Emma: I think the ability to perceive time — in other words: know how long something takes — is one of those very basic Boss Skills that you’re just supposed to “know how to do.” The same way you’re supposed to just “know how to budget for retirement.” Folks, this is a learned skill. Yes, I’m sure some people are pre-wired to more accurately measure the duration of a minute, but most of us are making do with fuzzy guesstimations based on prior experiences.

Andy: Yeah, time is super weird. There’s a reason why time in the quar feels like it’ll never end, even as the days fly by. I think it’s so important to understand this shape-shiftyness and master it. Time is one of the essential building blocks of work — without knowing time, you’re at the whim of someone else’s expectations for how much, how fast, how cheap.

Emma: Seriously. Years ago at Reviews, I had been trying in vain to get improvements to our CMS on the dev team’s roadmap. It was never a priority until one of my teammates converted my request into time. He sleuthed out how long the dev work would take to knock out our most urgent items, compared it to time saved for the 20+ people on our content team, and then multiplied that for a month, a quarter, a year, etc. We had a new CMS in a matter of weeks. Thanks, time! Thanks, Philip!

Andy: Knowing time also makes it simple to say No. If someone floats a project — “Hey, can you have this done by Friday?” — I can look at my open time slots and confidently, accurately make the call.

Emma: I’ve gotten better at measuring time, and I am glad. It’s made me a more confident, empowered boss and employee and human being. Sure, some of it is still fuzzy guesstimations — run enough reports, put together enough proposals, work with enough new clients and the median number will probably shake out about right. But for new stuff, I map it out task by task. That’s what we’re going to go over today: how to know how long something takes. You will see this isn’t very glamorous work.

Andy: Not at all. My first foray into time mapping was a Post-It note. I was writing Groupons — I needed to write 6 a day and I wanted to do it in 8 hours. On my Post-It, I’d write down the time and what I was doing. I’d log when I started things, when I got stuck, and when I finished. This simple system gave me a lot of insight. My boss and his boss actually asked if I’d do a training session about how I managed my time.

Emma: Oh, I can’t wait for this.

Andy: Lol yeah I showed them my humble Post-It method and they laughed. They didn’t want the training session after all. But these are the basic tools of time-tracking: a pencil, a piece of paper, and a clock.

Emma: It’s telling that even the boss’s boss assumed there was a high-tech strategy for unlocking the secrets of time. There isn’t. The first time I sat down to determine how much work my team could produce in one month, I was surprised to realize it wasn’t all that different of a process than trying to figure out how long it’s going to take to make potato salad and get to the potluck on time.

Andy: Yes, it’s as simple as writing out what happens and how long each step takes. Here we go.

How to measure time

In addition to figuring out how long something new takes, we recommend this exercise whenever:

    • You’re working long hours, on weekends, at night
    • You’re drawing a blank when someone asks: When can you have this done by?
    • Your actual hourly rate is coming out super low
    • You keep missing deadlines
    • Your team is missing deadlines
    • Your costs are really high
    • You feel overwhelmed
    • You’re burned out
    • Your team is burned out
    • The quality of the work is suffering

1. Open up a spreadsheet. You can start by making a copy of this Time Log Template. You are now officially a Time Scientist!

2. In column A, list every task required to complete whatever you’re trying to measure. Slice those tasks pretty thin — you don’t need to go overboard, but you want to be as comprehensive as possible. It’s nice to know it takes me “10 hours to write The Bent” but it’s more useful to know that it takes us 30 minutes to say hello to each other, 20 minutes to brainstorm, 45 minutes to outline, 3 hours to draft, and on and on through edit, upload, final pass, sending, and hauling in our sacks of fan mail. (Please: Ask us anything.)

3. In column B, log how long it takes to do each task in the list. This is dramatically different from how long you think it should take to do it, or how long it used to take, or how long it takes someone else. These are false friends. They will lead you astray. This step might require you to set a timer and try it, or if you’re measuring how long it takes other people on your team to do stuff, to go around collecting times from those people.

4. Keep collecting data. It’s risky to measure one activity one time and assume that’s how long it takes. The more data points you have, the more information you’ll have, and the more accurate you’ll be able to be. Take special note when the numbers are all over the place. This means you have some sleuthing to do.

5. Analyze your information. For every row, add an average calculation. For every column, add a sum. The average shows how long each discrete task takes, and the sum shows how long the entire process takes. Where there are inconsistencies, dig in on why. This is a Research Question for you and your fellow Time Scientists to figure out. Inconsistent numbers are what helped us figure out that it took three months for a new writer at Reviews to onboard and produce at full capacity — not the 1.5 we had originally planned. (Another potential Research Question: Where can I reduce time?)

6. Test your times in the real world. Now go test if you’re right. Spreadsheet math is just a hypothesis. Once you’re in the real world, you’ll be able to see if you sliced your tasks thin enough, or forgot a particularly time-sucking variable, such as “waiting for client feedback.”

Good Boss Achievement Stickers: Time Scientist Edition

Don’t forget! You can get some real-life Good Boss Achievement Stickers hereFour illustration digital stickers [1] A Black scientist measuring an hour glass labeled 'I know how long it takes' [2] a green fist in a tough motorcycle glove and 80s digital watch labeled 'the power of time is mine' [3] an illustration of The Scream painting with a speech bubble asking 'Hey can you have this done by Friday?' [4] a cross-stitch that reads 'it takes as long as it takes'