple discipline that can help you know when to hire.
Time Tracking is a Powerful Weapon Against Reactivity
Earlier this month I came down with a bad case of shiny object syndrome. I badly wanted to redesign my entire website, and I was putting off other really important projects because “I can’t really do that until I upgrade my website.” Know the feeling?
Every person, whether you work 10 hours per week or 60, is working with limited time. Being your own boss means making the right decisions about how to spend your limited time on the things that matter most.
Timekeeping helped me get real about the fact that, with everything that is on my plate, I can’t do a website overhaul right now. I was being reactive and prioritizing a project that would be nice to do over my real, actual business priorities. Limited time means that some things just can’t happen, and my timesheet reminded me of that.
Time Tracking Helps Me See a Holistic System
Working in a small business, especially when you have a very small team (or a team of one) can make you feel like a ping pong ball, bouncing around from task to task. You have to fill a lot of roles that don’t always feel connected. Even worse, it is tempting to think about business activities in two buckets: our “real” work, aka all of the things we do that make money, and our “eat your vegetables” work, aka all of the things we do that don’t make us money directly, but we know we have to do anyway.
Josh Kaufman says in his signature work, The Personal MBA that every business does five things: create value for customers, deliver value to customers, marketing, sales, and finance. These five things form an integrated, holistic system. In order to produce results, I need to make sure all of these five of these areas of my business are getting the attention they deserve.
Time tracking helps me see, visually and clearly, that my business is a single, holistic system, not disjointed parts. Focusing on my “real” work (aka client work) while ignoring marketing, sales, and finance would be equivalent to trying to run a marathon on a starvation diet. A marathon runner that only focuses on her training but ignores sleep, nutrition, and mental strength isn’t going to get the results that she wants.
If a month goes by and I don’t have any hours logged under the “marketing” section of my timesheet, or if its been a while since I have taken care of “admin” tasks, the entire system suffers.
Get Started by Keeping It Simple
I’ve found time tracking to be a valuable practice that I plan to continue for the rest of the year. If it sounds horribly intimidating or overly-complicated to you, I’d encourage you to start by keeping things super simple.
I don’t use a fancy productivity tool for this, but just a simple spreadsheet. You could do the same, or you could use a journal or blank calendar to write in your time as you go. Create three to four broad categories for your work and track your time by the half hour. Do it for a week and see what you can learn from the process. You can refine your own timekeeping process as you go to meet your needs and make sure that it stays a helpful habit and doesn’t become an unnecessary burden.
Find this post helpful? You may also enjoy my Monday morning email. It's not really a newsletter, but more like a note from a fellow business owner about life, business, and entrepreneurship. It's a great way to start your week.
Find this post helpful?
You may also enjoy my Monday morning email. It's not really a newsletter; it's more like a thoughtful note from a fellow business owner about life, business, and entrepreneurship. It's a great way to start your week!