Success at Work Challenge Week 1: Mind your hours

ebook_wtmspd_atworkI’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.

photo-60And yes: karaoke, a Red Sox game, getting my TV hair and make-up done by a stylist named Gigi who thought my hair color looked natural — it was quite a week!

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.

23 thoughts on “Success at Work Challenge Week 1: Mind your hours

  1. Inspired by your new book, I started tracking my time last week. I wonder if anyone else has this issue?

    My colleagues and I work all different hours. My boss gets in late and stays late, but if I followed her pattern, I’d miss my direct reports, who arrive at 8:30 and colleagues who arrive as early as 7.

    While my average day is 9 hours plus on paper, they’re not all productive hours – it’s just tough to stay tuned in that long. But if I head home earlier, I’ll never get to check in with my boss – and that’s critical, too, obviously. It’s not unusual for her to hand me a critical project at 4 or even 5 o’clock, and for other colleagues to request meetings at 8 AM. Add in a number of evening meetings and weekend commitments, and I’m often at my office for better than 50 hours a week.

    How have others gotten a handle on work days that have such fluid hours?

    1. @Abby- that would be frustrating to have everyone on such different schedules. What I’ve heard from some people works is to think in terms of 168 hours, not 24. In other words, you’re not going to work on your direct reports and your boss’s schedule *every* day. Some days you’ll work on one schedule, and some days you’ll work on the other. You can try to map out the week that way — I’m guessing your boss doesn’t hand you projects at 4pm on Friday, so that’s probably a day to start earlier. Maybe there’s some other pattern you can discern. And then you just have to be good about managing the meeting requests. You could try talking with all these folks about some scheduling options that would work.

      But I like that you’ve pointed out that when you’re in the office for a long time, chunks of time become non productive for this sheer reason. There’s really no point. One option is to try to seize them. Disappear for a real break at a low energy point in the afternoon to take real personal time: a walk, a 30-minute visit to a coffee shop to read. Sometimes people notice less than we think.

      1. With subordinates, generally we map their schedules to match mine, but when that doesn’t work, then I make sure they have things they can work on in my absence and we meet when I get there.

        1. Abby, I like Laura’s idea of alternating days of coming in early vs. staying late. But really, why should YOU be the only one re-arranging your workday to meet others’ schedules. If you announce and circulate your chosen hours (and, of course, do all your work and respond to your reports & superiors in that time) would that not be acceptable in your work environment? It seems that everyone else has arranged their days to suit their lives or personalities, and you should be free to do that as well.

    2. You set your schedule to provide some hours of overlap with everyone, make it clear what your schedule is, and figure if they need to talk to you, they’ll make sure to catch you during the overlap. If you settle on an early schedule, when your boss hands you something at the end of your work day, you smile and say you’ll get to it first thing in the morning. Basically, you set your boundaries and you police them. Obviously, you make exceptions for true emergencies, but not for things that will just inconvenience others a bit. I’d have a short meeting with your boss to announce your plan (note: I didn’t say “ask for permission to implement your plan”- you can respond to criticism, but assuming you are an exempt employee and are conforming to company policy, you don’t really need to ask permission to get your hours under control.) You make sure you’re extra productive during the first few weeks so no one blames a lack of productivity on your new hours… and then you just stick to them. All of which is easier said than done, I know. But it is worth the effort!

    3. When I was working at a tech company with very flexible hours (and people who came in at random times), we had the notion of “core hours” across the team. Each team would tend to set their own, but they’d be something like 10am-4pm and that was a block of time where everyone was expected to be around and you could come and go around that block as you wished.

      Based on the preferences of the team, the core hours varied a lot. One team I was on had a bunch of early birds (long commutes, little kids, etc) so our core hours were more like 8-2 so any team meetings would be scheduled during that time. This way no particular person is being singled out for inconvenience.

    4. Is there something horribly wrong with this schedule other than the fact that you work extremely long hours? That’s the only way that anybody can really answer your question. What would you do if you worked a shorter day? If your answer is to workout then you take a long lunch in the middle of the day to hit up the gym. If you want to catch up on your scrapbooking or reading, those two things can find ways into your day similarly.

      Now, if you’re like me and the evenings mean time with your kids that finish their school day at 3pm, then there’s a big issue. I think you really need to consider why this is a problem for you and what it prevents you from doing fully.

  2. I learned so much when I did this with you a few years ago. I would love to do another 168 hours time inventory with you. Thanks for the opportunity. My favorite part is the built in motivation that comes as you are writing down what you’ve done over the last 30 minutes. Such as: did I really just spend the last 30 minutes reading random Facebook postings while eating breakfast in my pjs? Yes, yes I did.

    1. @Corinne- if it brings you pleasure to spend 30 minutes reading Facebook in your jammies, by all means go for it! What I’m trying to police are social media “breaks” when I really need a real break away from the computer. Stretch, go read, get a snack – I’m making a list of things I can do…

      I do find it helpful to keep track of my hours. It’s amazing how disjointed a day can be.

  3. I’ve been thinking I should do another one of these, I’m in! Only… with the time makeover, should I wait until I’ve talked with you more about my schedule?

    1. @Marcy- I find it’s helpful to keep a time log at any point… I always see something that I can tweak.

  4. Hi Laura:

    Looking forward to listening to your book, it is “on deck” after I finish my current one.

    I work for a section of the Federal government and have set “business hours.” Therefore, my flexibility is somewhat limited. In addition, as our staff is small, I get “tasked” to sit in on various planning meetings/video conferences and so forth. Since I am joining late, I will not mention Monday. Yesterday, I got in about 8 hours, one of which I am including as a fitness assessment at the end of the day. I did not take lunch.

    Speaking of, I have become a fan of bringing my lunch and going to the gym instead. I am fortunate that the gym is in my building and I have a management team that genuinely encourages fitness. When I do go out for lunch, it is a planned event and I do not worry about what I eat because, well, it was a planned event.

    I find for me the biggest “time thief” is not office chit chat (we are pretty good at limiting that and it is important for strengthening collaboration) but email. I do my best to deal with an email once and only once, then dump it in the monthly folder. If it is something I am waiting on a reply from someone else, or is an event in the future, I use the “delay delivery” option on Outlook, send it to myself down the road with a note such as “Status?” or “This (event) is today at 11:00 or whatever. It keeps my inbox pretty clean and limits the time I spend on the stuff that comes in. Oh, and by the way, the delete button is not evil, but a friend.

    Just my thoughts, wishing everyone a GREAT day (and happy Law Day BTW.)

    Best rgs,

    1. @Jeno- I think taking a lunch, and then using “lunch” to hit the gym is a good idea. It’s actually what I did in my one full-time office job. It saved me money and I got to work out every day too! The one difficulty, of course, is if your office has more of a lunch-social culture. Then you’d probably just need to strike the right balance — going out to lunch with people 2x week and working out 3x week…

      Email. Not sure what to say about it. It does take a lot of time!

  5. Laura, thanks for the challenge. I’ve tried this before and find it really tough to do, when interruptions occur and break the day up into tiny bits which just merge into one amorphous blob. Before I know it, its time to stop for the day and I’ve no idea what I did back at 9:30 (for example). Have you any tips for the actual tracking?
    PS: Love the books, really interesting and full of actionable content.

    1. @Jon – thanks so much, I’m glad you like the books! Re actually keeping a log, I’ve decided not to record every little interruption. If I get up for 5 minutes to walk outside and retrieve the paper, I don’t record it. I’ve decided it’s white noise. But I’m also trying to learn to stay focused for longer periods of time on one project, or at least do what I can. The human brain may not be able to focus for all that long!

      1. OK, I get you. I’ve taped a copy of your pdf to the desk right infront of me, and its working so far. Have you tried the Pomodoro process? I’ve found using the app on my phone with the sound of a grandfather clock ticking away gives me amazing 25 minute bursts of laser-focus.. which have got longer and longer…

  6. I am looking forward to your Success at Work challenge. I have ordered your new book. I only work 33 hours per week but still cannot plan & stick to what I have considered to be a ‘workable’ plan after keeping a 168 log on my work/life. I am a very structured person but I am not sure if I am trying to set myself a too rigid structure, that then falls apart

    1. @Sam – an interesting question – what sort of structure works best? I do think there needs to be some give, or otherwise the whole thing will fall apart when something goes wrong. That’s one reason to plan a limited number of activities per day. You still have space for what life throws at you.

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