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PRODUCTIVITY

5 Things I Learned From Tracking My Time for a Month

Are you really getting all you can from a day's work? Probably not. Here's how to find out for sure.

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Eavesdropping can be so educational. I was listening in on a conversation between two entrepreneurs recently. One was very established and successful. The other was asking his advice about a difficult client. The established entrepreneur suggested comparing the time spent on that client's projects to revenues earned. As an aside, he added: "Please don't tell me you're not tracking your time."

That remark got me thinking. I wasn't tracking my own time. What would I learn if I did? I started using a Web-based timing application the following day. (It was SlimTimer, but there are dozens of choices.) I love stealing productivity secrets from the most successful people, and this is one of the highest-earning solopreneurs I know. Also, I'm enough of a geek to see the value in measuring, well, everything. Especially anything that can help my business be more successful.

Six weeks later I know a whole lot more about how I actually spend my working hours. For one thing, I devote more time to Spider solitaire than I'd like to admit. Beyond that, there are important lessons anyone can learn by keeping track of their working time, lessons that will make you more successful whether you run your own business or work for someone else.

Here are some questions everyone should ask:

1. What am I doing too much of?

I was displeased, though not really surprised, to see that I can spend as much as seven hours a week on email. Admittedly, email is how I communicate with customers, and also with everyone at ASJA, so most of that time is well spent. It's also true that checking my inbox often keeps me from harming the productivity of ASJA staff and colleagues who would otherwise have to wait for my answers to their questions. Still, I suspect that cutting my email time to half an hour or at most an hour a day would help me by freeing that time for other things. I'm going to give it a try.

2. What's taking longer than I thought?

I was surprised to see how much time I was devoting to a single not-very-high-paying customer. When I compared that time to the month's revenues from that customer, it wasn't a pretty picture. On the other hand, I know this client has the potential to help bring in more lucrative work, and that the more time I put in, the likelier that is to happen. I'm going to keep a close eye on how much time I spend on those projects, and keep looking for ways to make that work more efficient.

3. What could I hand off?

Do I really need to be the one doing each of these tasks? The answer for me is no, and I bet it's the same for you. Back to email for a moment: I spend a portion of my email time answering pitches from PR people who want me to write about their clients (usually for this column). When I answer them, it's most often to explain what kind of topics I write about or ask for specifics about what they're pitching. I plan to cut down on the email time suck by asking my research assistant to send these follow-ups instead of me.

4. What has the biggest impact?

Tracking my time confirmed my general sense that working for certain high-paying clients is a very good idea. When I compared hours worked to monthly revenues I saw that I earn about 10 times as much from my top-paying customers as I do from my lowest-paying ones. It would be smart, I realize, to solicit more work and more referrals from these most lucrative clients.

5. What am I not doing enough of?

What you're not doing is at least as important as what you are doing. For example, the report shows I've only spent about an hour and a half on social media in the last month. That's misleading since I do much of my social media posting from my smartphone or tablet, in snatches of time between other tasks, so it doesn't show up in the report. Even so, that low number is disturbing--I ought to be devoting more energy to my social media profile.

And I definitely will start spending more time on promotion, something that came in at even less time last month than social media did. That's a real red flag. It's easy to get caught up in the crush of meeting deadlines and forget that it takes regular promotion to stay visible in the marketplace. But then, that's the beauty of tracking your time. It lets you see the big picture.

IMAGE: jronaldlee / Flickr.com
Last updated: Sep 4, 2013

MINDA ZETLIN is a business technology writer and speaker, co-author of The Geek Gap, and president of the American Society of Journalists and Authors.
@MindaZetlin




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