What do entrepreneurs do all day? How do business owners and managers use their time to accomplish their goals? While I can’t answer that on a representative basis, I can give you a pretty exact picture of what it is that I do all day long. Throughout the last two years I picked a number of weeks during which I assiduously kept track of every single thing I worked on. Here are the results.
- 1 About Me
- 2 How the Time Log Was Created
- 3 The Result
- 4 Breakdown of Each Category
- 5 How Do You Spend Your Time?
I’ve been running a web-based business out of Bangkok, Thailand since 2006. At the time of writing, I employ a total of 10 people while being the sole director of the company. I work out of my office with little to no travel and outside meetings. Typical business hours fall between 8am and 6pm, Monday to Friday. In case you’d like to know more, you can check out my posts about my business, my company culture, and my hiring practices.
How the Time Log Was Created
The work time log was created between March 2014 and September 2015. It covers a peak and a low season for my business. I’d say the observed time frames are fairly representative for the type of work I do throughout the year. Main reason for having the log in the first place is to support myself in creating a habit-forming process so I don’t rely on motivation alone to get things done.
In total I logged 467 hours and 55 minutes or, to be more specific, 1123 time slots of 25 minutes each. The time slots are so-called ‘pomodoros‘, part of a time management technique that I use to separate my day into 25 minute work slots with 5 minute breaks in between. Every 4 work/break slots, I take a longer 20 minute break. On most days I do a 1 hour lunch break. In practice it doesn’t always work out that neatly, but this is what I strive for and that’s reflected in the work log that I keep.
Since the time log depends on me noting down my own tasks, some inaccuracies occur where I forgot to write down slots (e.g. because I was too immersed in something or had unexpected issues come up). In addition, I did not log work done at home or on weekends which tends to happen rarely (if it does, it’s usually short e-mails). Evening events (dinners, business-related parties) are similarly excluded, but don’t amount to a large amount of time anyway.
After analysing the data, I clustered it in 13 different categories. Coincidentally, that’s also the number of planned pomodoros I can accomplish in a sustainable manner on an average work day. Here’s the break down of what I spent my time on:
|E-mails & Communication||56h 15m||12.02%|
|Day Planning||39h 10m||8.37%|
|Quality Assurance||29h 35m||6.32%|
|Research & Study||23h 45m||5.08%|
I’m a bit conflicted over what the perfect time distribution should look like. E-mails and communication efforts (12.02%) stand out as particularly high, but given the inherent need for communication, I harbor strong doubts that the absolute amount of time taken up by this can be reduced. Nevertheless, there might be some more effective alternatives to the way I communicate and I’ll look at those in the following ‘How it Looks in Detail’ section.
Another interesting point is the amount that I work ‘in’ the business (e.g. product, sales and quality assurance – a total of 24.66%) versus ‘on’ the business (e.g. strategy, (goal) meetings, research & study – a total of 24.94%). I assumed categories that aren’t clearly in one or the other field follow a similar pattern of distribution. I’d be very interested to hear what those figures look like for other entrepreneurs.
Worth considering is also the percentage of work that’s ‘productive’ (‘in’ and ‘on’ the business categories mentioned above – 49.60%) versus overhead tasks that need to be done but don’t inherently generate any value (day planning, admin, HR, accounting – 27.16%). If you happen to have some thoughts about the share between these two categories, I’d love to hear about it in the comments.
Breakdown of Each Category
E-mails & Communication (12.02%)
The lion’s part of my work is made up of e-mails and other electronic messages that take each take up less than 10 minutes: This can be anything from following up on projects and editorial feedback, to outreach and reviewing status reports. While e-mails are the biggest contributor, other forms of digital communication are also included in this category: Blog comments, Twitter updates, Facebook messages, as well as other chat notifications. One major reasons for e-mails and other forms of digital communication taking up so much time is that it’s my preferred tool of communication – both internal and external. Apparently I’m not alone with that opinion: My favourite HR blogger, Suzanne Lucas, recently made some killer points on why e-mail is awesome (as well as when it’s not).
After seeing how much time this part takes up, I analysed all e-mails sent over the course of a specific week to get a better picture of the distribution. E-mails are split between external (55.6%) and internal (44.4%) recipients. Looking at that data, the most likely replacement for e-mails (e.g. using a different form of communication, changing the process, …) appears to be phone calls and postponing communication to the next scheduled meeting. Neither of which I believe would result in a reduction of the overall time used to communicate, but the quality of communication would improve when moving it to a more suitable medium.
The classic case of working ‘in’ the business rather than ‘on’ the business. This category includes all work done by me that could in fact be delegated to staff, freelancers or suppliers. In most cases, that’s what actually happens. However, if a high value project requires flawless execution, I frequently decide to work on some key factors myself.
In order to put things into perspective: There are 3 full-time employees that usually handle product tasks. My own time contribution thus would make up less than 10% of our total ‘product’ efforts.
Since at some point in the future I might use the contents from this blog for an actual product (e.g. a book), it serves as a good example of ‘product’ work. I could have articles ghost written or extensively prepared by employees, but at the time of writing, 95% of the work on this site is being done by me (with some help when it comes to technical issues and Thai-language based research).
Coming up with yearly and quarterly goals, monitoring their progress and reviewing achievements falls into this category. My process is to draft out goals over an extended period of time, effectively refining them on a weekly basis over the course of a month. The idea is to look at the objectives with different mindsets by working on it on different days and under different circumstances. In other words, I emulate consensus between different people. This takes longer, but the process makes up for the fact that I no longer have a board or a business partner.
I’ve summarised all in-person meetings in this category, including strategy meetings (e.g. discussions of goals) and HR meetings (e.g. trainings). The majority of this are weekly team meetings that I always try to attend. Other goal-focused meetings are held with individuals and in rare cases even the entire company. Other reasons for meetings tend to be special concerns (e.g. personal issues of employees) and trainings.
The time taken up by meetings is significantly higher than I expected. On the other hand, it’s a lot lower than what’s common for CEOs for larger companies – the Wall Street Journal puts that number at 32.7%.
Time spend on personal activities at work is actually quite substantial. Usually this is made up of travel arrangements for more challenging trips to places like Iran or Turkmenistan (see my travel blog to see what that entails) or way too prolonged research on what health insurance to choose. I could do that at home as well, but considering the stress and effort it involves, I opted to treat it as ‘work’. Other things I apparently like to do on work time is buy stuff online from stores like Lazada, Amazon and Tesco.
Day Planning (8.37%)
This is the first thing I do every day: Deciding on daily priorities, checking my calendar, ensuring there are no fires that need taken care of immediately, reviewing my tasks for the day, briefly checking in with my staff, and completing minor issues. A major part is to incorporate the sometimes substantial number of notes that I wrote down throughout the previous day in Evernote – ideas, todos, notes. When I’m traveling, this is often the only thing I do on a given day in order to ensure everything runs smoothly.
These are miscellaneous, fragmented tasks not covered by anything else. Common entries include electronic and digital signing (or approving) of issues requiring director’s input as well as technical administration that I have opted not to delegate (e.g. spot-checking backups, handling of critical domain registrations). My personal impression is that I’m more hands-on with this in Thailand than I would be in my home country (Germany). A major reason for that being that due to the quality of process adherence and legal framework more oversight is required.
Similar to ‘product’, this is me working ‘in’ the business (as opposed to ‘on’ it). It’s everything I do myself to increase sales, including joint-ventures, search engine optimisation, and advertising deals. I only do this in case of very important and often time-critical projects. However, during those phases it can easily be 20 to 25% of my time. Based on my anecdotal experience, it’s one of my most value-generating activities. Unfortunately I’m limited in how often these opportunities occur, so working on creating them more of them (e.g. by researching new market opportunities) could be a financially beneficial course of action.
From interviewing job candidates to conducting feedback meetings this includes all recruitment, retainment and administrative HR tasks. Trainings and other project related issues are not included. I used to have more frequent 1-on-1 feedback meetings at my company: For several years they were done quarterly. The frequency has been reduced since then without creating a negative impact on performance or retention.
Quality Assurance (6.32%)
In a way similar to the ‘product’ category. It’s very hands-on qualitative reviews of tasks (e.g. editing copy, reviewing ads). Similar to ‘sales‘ work, I dig in myself and make sure everything is up to my quality standards if it’s an extraordinarily important project or an entirely type of challenge. It’s a potential candidate for delegation, though the fragmentation of the required skill-set makes this a bit tricky.
Research & Study (5.08%)
Research and testing of new strategies, tactics, processes in all fields. From reviewing competitor websites to reading up on content marketing strategies and asking friends for input on technical issues this is a catch-all for ‘things I don’t know or haven’t tested yet’. In parts, my efforts in this field are also included in the above sections of ‘product’, ‘sales’ and ‘quality assurance’ – all every hands-on efforts that often include me doing minor research on the side. This said, it’s probably the section I really should be spending more time on.
In this category I included not only actual accounting, but also tax issues, audits, and other financial tasks like deciding on and approving dividend payouts. I thought this number is actually surprisingly low. I always considered our business to be ‘high maintenance’ when it comes to financials. It’s all about compliance, reducing risk and lowering cost of doing business – and thus an area of immense concern. On the other hand, it doesn’t create any value and thus in my eyes should be as small in scope as possible without putting the company or its financials at risk.
Considering the limited benefit it provided to my business so far, I might as well list ‘networking’ in the ‘personal’ category. It includes outreach and meeting people who are not directly related to product, sales or research. If this number seems to be on the low end, that’s because the majority of my networking happens outside of office (and time logging) hours.
How Do You Spend Your Time?
I’d be curious to hear how much time you spend on e-mails? Do you feel it’s productive or are you trying to reduce that? Of course you can also send me an e-mail instead.