It is that time of year when, if you have time, you review the past year and think about what you learned; what you would like to continue to do; and what you might like to do more of, or do differently.

I took on  a part-time project last June which, if it had been half time (although what even is half time for an independent worker?) would have had a manageable effect on my overall time allocation. I could organize myself for that. But by the end of a rather frazzled year I was left feeling like I didn’t have a minute for anything non-obligatory. What happened to fun time, or reading time, or even lunch time?

I was given an excellent exercise at the very end of last year by a wise advisor – so simple, yet powerful in its help in thinking about this issue of time, and the choices that we make in spending it. Here it is, try it for yourself:

You have 168 hours each week (7 days x 24 hours each day) (this is, sadly, non-negotiable)

1. How many hours do you want to sleep each day? (x 7, calculate and subtract)
(Bear in mind that this is not necessarily what you do, but what you want to commit yourself to doing because you, in this case, value your health – think sustainability, not getting over the next major project deadline.)

2. How many hours do you spend eating each day (x 7, calculate and subtract)

3. How many hours do you want to spend together with your family each day? (x 7, calculate and subtract)
(If this some of this is built into eating, then add the additional non-sitting-at-the-table time)

4. How many hours a day on average do you want to spend alone with your partner or spouse? (x 7, calculate and subtract)

5. How many hours a day do you want to spend on personal care (showers, brushing your teeth, you get the idea) (x 7, calculate and subtract)

You see where this is going.  Here are a few more categories to consider and calculate, and you can add your own:

6. Personal development and balance? (reading, yoga, exercise, blogging)
7. Travel or commuting?
8. Time with friends?
9. Time in the garden or with important hobbies?
10. Time spent doing menial housework and picking up after other people (I added “housework” to my list – you might be lucky enough not to have to add that, or have usefully reframed that into “balance”, but not me)

Do the math. What you have left is time for WORK.

You might be surprised by what you get. Do you (choose to) do more than that “work” stuff than you have time allocated, and if so, what is “paying for” that time – is it sleep, eating, time with friends/family, etc.? I tried to be realistic about what I could spend and still stick to my personal values, and priorities. This exercise gives you the opportunity to think through those again and be clear about your commitments and choices, in terms of how you spend the hours of your day, week and life.

What I came up with when I did the math was exactly 39 hours available for work. If I divide that between my independent work and my new project, then I do have 20 good hours a week for the latter, which is exactly what I had agreed to do – half time. So now it is up to me to spend that time, and not more, or at least as an exception and not as a rule, in order to keep myself on track in the New Year. This little exercise makes those time decisions much clearer.

What about you? How are you spending your time?

(I have written quite a few blog posts about time – from time in big blocks to tiny increments – it is clearly a topic that holds curiosity for me. No wonder I liked this exercise! Here are a few I like: The Work at Home Field Guide to Time, The Time it Takes: A Learning Practitioner’s Lessons on Time, and  Time to Reflect: Cooking Up Your Weekly GTD Review)

When I worked in an NGO environment, we didn’t ever really notice how long it took to do things. We experimented very briefly with time sheets (about a month) and found that tricky and even a bit boring to note down how every 15 minutes was spent, mostly because there was no real incentive to do so. We did do some internal billing, so on a project basis from time to time we kept track. But even in these projects it seemed that planning meetings were so frequent and long and often multi-topic, that after a while, it didn’t make sense to try to allocate that time. So we never got a good sense of how long it took to do things.

Now that I am working independently I have all kind of incentive and a direct imperative to be scrupulous about the time it takes me to do things. I now have a very elaborate system that I use to keep track of time and the result of this kind of observation is very useful. Not only is it essential for billing, but it starts to show patterns that help immensely to make more accurate projections about how long things will take (useful both in the proposal and negotiation stage of projects). That of course doesn’t mean that the other party has the same belief in your figures that you have, but at least you will know how close the time allocation is to what it will actually take you, and how much you might potentially be doing pro-bono.

I feel like I am prudent in how I use my time; indeed, many simultaneous commitments (work and home) and multiple ongoing projects force me to be most economic with it. Plus I have been very deliberate in my collection of reusable learning objects (RLOs-templates, activity briefs, job aids, games, etc.) which help me pass on this benefit in time savings from past investment in documenting things. Since I started keeping records nearly a year ago, and 26 projects later, this is a sample of what I am noticing about how long things take:

  • Writing a blog post (from first letter to final publish): 1 hour
  • Writing a proposal with a budget: 2 hours
  • Developing from scratch a 90-minute “training” session (part presentation/part group activity- including consultation, revisions, preparation, & delivery): 10.5 hours
  • Preparing an individual coaching programme (design, preparing/holding 6 sessions): 25 hours (3+ days)
  • Collaboratively developing a training programme curriculum (multiple events with companion 370-page participant’s handbook – writing through to final proofing for printing, with some inputs coming from other sources): 172.5 hours (21.5 days)
  • Developing a 1-day facilitated planning workshop for a new client (design, consultation, and fully briefing the facilitator who delivered it): 16.75 hours (2+days)
  • Developing a 1-day facilitated training workshop for a university client (with a separate content expert providing central input, including delivery): 17.5 hours (2+ days)
  • Developing and delivering a 4-day facilitated partnership-building workshop (with multiple presenters, generative dialogue and strategy component): 64.25 hours (8+ days)
  • Design input for a 3-day conference for 300 people (including 2 parallel workshop designs and delivery, plenary activity design, coaching for other workshop presenters, plenary moderation and delivery): 80 hours (10 days)
  • Strategic Review and Advisory Report for a large training department (consultation, 6 day site visit for interviews with travel, online survey, web2.0 query and social media scan, preparation of 70-page report of feedback and recommendations, all original writing): 128 hours (16 days)

I could go on. What I notice is that time expands a little for new clients (trust building, multiple revisions, many conference calls), and for developing new materials or new approaches for known topics. Collaborative work obviously takes longer as there are many more partners and opinions to take into consideration, and more revisions as a result. Larger scale of an event also means more time as there are more delivery agents that need coordinated, coaching, briefing, etc.

Report writing is harder to judge, and it takes longer than you imagine, not only for creative delivery but for editing and layout. For a project that includes part original writing and part working with other sources, like creating a participant’s manual, my past experience shows I can produce about 18 pages a day (as a ratio, that includes all the consultation, revision, proofing, etc.). For completely original writing much less: about 4 pages a day, depending on how much data collection is needed. I am doing a project right now that included 16 interviews to produce a 25 page highly synthetic how-to document plus annexes, and this is going to take more like 15 days (or 2 pages per day ratio.)

These things take time, and the more accurate you can be in capturing this data, and learning what makes creates divergence from your standard ratios, the clearer and more accurate you can be in your discussions with partners. Then you can choose your options, based on experience and learning about the way you work.

What are you learning about the time it takes? (and indeed, this blog post took exactly 1 hour, practically on the dot!)