What is it about time? Why are we afraid of it? We avoid it, deny it, surgically remove it, but like it or not, we are all in its grip. As Dylan Thomas pointed out, even as a youth:

Time held me green and dying

Though I sang in my chains like the sea.

Fern Hill  - http://wonderingminstrels.blogspot.ca/1999/07/fern-hill-dylan-thomas.html

So let’s get over our fear and look at time another way. The analysis of time use is a critical tool for the independent consultant. By recording it, tracking it, and studying it, we can capture that sense of self-awareness and craftsmanship so clearly demonstrated in Thomas’s poem.

iStock 000010949451XSmall_1_pocket_watch_and_calendarOf course, we already use time to be accountable to our clients[1]. Setting up a time tracking system is pretty straightforward and there is lots of software available. Take a look at Google. You can purchase a time tracking program, subscribe to a service on line, or develop your own system using a spreadsheet program to create timesheet workbooks.

A good time tracking program should allow you to do the following:

  • Track your billable time by both project and task. The tasks for any project should mirror the ones outlined in your proposal; thus each project sheet must be customizable.
  • Link your billable time to your accounting program so it is easy to prepare your client’s invoice at the end of the month.
  • Link staff or sub-contractor timesheets to the accounting system. You can also use their timesheets for payroll and tax records.
  • Track your non-billable time. Capture the non-client-base activities that are essential to the health of your business such as office administration, planning, accounting, marketing, professional development, and volunteer service.
  • Identify the number of working days in any particular pay period so you can measure your productivity. It is interesting to see how your available time varies depending on the vagaries of the calendar.
  • Track your vacation time, including total days for the year, amount expended, and amount remaining. Sometimes just looking at this figure will cheer you up.

Once these essentials are in place, you will see how valuable the information can be. Here are a few ways to use your time-related data.

  1. Analyze your recovery rate. This refers to the amount of billable time you actually work in a given period compared to the total working days available for that same period. Given that there are 260 work days in a year[2], if you bill your clients for a total of 125 days in that year, your recovery rate will be 48% (125/260). 
    Is this a good thing or a bad thing? Well, on its own, this figure doesn’t mean much, but if you compare it to your recovery rate last month or last year, let’s say, or to someone else’s recovery rate, found in the literature, perhaps, it starts to be really meaningful. It can become a good marker of your own productivity and can help you set goals and make changes. Over time, your recovery rate should increase as your business gets more established and you need less time for non-billable activities.
  2. Compare planned and actual time. When you start to compare actual time spent on a project with the estimates you provided in your proposal, you can begin to see early warning signs if a task is getting out of control. It’s easy to create a quick graph of planned and actual time to see where the discrepancies lie. The strong visual message presented by this comparison is often all the motivation you need to get the project back on track. The impact on productivity is immediate.
  3. Plan future projects. The utility of your timesheets becomes apparent when you work on a new proposal. What aspects of former projects are like the one you are considering now? How long did it take for similar types of data collection, travel, report writing? What road blocks were encountered? What might crop up this time? What can be done differently? How much time will it take? Is the budget adequate? Should you bid on this project at all? Questions such as these run through your head as you build your proposal. Undoubtedly it will be a more realistic and more profitable proposal because your projections are based on your own experience.
  4. Increase your competitive edge. Looking at your use of time can make you more competitive. For example, you can identify areas where delays tend to occur across projects. Slow processing speed, old software, inefficient file retrieval, data management issues, and lack of supervision are all time wasters. You can also become more innovative by looking at your use of time. How quickly can you respond to market requests? Can you develop a proposal database, a flexible proposal format, a budget template, pre-written biographical information? Lots of innovations will arise seemingly by themselves when you study your own work processes in this way.

So if you develop the time tracking and analysis habit now, you can bootstrap your consulting practice to a whole new level. Not everyone can write a poem like Dylan Thomas but his mastery is not only due to his innate talent. It is also a result of his painstaking craftsmanship and critical self-awareness. We too can share a sense of joy in our work as we make positive changes to our consulting practice—the kind of changes that only the study of time use can reveal.

Next up: Let’s use the right side of our brain for a change. Time for a coffee break!

For sample timesheets, see Chapter 9: Managing Time in my new book:

Barrington, G. V. (2012). Consulting Start-up and Management: A Guide for Evaluators and Applied Researchers. Los Angeles: SAGE.

Photo: iStock

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