Understanding time and productivity in an agency

For a number of years we’ve been using timesheets in our team.

We do this to keep track on how many hours we put in to client projects and to measure our margins on particular pieces of work.

When we first started using timesheets, I really struggled. In fact, I’d say it was one of the most difficult parts of a transition away from public service life and back into the private sector. I understood why it is a good idea, but I felt uncomfortable laying my working hours open to colleagues.

This was mainly because I could see others racking up huge numbers of hours each week, whereas some days I might struggle to record more than 4 hours of focussed work. I’ll return to this point in a moment.

My other worry about timesheets is that I have seen them create anxiety among the rest of the team: who is measuring what and why? In a world of Strava and Fitbit, measurement equals performance and league tables.

Wind forward 4 years or so and I don’t know how I’d get by without a timesheet. It’s the single best productivity tool I have and I get loads of satisfaction logging time each day. Sad but true.

In order to get to this point I’ve learned a few things about timesheets at Helpful.

Record meaningful time

Timesheets are a record of focussed, productive time, or ‘committed’ time. By committed I mean time you have to spend on something, such as travelling to a client, or a meeting. They should also record holiday and L&D. But timesheets aren’t there to apportion a regulated 8 hours you spent in the office, or to justify long days that may not have been necessary.

For example, some days you might leave the office late and have only recorded a few hours. That’s not great, but it tells you a lot about the projects you’re working on, the tasks within those and how easy or not you might be finding the work.

Be comfortable recording a variety of hours

Timesheets only work from a business management perspective if they are accurate. We don’t want to bill clients extra time because people feel they should be recording 8 hours a day. Equally, we need to make sure we understand which tasks and projects take the most time.

Timesheets work really well if you have lots of small tasks and meetings to deal with. Great if you’re providing client support or have a busy day of meetings. Terrible if you’re thinking about a new business strategy or seeking inspiration for a project.

Realistically, I don’t think a typical day equates to 8 productive hours. It might be 4, 5 or 6 hours, depending on the tasks you have or how focussed you are feeling.

Busy periods, travel or hard projects might equate to many more hours.

Daily timesheets are more useful

I maintain the timesheet daily. It’s the only way I can keep on top of it and I like to use it as a way of understanding my productivity. I don’t believe records of emails or calendar entries can ever give an accurate picture of time spent on projects. Completing a timesheet little and often also helps to bring a natural break between tasks throughout the day.

Use your timesheet to change your patterns

Most important of all, after working this way for a few years, I think I’ve developed a good sense of when I am at my best for different types of work. For example: admin first thing to get me started, creative stuff mid-late morning, but pretty useless 11am – 2pm (so ideal for things which ‘lead’ me: lunch, calls, meetings, travel). I’ve even used it to tweak my diet, with some success.

Tools

We use WorkflowMax right now. It’s clunky, but does lots of clever things with our accounting software.

I preferred Freckle, which we used to have.

I turn off desktop notifications most days.

I make hundreds of to-do lists every month, mainly in Trello and also in my notebook. There’s something satisfying about ordering, reordering and crossing off.

I’ve recently started using Forest. A very neat app that makes a game out of staying focused.

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