The Accomplished Solopreneur

Issue 22.43

Saturday, October 22, 2022

Photo by Freestocks on Unsplash

Why you need to keep a time sheet

I used to hate keeping time sheets.

Don’t get me wrong - I’m no great fan of keeping time sheets now. That feeling that you have to justify every minute of every hour, someone’s looking over your shoulder, someone’s going to be asking questions about why I spent so much time on this thing… It’s not a good feeling.

But time sheets can reveal why your productivity is low. Here’s why.

When things get really busy

I’m in an unusually busy time. Multiple client projects ramping up at the same time, new products rolling out the door, major blocks of my time committed to said projects including site visits…

If there’s ever been a time when I need to be super-productive, it’s now. I think I may even be overwhelmed.

And for the guy who wrote the manual on dealing with overwhelm, that’s saying a lot.

When we get really busy like this, the days fly by. We’re jumping from one project to the next, fielding phone calls and messages, writing weekly newsletters, and trying to disconnect from it all when we spend time with our families.

To all intents and purposes, we’re hyper-focused and we feel good that we’re so productive.

But I still get too distracted

When I think back at the past week, there are two kinds of distractions that rob me of my productivity:

  • All that stuff in the back of my mind clamouring for attention
  • Shiny stuff

I know how to deal with the first problem: get it out of my head. Done. (If you don’t know what this is about, check out The Overwhelm Manual).

But I also get distracted by shiny stuff. Right now there are a couple of really promising technologies and tools that makes the inner geek in me salivate. “Ooh, I can do this, and I can do that” - if only I had the time.

Now don’t get me wrong. We need to indulge in the things that feed our passion. Or as my friend Michael says, “scratches an itch.”

But when you’re super busy, these distractions can get in they way of getting stuff done, place more pressure on our time, and raise that subconscious stress level we live with every day.

Time sheets to the rescue

A couple of times a year, when things get as busy as they are now, I resort to time sheets to help me focus. Here’s how it works.

I use Google Sheets to create a simple weekly time sheet. This is what it looks like:

And here’s how I use it:

1. Print a copy and keep it visible on your desk

I’ve tried doing this electronically, but if the sheet is not visible and easily to hand all the time, I forget to keep track of my time.

2. Keep track of your time throughout the day

Every 30 minutes or so, I fill in the time sheet. Sometimes a hour or two can go by before I fill it in, and I find that’s usually OK - I can remember what I did.

I keep things very simple. Just a couple of words on what I did, and an indicator to note whether my time was well spent or not. I call it Focus - for example:

Depending on how much time I have, I may even highlight time that I didn’t spend well (as in the example above).

3. Review your time

As I go through the day, it immediately becomes obvious if I’m straying too much. I usually try to review whole day when I wrap up for the day, and again at the end of the week.

Here’s how this helps (and what not to do)

As simple as this time sheet is, it reveals the things I would rather not admit to myself. I sometimes do spend time on stuff when there are other tasks that need to take priority. But:

Just knowing where your time really went helps you focus more on what you need to get done.

There are a few caveats.

1. Keep it simple

Being the geek I am, I’ve tried this electronically, using codes to keep track of where I spend my time and summarizing where my time went.

Don’t get tempted to do this. It gets in the way of your work. My experience is that a simple paper time sheet works best.

2. Don’t do it all the time

Trying to do this every week of the year doesn’t work either. It becomes an admin overhead you don’t need, and the value of the insights diminish over time.

Only do this exercise when you’re really worried that you’re not focusing on what matters. Once you have the insights, and you get better at focus, stop doing it.

3. Make time to play

Don’t try to be a machine. Your creativity and problems-solving skills are way better when you’re relaxed, sleep well, and you “indulge” in the things that make you happy.

Make time to play.

And finally, never beat yourself up

Don’t beat yourself up when you find you’re not always focusing on the stuff that matters. It’s human nature. Even top athletes are not at the top of their game all the time.

Try this exercise next time you feel you need to get better at focus. Use if for as long as it provides you with insights. Then stop doing it.

Here’s a link to the Google sheet if you want to try this.