Time Bullshitting

Are you in charge of budgeting and/or balance sheet management?

Has the thought ever occurred to you, that if your knowledge workers just tracked the time they spent on projects, you could capitalize projects and get a better feel for return on investment?

Well, stop.

The primary things that disrupt my “working” activities are anything related to entering my time on a timesheet.

I bitch about the time spent entering my time.

I bitch about the 100 project codes I have to choose from. I doubt you have any clue how any of these projects remotely affect the bottom line.

I bitch about the fact that I have to find a 5 year old Windows machine with only IE 6/Flash/etc. installed on it because Gates forbid you ever purchase a solution that runs on a modern machine, doesn’t look like malware, and wasn’t written by the dropout nephews of a bunch of CEOs.

I bitch about the subclassification of every one of these project codes. How can you figure out what the “work type” means when we’ve established that you don’t know how the project itself hurt…  I mean helps the company’s bottom line. What’s the “work type” for “that website that I need for my work is blocked because our web filtering software classifies it as a ‘personal blog'”?

Ultimately, I bitch about the fact that there’s no relation between what I actually do for a job, how much time I spent doing it and what I enter on the timesheet.

The follies of flex-time

The invention of flex-time brought with it the dawn of a new era in the workplace. An age of freedom and flexibility, resulting in unprecedented happiness and fulfillment. Certainly flex-time went a long way in eliminating grumpiness in our coworkers.  Right?

For those of you still working in the Dark Ages of precisely prescribed starting and quitting times, here is a brief description of the golden age of “flex-time”.  (Try not to weep over what you are missing.)

Flex-time is when my boss flexibly leaves at 3:30pm for a round of golf with her fellow bosses, on the day when I need her final approval of presentation materials I just finished at 4:00pm for tomorrow’s meeting.

Not to worry, I determine to make use of flex-time myself. I arrive the next day at 7:00am to finish preparing and printing the handouts for the 9:30am presentation, only to discover the person with access to the printer supplies for the out-of-ink printer won’t flexibly arrive until 9:00am.

When Mr. Printer Supply Person finally arrives at 9:15am (darn that traffic!), I don’t see any dark circles under his eyes, and he seems very well rested and cheery.  But regretfully (so he says) he cannot help me because he’s already 15 minutes late for the Printer Supplies Department’s weekly staff meeting.

Though my meeting presentation was a bust, behold! All is not lost! Because I arrived at 7:00am, flex-time allows me to leave at 3:30pm today. I think I will get in a round of golf myself before dinner.

That is, until my boss trumps flexibility, and schedules a meeting at 4:00pm to discuss why my presentation didn’t have handouts. Gotta love this flex-time invention!


Length of Interruption is not Proportional to Amount of Disruption

This topic has been covered here before: Just because something requires very little time on its own does not mean it disrupts less. Any activity that takes “only a small amount of time” is likely to be accompanied by many other ones that carry the same justification for their existence.

Justifying that something should be done because it takes an insignificant amount of time is the same as saying that a 0.02% increase in your property tax should not concern you. The individual amount may be insignificant, but after years of property tax increases, you may end up with 1 or 2% extra in taxes.  More importantly, every additional request will carry the extra guilt trip of having accepted increases before and may embolden further, possibly larger requests.

Cognitive disruption

Deep thought tasks require deep concentration–see Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule.  You can’t do deep analysis or intense tasks if you have 30 minutes between meetings.

Meetings are only one such offender.  Logging your time by work code and customer, and filling out three pages of forms upon beginning or ending a task are other such offenders.  Let’s say that you were reading an unabridged copy (1488 pages) of Les Misérables (Signet Classics), and every 10th page, read a page of A Tale of Two Cities (free Kindle Edition). You’re going to get the details of the characters confused because the settings are so similar.

This example may seem extreme, but in reality, is this not what all of this extra tasks are doing? You record time about a project. You send an email about a project. You open some form and fill out information about the project. At some point you may actually do work on the project. At this point, you’re going to have to start a spreadsheet to keep track of your tasks and what necessary steps you’ve done as part of completing a task. Fortunately, you can at least create some sort of calculated field to turn the task green, yellow, or red, based on whether the task is complete, partially complete, or not started. That should save you the mental energy of determining whether a task is actually complete–so at least you have that going for you.

Can you really track your time in 15-minute increments?

The beauty of Microsoft Project Web Access is overwhelming. You can now spend more time entering in a time for a task than it actually took to do it.

I sincerely hope no one ever records 0.01 hours for their tasks, but even the “reasonable” limit of 15 minutes is excessive.  Assume that you are given a task:

  • 1 minute to receive the task through some automated process.
  • 2 minutes to start up whatever tool is required to do the task.
  • 2-3 minutes to focus your mind on that specific task.
  • Time actually taken on the task.
  • 1-3 minutes to report back the task as completed, send feedback to the client, etc…
  • 1 minute to record time spent on the task in your project tracking software [or note it for later recording]

So, maybe you had 4-8 minutes to actually spend on the task?  I’m sure I’m forgetting plenty of other parts to the routine as well.

What happens if the break room coffee pot is out of coffee during the day and you’re not a complete jerk and actually make some more?  How long does a bathroom break really take?  What about the occasional fire drill?

I’d consider that the only 15-minute increments of time that I can track are interruptions from the task that I actually intended on focusing on–interruptions via email, instant message, phone…

Of course, if you recorded a 15-minute block for every interruption during the day, would you run out of hours in the day?

Also, how much time should you log for a  15-minute meeting?

Who here likes department-wide meetings?

I know you’re out there.

There are far too many companies who have them for there not to be millions of fans of them.

Just admit it. The first step to being cured is admitting that you have a problem. It’s okay. We understand.

Actually, we don’t understand, but we’d at least like to know that there is *someone* out there that is actually interested in these things.