Figuring out how to manage your time at work is a major win. And the good news is you don't need a fancy methodology or a new gizmo (though go for it if that's your jam). The foundation of effective time management is -- wait for it -- knowing how long it takes you to complete the key tasks and projects you have to tackle on the regular. It's that simple.

That's not to say it's a fast process, but the return on the investment is huge. That may be why I got more requests for time management tactics from my training and coaching clients last year.

Three kinds of time

For most of us in marketing, PR and related departments, there are three kinds of time:

  1. Administrative time: the non-creative parts of the project like scheduling and sitting in meetings, engaging freelancers, managing hand-offs, scoping the project or preparing the creative brief.
  2. Active time: the activities that relate directly to creating the work, including research, interviews, comps, processing changes, brainstorming, planning. Get tips for streamlining the writing process.
  3. Any time: anything that doesn't fit neatly into the other categories for your brain or workflow

Admittedly, this is a pretty granular approach, but we all know that the non-active stuff can be the stuff that blows up your schedule and exacerbates competing priorities.

What it might look like

We monitor time carefully in our shop because so much of our work is billable hours (revenue) and we're pretty obsessive about customer loyalty (we want to be able to say yes to our repeat customers whenever we can). And, since we're a 32-hour-a-week business, we need to schedule accurately.

Here are some things we've learned:

  • Our editor can reliably revise and improve a big report at about 3 to 4 pages an hour, and she's fastest and most accurate when she breaks the project into 3- to 4-hour morning sessions. For a 60-page report, that’s 15-ish hours and 5-ish days.
  • When I'm writing a 1500-word 3-source article, I know I need 2 to 3 hours for admin, 30 to 60 minutes of planning and processing, a couple hours of research, 30 to 60 minutes of interviews and then 3 hours to pull it all together and revise it once. That’s 9-ish hours spread across what usually ends up being 5 to 7 business days.

TIP: You can do this for non-client work, too, like that monthly report that needs to go to the higher-ups, expense reports, etc.

One way to track time your time

Back before I founded The Word Factory, my boss suggested we run my department like an internal agency so we could bill other departments for our work. That meant we had to start tracking our time. Not being attorneys, we billed in 30-minute chunks, which made it a little easier, but we still had to get used to starting and stopping projects and jotting down minutes and hours -- in a ledger! (This was literally last century, folks!). It was kind of tedious at first, but after a couple weeks we got good at it.

Beyond accurate billing, we were able to see how much time it took to complete the project, including admin time, active time and downtime/waiting. (We started assessing a 48-hour penalty when clients missed deadlines and it really helped trim delays!) Those insights were invaluable to justifying pricing and managing individual and department workflows.

But this may be more work than you want to undertake. I get that. There is a less rigorous way.

One way to estimate your time

You can also just flat-out guess. It won't be super-accurate, but it's an educated-enough guess to work with. And you can refine it as you go along.

Think about the projects you're currently got going, your work in progress (WIP). For the purposes of this exercise, choose a project that you do frequently, like producing blog posts, creating slide presentations or editing white papers.

  1. Jot down all the tasks involved and about how long you think it took to complete them.
  2. Look over the list to see if you forgot anything (scoping, admin tasks or processing revisions).
  3. Total up the amount of time and see how it feels.
  4. Check off and refine your estimate the next time you do this kind of work.

Now you have a clearer look at what kind of time you have and how to manage it.

Reality-informed time management

Regardless of whether you track or estimate, you'll have a real-world-based sense of the time requirements. And if you do it for your entire portfolio, you can see how much time you have left for other work -- and whether or not you can even do it all in a 32- to 40-hour week. It's easy to see if you can take on something new or if you have a day that's got a zillion deliverables and you're gonna need some help.

TIP: I suggest overlaying this on a week that's 8 to 10 hours below the number of hours you've got scheduled for work. Why? Because things happen and you need a contingency.)

Want to learn more about putting this time management approach in action for yourself or your team? Talk to me.

BONUS: I borrowed a page from the Agile Methodology to track our projects and time requirements. Each of us (or a team) has a spreadsheet called a backlog that shows dates, increments and next steps/status. This is an instant look at the work ecosystem every day so we can make good decisions about where to spend our time and know if we can take on something new or not.

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