By Marcus Coetzee, 24 August 2018.
I am increasingly obsessed with time. Maybe this is a consequence of aging. I see time moving too swiftly. I strive to make the best use of every moment.
I have conducted multiple experiments over the years to see how I can make better use of my time and be more productive at work.
These experiments can be roughly grouped into three categories: those that increase efficiency; those that help me to prioritize tasks; and those where I focus on tasks that are best for my future. I’ll write about these experiments someday.
This article concerns my tracking of my work time over a period of one month or 20 workdays. It will yield insight into how this freelancer (or independent management consultant) spends his time. Hopefully the results will still be useful more generally.
I also hope to address the misconception that freelancers spend all their time delivering their service. We must realize that freelancers are still running a business, and therefore need to make time for all the usual business functions within their work week.
Defining my work month
My time experiment took place between Monday 16th July to Tuesday 14th August 2018 – a period of 20 working days.
I tracked every 15-minute unit in each work day.
I did not fly anywhere that month. I spent the entire time in Cape Town, although I had multiple Skype appointments with people in South Africa, Europe, Norway and the United Kingdom. I tend to travel to another city about once every two months and spend between one to five days away at a time. With a charged laptop and active noise cancelling headphones, I’m able to work at coffee shops and on the plane, though my travel time will increase during such periods.
My workday typically starts at 6.30am when I leave home for a coffee shop nearby my first client. There I drink my morning coffee, write in my journal, plan my day and work on my articles and presentations.
My workday ends around 4pm, when I turn off my computer for the day, and head to the gym or go for a walk with my cat. I’ve tried working longer hours and drinking more coffee to keep going, but found that it undermines the following work day and does more harm than good. I used to work 60+ hour weeks but ended up getting seriously burned out and had to work half days for a year to recover.
Research seems to confirm my experience. The Household Income Labour Dynamics of Australia Survey of 7,890 employees found that people’s mental health deteriorated after a 39 hour work-week. Similarly, Chris Bailey during the Productivity Project reported that “he accomplished only a bit more working ninety-hour weeks than he did in his twenty-hour weeks”.
I’ve also learned not to work on weekends. I need this recovery time, and want to spend this time with my wife, friends and hobbies. The only work I may do on weekends is my “weekly review”, as prescribed by the Getting Things Done productivity methodology, but I try to do this on Friday afternoon where possible.
Overview of my time
The following graph shows how I spent my workdays during this month.
I invested 182.50 hours over this period in work-related activities. This averages at 45.63 hour working weeks, which is short compared to the 60-hour weeks that management consultants who work for the big consulting brands have to work.
Client work (40%)
I spent 73.25 hours (40% of my time) working on paid projects. This work covers retainer contracts, fixed price contracts with specific outcomes, and hourly coaching sessions. Some months I may do more client work, but the above distribution is typical.
If I exclude travel time from the equation, this recalculates to 47% of my available work time.
After talking with colleagues, I believe my level of paid work is in the normal range for a self-employed management consultant. Obviously, those that are employed in a formal consulting business can allocate much more of their time to just delivering their service since they don’t have to worry about finding work or running a business.
I could most probably pick up more work by broadening my services and being less discerning about the clients I choose to work with. However, I like the balance I have and the work I do, and how this gives me time to write.
My time is extremely efficiently used, and I continue to make improvements. If I record a work hour, then it is a focused and productive hour.
I spent 28.50 hours (16% of my time) travelling to/from my office and clients. I include commuting in my definition of my work day.
I feel that I spend too much time travelling so I try and group my clients together into geographic regions and visit one region per day. I’m also trying to shift more meetings across to Skype.
Fortunately, I use my commute to listen to podcasts in my car, something I advise you to do as well. Looking at it this way, I spent 26.50 hours of my month learning from inspiring experts.
I try to reserve Fridays for working from my home office and doing any Deep Work that I could not find time for during the week.
Content creation (14%)
I spent 25.75 hours (14% of my time) creating content, a category which includes writing, working on presentations and posting useful articles, podcasts and videos on my Twitter and LinkedIn profiles.
If you run your own business, you’ll have to spend a significant portion of your time marketing yourself. One of the best ways to do this is to create things that are useful for your audience. I’ve written about this in my article on how to market your non-profit organization or social enterprise.
During this time period, I worked primarily on my glossary for social enterprises, an article on charity and philanthropy, an article on “necessary endings” and this article you’re reading. It usually takes 10-20 hours to research and write a 1,000 to 2,000 word article.
Fortunately, I enjoy the process of writing. It is also an extremely effective tool for helping me to clarify my thought processes and achieve strategic clarity.
Business development (11%)
I spent 20.75 hours (12% of my time) on following leads, writing proposals, making sense of clients’ needs, building relationships with prospective clients, or people who could someday refer me to clients.
All together I spent 46.5 hours (26% of my time) on business development and content creation – my primary marketing activities.
When people imagine running a business, they often overlook how much time needs to be spent marketing. All freelancers must allocate sufficient time these activities or they will go bust.
Time out (7%)
These 12 hours (7% of my time) were spent doing nothing that was work related.
It included times I needed to take a break, enjoy a meal, stand in the sunlight or socialise with a colleague.
It also included visiting shops and medical appointments.
I no longer see friends for coffee during my work day, which has been a habit of mine. I noticed how quickly these eat up my limited workday. Nowadays, I rather schedule friends for evenings and weekends.
Planning and reflection (5%)
I spent 9.5 hours (5% of my time) on active reflection and thinking things through.
This starts with writing in my journal each morning. I write down what’s on my mind and consider what I’ve recently learned, what I’m grateful for, and what my outcomes are for the work day ahead.
Whenever my brain gets overwhelmed by complexity, I create time to write, draw and organize my thoughts. This produces clarity.
I’ve found that the act of writing in a book with a pen (as opposed to typing) also helps slow my brain down and makes my thoughts and insights more tangible.
Non-project emails (5%)
I spent 8.75 hours (5% of my time) processing emails that weren’t related to current consulting projects. These include arranging to see clients, responding to queries, coordinating with colleagues etc.
This time will tend to exclude my personal emails, which I do my best to ignore during the day and prefer to deal with in the evenings.
Financial administration (2%)
I spent 4 hours (2% of my time) doing financial administration. This is much less than it used to be. In previous years, it took up to 8 hours per month to run through these tasks. When I realized how much time this was taking, I made a concerted effort to become much more efficient.
If you run a business, you can’t get away from financial and business administration. I try to batch these tasks and reserve them for Wednesday afternoons. I also use multiple checklists to ensure that I run through these tasks as quickly as possible, and don’t forget anything such as PAYE or VAT payment to the South African Revenue Services.
These admin tasks include: invoicing; bank reconciliations; updating Quickbooks; journal entries; paying suppliers; updating financial projections; reviewing budgets etc. I’ve also delegated as much of this as possible.
I’ve tried moving this task to later in the week, but never had energy to do it. I tended to postpone it. Hence its current Wednesday afternoon timeslot.
Reflecting on my time usage
I am comfortable with my investment in marketing (i.e. business development and content creation) since this leads to more work.
However, I try to keep my support tasks (e.g. non-project emails, travel and financial admin) to a minimum during the week. This has been a constant challenge as they expand when I’m not paying attention.
There is always a balance between the amount of client work I do and the marketing activities (e.g. content creation and business development) which I need to maintain. If I accept too much work in the present, I may neglect to line up work for the future. Conversely, if I invest lots of time in marketing it almost always results in more work, but less time for marketing and so on.
Furthermore, if I accept work that does not align with my core offering (i.e. strategy design, facilitation, coaching), then I may lose out on the good future opportunities as I’ll be too busy with less meaningful work.
This is a balance which all freelancers need to maintain.
I have also tried working longer and harder, but it tends to be a bad idea. While my short-term productivity may improve, it has negative consequences for my future productivity and health! I don’t think the stereotype of the management consultant who works 20 hours a day is healthy. Trying to work these hours will ultimately burn you out and undermine your performance.
I’ve been reflecting intensely on the types of activities that would most create or unlock the type of future I want for myself – activities that would provide me with the time, resources and opportunities I need. This is my current “project”.
I encourage you to track your own productive time for a week or a month to see how you are spending it. Start with recording one-hour units in your calendar. Develop some activity categories that work for you. Add up how much time you spent on each activity at the end of each day or week.
You will most likely find that your time is scarce and precious. You are only likely to achieve your goals if you have allocated an appropriate amount of time and energy to each.
I am fortunate to love my work and have the freedom to choose how I spend my time.
I’ll continue to monitor and refine how I use my time and do work that will serve my future. I would welcome any insights on how I could be more productive.
Thanks to Philip Anastasiadis for his contributions to this article.