I’m trying to achieve success at work, and you can too! For the next 7 weeks, I’ll be running a #SuccessAtWork challenge on this blog. Each week’s challenge will follow one of the 7 disciplines I highlight in my new ebook, What the Most Successful People Do at Work. If you’re participating, please let me know in the comments, or on Twitter. This is week 1, and discipline #1 is to “Mind Your Hours.” This section is excerpted at Fast Company, so you don’t even need to buy the book to participate!
This may be the most profound — if simple — career question you can ask yourself: how many hours do I actually work? If you get paid by the hour, you probably already know this. But if you don’t, this number may be more nebulous, and that’s a problem, because it’s important. Optimizing your work hours requires knowing how many you have, and how long certain things take.
I kept a time log over the last week to see how many hours I worked. This was not a “typical” week, though weeks never are. My book came out. I attended three conferences and gave several speeches, which required travel and being gone over the weekend.
So I was pretty sure that I worked more hours than usual. Indeed, my total came out to just shy of 56 hours. I worked some on all seven days. The low was 2.58 hours (Sunday); the high was 11.42 (Thursday).
I did struggle with how to count hours. I decided that reading a magazine I’m potentially going to be writing for counts as work. Reading a magazine I have no intention of writing for does not. I did not count various instances of travel — walking to Yahoo’s studio in NYC from the train, or walking to my hotel, or taking a cab to the airport — even though I was traveling to work functions in all cases. On the other hand, if I was working on a plane or a train, I counted that as work. I counted lunch with an editor as work; I did not count dinner with people I met at a conference as work, or the karaoke I then went and sang with them. (How did I live 10 blocks from a very Japanese style booth karaoke place for 9 years and not know it??) I did not count going to the Red Sox game on Friday night as work, even though I was there with the people I was speaking to (which was work) the next day, and an argument could be made that I was networking.
One reason the work hours were higher is that it was a networking-heavy group of days. There’s no way I could simply write for 56 hours, and I know that my pure writing work weeks are shorter. On the other hand, I consider them more productive, given that that's the core of my work. The networking is to enable the writing, not the other way around.
I’m generally aiming for about 50 work hours per week. Once you know how many hours — roughly — you work, you can start to figure out how many tasks a good week can reasonably contain. Over the years, I’ve noticed that people who are really good at what they do tend to develop a good sense of how long things take. The children’s book illustrator I profiled in the e-book knew exactly how long each painting would take her. I’m starting to get a better sense of how long any given article or chapter will take. When you know these numbers, you can be honest with yourself. If a 1000-word article draft takes me about 2 hours to crank out, I cannot do 5 of these in a normal 8-hour workday. Actually, I can’t even do 3, since I can see from my time logs that I only get a few hours of intense focus per day, usually in the mornings. So I need to protect this time. It's valuable — and shouldn't be easily given away.
This week’s challenge: Keep a time log, at least for your working hours. You can download a spreadsheet here, but I just used a word document. Please check in here with your observations, and any tweaks you decide to make based on what you see.
As a side note, I was interested to see that I slept 51.42 hours overall, which comes out to 7.35 hours per night. That’s a bit less than I want, which is probably why I feel tired. What can I say? When life gives you an opportunity to sing "U Can’t Touch This" at 11 p.m., I say you take it.