Phillip Smith

Where have all the hours gone?

Pondering both Rob and Rolf’s comments on my suggestion that time management is more important than project management for most non-profit organizations, I was left thinking about the larger issue that each of our perspectives points too… Once distilled down to its essence, my hypothesis is that many people don’t have an accurate picture of their available time.

Rob believes that what I call “traditional” project management is what he would call bad project management, meaning that:

If the project management processes being used on your project are too heavy-weight or inappropriately top-down, they are not being applied correctly.

However, I still feel that there’s a missing piece here. My original point is: it’s individuals who have to complete the tasks assigned to them, and if those individuals aren’t able to manage their time effectively, then project success (as defined by being on time, on budget, etc.) will remain ellusive.

Rolf goes on to highlight a few of the other challenges for non-profit staff when they become part of a project team, which are basically:

  • the ability to make reasonably accurate estimates for tasks.
  • the ability to communicate about not meeting deadlines or expectations

And he finishes his thoughts with the question:

If it weren’t for the last minute, nothing ever would get done. Should we focus on managing that minute?

I feel that Rolf’s observations probably come closest to what I’ve experienced over the last few years, which all leads in quite nicely to an exploration of this hypothesis that many people don’t have an accurate picture of their avaiable time.

Let’s conduct a quick survey here: when you think about your work week, how many hours do you plan to have available for work-related tasks?

Well, my experience is that if a person works for an employer, they typically will respond between 35 and 40 hours. If they’re self-employed (like me) they’ll often also respond 35 - 40 hours (or, in both cases, if they’re overworked they’ll say 50 or 60!).

Here’s the crux of the issue: in my personal practice — thanks to my time management fanaticism — I have deduced that I have just 24 available, and potentially billable, hours in a work week.

If I could impart just one thing to any new entrepreneur or person starting out on their own, it would be to recognize how little time there is available in a one week period. Recognizing this early would probably help people avoid burn out, price their time more accurately, improve the quality of their work, and ultimately increase client satisfaction.

In his books on time management, David Allen talks about keeping track of “open loops,” which are commitments that have been made toward doing something. We make these all the time without realizing it and, more importantly, without tracking it. Though David’s recommendations are a good first step toward tracking these commitments, I don’t feel they go far enough toward recognizing just how sparse and valuable a person’s time really is. Ultimately, to manage time and projects effectively: you — and each member of your team — need an accurate picture of what time is available and what time comitements have already been made.

So, without getting into the differences between people who are employed in the traditional sense and those who are self-employed, let me illustrate the issue from my own experiences:

  • I invest between 60 and 90 minutes each morning responding to the previous day’s e-mail (and then I attempt to not look at it again);
  • I invest the equivalent of one day a week on things that I can’t bill for (follow-ups, proposals, accounting, etc.);
  • I try to take enough breaks during a day to ensure that I’m focused and present with my clients or their projects;
  • I try to get home for dinner with my partner Melanie, and I try to not work again until the next day.

All of this means that I find myself with — if I’m lucky — just 6 hours of available time in a day to work with; and, usually, it’s less due to phone calls, interruptions, or just good ‘ol unproductive spells. It also means that I only have four days in a week for billable projects. So, now we’re down to that 24 hours I mentioned. Here’s where it gets really fun. I also commit 25% of my remaining time to pro-bono or personal projects that will hopefully have long-term impacts (but don’t pay the bills). That leaves me with just three days — just 18 hours (tops!) — in a week to “Get things done.”

Now, after many years of working for myself and managing my own time, I consider myself a decent time manager. However, it has taken me a long time to distill down these day-to-day experiences into a system that recognizes how little time I really have. And, when I check-in with friends, colleagues, and clients about this reality, I almost always find that they don’t have a good picture of how little time that they really have in a week. So, that’s why I believe that many people don’t have an accurate picture of their available time, which can lead to folks being:

  • Overworked: working 10 or more hours a day, six days a week;
  • Uneven: relaxed and chatty one week, AWOL the next;
  • Unresponsive: just plain unavailable, taking weeks to respond to an e-mail;
  • Unreliable: often dropping the ball, missing the boat, or just not coming through;
  • Unexpected: constantly surprised when they’ve run out of time or didn’t see something critical coming down the pipe.

It is my experience that this applies equally to people working in employed situations. I’m not sure if there any studies in this area, but I have often heard colleagues who are managing projects at larger organizations complain about the small number of productive hours in a day that they can count on from their team.

So, my question (to Rob and Rolf and you) is: if people don’t have accurate pictures of their availalbe time, how can they make good decisions about how to use it, or how to communicate about it? Or, in project planning, how can they provide you with a realistic picture of how long a task will take to complete?

I think that helping people get a grasp on their available time is the first step. Then helping them track and manage it is the next.

Once that foundation is set, we can move on to managing projects.


Hi, I'm Phillip Smith, a veteran digital publishing consultant, online advocacy specialist, and strategic convener. If you enjoyed reading this, find me on Twitter and I'll keep you updated.


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