How much actual on-task work do you do on a typically work day? The myth is everyone produces 8 hours of useful, targetted work in an 8.5 hour work day (with unpaid lunch). Staying in the office extra hours, likewise, produces more useful work. I suggest you should measure this for yourself. Here's how to find out-- but you may want to hold off telling your boss quite yet.

As a freelancer, I have no salary or set work hours. I bill only for time spent on task. I use an electronic timer-- a stopwatch, really-- to track my time. Starting on a task? Timer on. Pause to check personal email or Facebook? Timer off. Back to task? Timer on.

The emphasize is 'on task'. No lawyer-like billing of "I thought about your case while flossing so I billed a minimum increment of 15 minutes", no 'multitasking' fees resulting in more than 24 billable hours in a day. Just the exact measure of the straight time doing the client's requested work.

You should do this-- bring in a timer to work, set it up, and time your actual on-task work effort. Be firm about what is 'task work' and what is 'things that support work but are not directly related to the task.'

Station Keeping

We are assuming you are given a task, not a 'station keeping' assignment. Station keeping is work where you have to be physically present but with low engagement, such as an operations job. If you are hired to watch Healthy&Safety monitor screens for red and yellow warning lights, and the task requires you respond within 10 minutes, that's a station-keeping task. Similarly, manning a security post or serving as a cashier are station-keeping.

In these cases, you are paid to be a butt in a chair, with the idea that you do work only when work appears. In that case, yes, checking Facebook when there's nothing else going on doesn't mean you aren't working-- as long as you don't delay on work when it arises! So this timing/productivity measure won't really apply to you. On the plus side, you have steady work requiring low engagement, so enjoy! For you, you can track "work" versus "sitting around" not as a measure of personal productivity, but as a look at just how busy your job is.

What is "Work"?

From the start, accept that-- as a salaried or freelance worker-- there are useful and necessary tasks that neverless are not billable. You can break things into 4 categories:

  1. Task work
  2. Necessary breaks
  3. Profesional upkeep
  4. Personal stuff

While only the 1st is billable time for the purposes of today's test, the first three are all appropriate for the salaried employee. If you are salaried, it is to be an asset for the lab or company. It's not just about your current tasks, but about ensuring you remain healthy, current in your field, and up-to-date with administrative needs.

That said, however, it's not all 'hardcore work'. We're measuring on-task, billable, what did you produce today time. Here's a more detailed breakdown using our freelancing perspective.

Billable Work:

  • Analyzing, writing, editing, researching-- all your core task activities.
  • Reading work-related emails.
  • Thinking and taking notes.
  • Attending meetings.
  • Managing people in your assigned task.
  • Work-related phone calls.
  • Scheduling and making to-do lists.
  • Preparing or giving talks for or about the task.
  • Required station-keeping (*see earlier paragraph)
  • Navigating the task-specific website and web tools.

Not billable work:

  • Getting up to stretch your legs.
  • Coffee/tea/soda/snack breaks.
  • Reading websites and journals about your field in general.
  • Facebook, twitter, personal email.
  • Hunting up more work.
  • Giving general talks in your field.
  • Contributing to the group (general meetings, newsletters, bake sale)
  • Blogging.

And let's just nip the "but I'm very productive when I'm on-task" argument in the bud. How productive you are in an hour doesn't count for assessing how many hours you're on task. You are hired because you are productive. Past that, your employer expects you to deliver that level of productivity over the bulk of the work day. So you can't say "I only work 1 hour but I do the work of 3 people", because you're not doing the work of 3 people. You're doing the work of you, for 1 paid hour, just like they hired you. If you're salaried, you need to rack in the on-task hours expected. If you're freelance, you need to rack up billable hours to finish the work: no more, no less.

hourglass from wiki commons

Your Challenge

Your challenge: for one week, time your on-task (billable) hours using a stopwatch. Click on when you start task stuff, click off when you do anything else. At the end of each day, tally it up:

Task hours

Do not be alarmed by low numbers on some days! A salaried position requires non-task time. General meetings, keeping in touch with co-workers so you work well as a team, and keeping up with web news in your field are useful and necessary tasks for the salaried worker. All we're measuring here is 'direct work' on tasks, a productivity measure but not a measure of your total value.

In fact, if you're in the office 9 hours and all 9 are spent on-task, you may be reducing your value to the company. Non-task activities are necessary to maintain a cohesive worksite and ensure the work you do is appropriately aimed and moving in sync with everyone else. What billable time tells you is what proportion of your time is spent on task, and what fraction is used for 'framing'.

Likewise, as a freelancer, you may require 10 hours of 'in your office' to get 8 hours of billable work, because freelancers also need to keep their skills sharp, take breaks to remain alert and frosty, and hustle up new business. Unbillable time is still necessary time.

Your Results

So after 1 week, how did you do with on-task time?

8 or more on-task hours per day: Risking isolation and/or burnout. 6-7 on-task hours per day: Congratulations, you have high productivity! 4-5 on-task hours per day: Good, but make sure your boss agrees! 1-3 hours per day: Puzzling-- what your job is and what your boss thinks might be out of whack. Below 1 hour per day: Trouble-- time to reassess how you fit into the organization.

I've found I typically have 6.5 on-task hours per working day. Put another way, to get 8 hours of billable time, I must spend more than 8 hours in my office. Some days have more external interruptions or extringent needs, and some days I have longer 'burns' where the work immersion just starts and does not stop. But 6.5 is my most typical result, and also my target figure.

If you're salaried and suspect there's a mismatch between your time on task and what your work group expects from you, take some (unbillable) time to address this. Ideally, your job makes best use of your skills and your bosses agree with what you think the task is. Rebalancing or reducing non-task items can make for a better situation all around, while ensuring you're not too task-focused can ensure you always have a place in the organization.

If you're a freelancer and you run into low numbers of hours on-task, that's a more economically weighty matter. If you want more money, you need to be able to deliver more hours, then hustle up enough work to fill your time.

Ultimately this exerise should help you be more in balance at work and, we hope, happier.  As GI Joe says, knowing is half the battle.  But the other half is money.

Tuesdays at The Satellite Diaries and Friday at The Daytime Astronomer (twitter @skyday)