for creative entrepreneurs

Time, A Nonrenewable Resource

Back in 2000, one of my employees at Newfangled produced a Gantt chart of our typical web design process. It revealed that we were spending, on average, almost three times the number of hours on our projects than I had budgeted. No wonder I was chasing after old invoices, desperate to close new business, all the while trying to dig out from the mountain of accumulating work. How could we be so busy, and yet have such persistent cash flow problems?

Circumstances like these do not primarily reflect sales problems. They reflect profitability problems rooted in inadequate estimates, grounded in guessing rather than actual time data drawn from similar past projects.

You have to break this cycle—starting with a commitment to begin measuring your most vital, and nonrenewable resource, your time.

You may feel like money is the most limiting factor to your business success. But, in fact, it’s time—how you use it, how much of it you spend on various tasks, and how much you waste. Time is your real limitation. And you can’t buy more of it; you can’t reclaim it or recycle it; it’s non-renewable. Each day ends right on schedule—whether you’re on schedule or not.

I hope as a business owner you’ve learned to listen to what your money is saying to you—that you regularly review your balance sheets, your income statements, and your cash flow status. (If not you may want to review this post.) But what about your time? It’s always possible to make more money. It’s possible (though usually inadvisable) to borrow money. But you can’t make more time, or borrow it. So are you measuring this precious, nonrenewable, limited resource?

Do you know if projects are going over budget because too much time is being spent on them? And, more importantly, when you do find this out? If you’re not regularly measuring and reviewing where your time is being spent, you’ll only know about unprofitability when cash flow problem persist. And even then you won’t be able to pinpoint where your time is being wasted.

Persuading you that measuring this valuable and nonrenewable resource is important should be an easy case to make. Getting you to actually do it is another matter. There are counter pressures and barriers to putting this into practice.

Artistic Barriers to Tracking Time

I think artists and designers share some common sensibilities that make them even more resistant to filling in timesheets than other professions face. Nobody I know loves to track their time. Unlike some of the more engaging aspects of our work, tracking time always feels like toil. Time tracking is a discipline, something every business has to work at maintaining.

But artists share a unique resistance. I think it flows from notions like, “You can’t rush creativity.” Designers feel stifled by a ticking clock. They’ll work late into the night if that’s what it takes to keep their creativity from feeling the limits of time. I’ve observed art directors and designers pulling all nighters and working weekends, not because a deadline was looming, but because they were so deeply engaged in a desire to wrestle greatness into their layouts.

But if you were drop in on one of these artists at work, at 2:00am, and ask them whether they felt that the work they’d already done was inherently inadequate, or would be readily rejected by the client on it’s merits, they’d probably say no. Producing work acceptable to a client is not what drives an artist. Truth be told, most designers think that given a choice between three layouts, one good, one great, and one “meh,” that most clients would go with “meh.”

So what drives their pursuit of perfection? It’s something else. It’s something more innate, it flows from their acutely developed appetite for beauty. To knowingly come short of that measure can feel fundamentally wrong to the artist.

But here’s the deal: If the time necessary to get to greatness is not being paid for by the client, if it’s not in the budget, who’s paying the bill for the designer to scratch that deep inner aesthetic itch? You are. And if you will not limit their time on particular projects, when you run out of money, their time will be altogether limited as you shutter your doors.

A Cure For Artistic Striving

The book of Ecclesiastes (which has a ton to say about time) says, “Better is a handful of quietness than two hands full of toil and a striving after wind” (Ecc. 4:6). Limitations are a fundamental reality to life. And the most talented artists are ones that know how to work effectively with the limited materials they have—and time is always one of those limited materials. Personally, I find that the most compelling design solutions are ones that elegantly embrace limitations and produce something beautiful within those boundaries. True freedom is knowing what our limitations are and working effectively and elegantly within them.

“Art lives from constraints and dies from freedom.”  —Leonardo da Vinci  

Besides, whether or not your employees can overcome their inner artistic angst that drives them to burn the midnight oil, you are still operating a business and you do have to face the limiting reality that your budgets have limits—and this must constrain the time spend on projects.

But if you can get time under control, though they might chafe in the beginning, your employees with thank you in the end. Measuring time is the beginning of running your company profitably. And profitability does ease many of the stresses associated with the symptoms of an unprofitable firm: stacking deadlines, overlapping due dates, having to work nights and weekend out of necessity. These stresses do more damage to a designer’s process and productivity than holding them to a certain number of hours or days on particular projects. The handful of quietness afforded by profitability pays handsome dividends in the long run.

Well, my Harvest App timer is telling me I’ve already spent a couple hours on this post. I know I have some other assignments to get to today, so if I’m going to be home for dinner and see my family, I need to finish up. I’ll post again on some additional benefits and challenges of tracking time next week.

Are you ready to take the struggle out of finding new clients?