Humans have an interesting relationship to time. While the clock ticks by at a perfectly constant rate, our experience of time is highly variable. Vacations seem to fly by. But if you’re laid up with a bad back, time slows to a crawl. There are similar perception-based time distortions in running your creative practice. Estimating time when writing project budgets, and evaluating the time expenditures of various business tasks gets real murky, real fast, when relying on our faulty memories. But when your profits come, in one form or another, from the use of your time, these business time warps can seriously distort your performance, and undermine your profits.
For the creative entrepreneur, time is money. It would be nice to get to a place in business where the money, like time, flowed strong and steady. But for most creatives the ups and down of cash flow is anything but steady.
If you want your revenue to become strong and stable you’re going to have to master your time first. You’ll have to establish an optimal hour rate that properly compensates all the time you spend in and on your business. You’ll have to learn how to set project budgets accurately, and keep projects on track. And, of course you have to cover all your overhead time, using that all important 60% utilization benchmark I mention so often.
Getting a handle on all the ways that time impacts your business is essential for the smooth operating of a creative practice. If you depend on your faulty memory, you’ll certainly set yourself up for failure. It’s not just that your memory is faulty. It’s also highly prone to bias. For example, if you’re presented with an amazing creative opportunity, but with a less than amazing budget, you’ll likely minimize your reflections on the time you’ve spent on similar past projects, to justify accepting an underfunded project.
Or maybe there are certain overhead tasks that you don’t enjoy–marketing or managing finances for example, and so you long to outsource those efforts in order to free up more time for creative work. Your unguided assessment of exactly how much time you spend on those tasks is likely going to get inflated, in order to justify the added expense of a bookkeeper or marketing manager.
The only solution to making ill informed business decisions, based on bad memory, is to confront your perceptions with solid data. And that means you have to keep track of your time. All of your time. A comprehensive time tracking system, faithfully used, will keep you honest when it’s time to write your next proposal, or make decisions about outsourcing and incurring extra expenses.
Nobody likes working by a timer. Many creatives feel like it disrupts the creative process itself. And no doubt, learning to manage your time does take some getting used to. But you just have to adapt. Without this data you’ll keep repeating the same mistakes. But with these records your estimating skills, and your financial management decisions will steadily improve.
If you struggle with time tracking, here are some tips from my practice of time tracking. First, I recommend Harvest for time tracking. It’s easy to use, easy to fix errors—for example, if you were to accidentally leave a timer running. And Harvest’s comprehensive reports provide a 360 view of all your time usage. And when it comes right down to it, the value of tracking time is not in its recording, but in reviewing it later. So flexible reports are an essential part of any time tracking system.
Secondly, consider setting timer entries (for common daily tasks such as email, marketing, financials, and so forth), at the very start of your work day. Then create entries for any meetings you have scheduled. And finally for any projects planned for that day. This makes it simple to toggle between these tasks throughout the day. I also keep my timer open in a separate browser window, again simplifying the mechanics of time tracking.
Learning to manage your time is the first step to managing your entire company effectively. And if you can get control over your time, steady profits will follow. And when your time tracking habits get rewarded that way, it will become just that much easier to keep up the habit.
Until next week: don’t let the business of creativity overwhelm your creative business.