Why track your non-billable time?
If you provide professional services, you’ll probably have a revenue target to hit at the end of the year using your billable time. So much for this year’s revenue. But today’s non-billable time is tomorrow’s future revenue, and it’s the source, not just of more work, but of better work than the stuff you currently do. There are three reasons to track how you spend it: (1) so you’re putting it in the right places, (2) so you can free up time by finding activities to dump or delegate, and (3) so you know when you’ve done enough. And it's easy to do. From the plethora of free, cross-platform services available, I picked Toggl, which is quick, gorgeous and has great reports.
1. Spend time on the right things
Former Harvard Business School Professor David Maister, certainly the world's expert on professional services, points out in one of his excellent podcasts that, if you’re trying to increase revenue, there are four things you can spend time on: growing relationships with existing clients, spending time on prospects, catering to someone who is aware of a need, and, finally, catering to someone who is not aware of a need. (This last, he says, is “the act of a desperate man or a desperate woman who doesn’t get how the world works.")
What’s odd is this: professionals almost always agree that growing relationships with existing clients is the easiest way to win business - and not just more business, but better business. Yet, when you ask them how they spend their marketing time, you'll find that most of it is directed at future clients - or, rather, potential future clients. This means brochures directed at non-specific targets, a website put up “because everyone has one,” and awkward networking events no one really enjoys, yet feels obliged to attend.
If you know how much of your non-billable time goes where, you’ll be able to sit down at the end of the year and ask yourself two things: first, was the amount and quality of business I won from each type of activity proportional to the time (and stress) I put in? And, secondly: if I’d entirely done away with the low-yield stuff, and put the time into growing existing client relationships or playing with my kids, would I be better off?
2. Find activities to dump or delegate
I belong to a business peer supervision group that recommended, a year ago, that I keep a detailed calendar of a single week. The results staggered me: the minutes spent here and there changing flights and bookings, rescheduling meetings and batting away minutiae didn’t just add up, they cast a long shadow over my week. Once you work out where your non-billable time goes, you can go through your log ruthlessly and ask whether anyone else could have done any of it - an assistant, virtual or not - or whether it would have mattered if you’d dumped it entirely.
3. Know when you’ve done enough
When you plan your year (and you do plan your year, right?), you’ll have a revenue target in mind, and you’ll have an idea of what you need to do to sustain your business and to improve it for the following year. You might be wrong about it, but you’ll have an idea, and one of the reasons to formalise and track it is so that you can calibrate your expectations, and direct your efforts where they have most impact. But you need to know, too, when you’ve done enough: budget out your non-billable time at the beginning of the year, and then, when you’ve met budget, stop. One of the nicest surprises about tracking your non-billable time is that, because you know how much you’ve done, that uneasy feeling of never having done enough evaporates, and you have more time for sunshine.