Making every hour count (or how to stop counting)

For a girl who never wears a watch and doesn’t care much for numbers, I’m obsessed with time. When you bill an hourly rate, of course, this is only to be expected—after all, the time = money equation becomes far more self-evident when you know exactly what an hour is worth.

In theory, this focus on time should engender the ability to delegate. If it takes you two hours to do something that you could bill, say, $120 for, but you can pay someone $60 instead to do (regardless of how long it may take them, and assuming that they’ll do it just as well, if you happen to be a control freak like I am), it should make sense to start passing off tasks.

The problem is, when you have a precise idea of how much that extra hour you spent sleeping cost you, you suddenly start to believe that sleep is anthema to your business and well-being. Three years of running a business full time have taught me, finally, that this is just a blatant lie.

Whenever I’m working, my computer is running a little timer at the top of my screen. Basically, every work-related task I perform is recorded and tracked. This is great, of course, and absolutely necessary for this sort of work, whether you’re billing a flat rate or by the hour. (And losing these records is horrible! Just horrible. Note to self: do a back-up right now.)

The program I use (Billings) has a little Dashboard widget (Workload) that displays how many hours I’ve worked in a day.

My Dashboard widget. The filled-up red bars represent hours worked; a full bar means I've put in over ten hours. (I have a lot of days that go "off the chart".)

Super-handy, no? It really is! It’s a great tool to keep me on track, and to quickly (and visually) check to make sure that I’ve put in enough hours to count as a full workday. The problem, of course, is that I’m sort of a workaholic. There have been weeks where the chart has been entirely red. There have been weeks where that has been my goal, which I think may be even worse. (I often wish the bars would go up to 16 hours, but then I’d end up aiming to fill all those up, and I’d never get any sleep at all!)

So, how to fix the fixation with tracking every hour?

1. Take days off.

See how there’s a big old empty space in my week? That was an actual weekend, which I usually don’t take (and will invariably not be happening this weekend—but hey, it was nice while it lasted, right?)

If off-time feels like idle time, it may help to learn new skills while you’re not working. My weekend off, for example, was spent learning bookbinding, which I’m now madly in love with. (A friend pointed out to me that some lovely texts are freely available on Project Gutenburg and that I can simply pop over and download them. So now I’m planning to design, print, and produce my own hand-made copies of books I adore, like Candide and The Metamorphosis and The Picture of Dorian Gray—but that’s another topic entirely.)

Many companies now are actually allowing their employees to “daylight“, eschewing the traditional model of corporate productivity in favour of one that is flexible enough to allow for creative endeavours that aren’t strictly related to the work at hand. Freelancers and business owners are often more strictly goal-oriented, but it’s highly likely that your work will improve in the long run if you’re exposed to a wider range of ideas and processes, even if only due to random stimulation.

I also find working on my own side projects (for fun and minimal profit!) is bar none the most effective way to avoid creative burnout and the inevitable breakdown of productivity, passion, and personality that ensues.

2. Track hours for essential tasks.

If you’re obsessed with hitting that “productivity mark” to the point at which other, life-sustaining type tasks are dismissed, it may help to count them as work-time. Showering, eating something that isn’t fast food, and doing yoga all count. (I keep meaning to start tracking these things—they may not be Billable Hours, but they’re necessary to the long-term functioning of my business.)

Things that keep you healthy and sane will, in the long-term, help with your productivity. That makes them productive hours, and if you can start viewing them as such, you’ll stop seeing them as time wasted.

3. Switch to a flat rate

The argument for, and against, a flat rate has been made many times, so I won’t attempt to get into it, but I would say that it’s certainly worth taking into consideration, and that whether or not it works for you will depend on your personal style of work and billing. Personally, I always swore I’d never do a flat rate (again), but I’ve recently switched over and have found it’s made a world of difference. (I also once swore I’d never start my own business, so, there you are). Switching to a flat rate allows you to focus more on getting tasks done in an efficient manner, rather than counting every minute, and it means you’re rewarded for using your time well.

I also end up making more money this way(!), which is always an added bonus, though not necessarily a primary motivator. My clients are happier, as the estimates seem more firm this way (although in actuality they’re as flexible as they were when I was using an hourly rate). If I forget my laptop on the bus and lose all my tracked hours, the whole world doesn’t fall apart (quite so much, at least).

But most notably, my obsession with “this hour spent taking a nice walk in the sunshine cost me how much?” is receding, and, unlike in hairlines, that’s a lovely thing.