What Does the Data Say?
I recently took on an assignment writing about institutional research (IR) in K-12 independent schools. IR in that setting is a type of data analysis, and can be used in many of the same ways businesses are now using data to inform decision-making. From admissions and fundraising to student life and student wellness to diversity equity and inclusion, IR can help schools measure the impact of programs, better understand trends and how to effect them, and even specific elements of teaching and learning.
One thing I didn’t expect in talking to a bunch of data scientists was to hear the word “emotional” mentioned several times. The experts talked about how sometimes, when you collect data and analyze it, it doesn’t say what you expect it to say and that can be upsetting. Or demoralizing.
As I conducted the interviews, I began to understand that I do IR in my business all the time, but it’s an institution of one. I measure the number of assignments I have, when they are assigned, how long they take from assigned to submitted, how I’m paid per project, word, and hour, how many hours I spend on each element of a project, and anything else I can think of to measure. And, I realized, it’s also sometimes an emotional exercise.
In 2018 or so, I decided it was time to “level up.” My business has changed and grown over the years, and at that time, I was looking to boost my income significantly. I set myself a course of professional development: I read a few books, started participating more in a couple of networking groups, joined a professional organization I’d considered before, and started tracking both my clients and my time a little more closely.
It was the result of the time tracking that caught me off-guard. I work from home and it often feels like I’m always working. Time is … well, it’s difficult for me. I struggle to understand how long it should take me to get places. I get lost in my work (or more often, in a book) and forget what time it is. In order to track my time, I put a piece of graph paper under my keyboard, and jotted down any time I changed activities. “8:45 email” then “8:50 coffee” and so on.
The result: I was at my keyboard, actively working, about 10 hours a week.
That counted checking and responding to email, administrative stuff like bookkeeping, marketing my services, participating in networking activities, and of course, writing. It did not count pulling weeds while thinking about writing, or going for a run and mulling the structure of an article. It also didn’t count random social media scrolling, chatting with friends, or paying household bills. I tried to keep it strictly to work.
This realization brought on a tangle of emotions. I was shocked. It really felt like I worked at least full time, but 10 hours? a WEEK? That’s not even part-time! It also made me ask a bunch of other questions, with the biggest one being what, exactly was I doing with my time? Going back to my graph paper, I found that I was doing a lot of laundry, handling TONS of tasks like dealing with insurance, utilities, and other household things, exercising more than I realized, and generally staying quite busy with stuff that needed to be done.
It’s hard to describe the emotional cascade that followed this data analysis. It seriously took me about a year to come to terms with it all.
Some of the feelings:
* I was proud of myself for earning a full-time income in so little time. Even by that point I was earning more than I ever had in any regular job.
* Looking back over my life, I was sad that I spent so many years beating myself up for being “lazy” when in reality I simply had not had time to do all the things. There’s no way I could do all of the things I do now if I had to work 40 hours a week and commute an hour a day. It’s no wonder I couldn’t maintain a regular exercise routine or do any creative writing when I worked a 9 to 5 and children to care for.
* My hourly rate was far higher than I thought it was before tracking, which gave me confidence to boost my rates a little.
* I wondered what would happen if I set up a schedule that was closer to 20-25 hours a week. Would my income double with more hours worked? What if I filled 10 hours a week with marketing activities?
* I wrestled with the idea of whether or not I work “full time.” Can I really say that I do?
During that year, I also thought a lot about “time wasted.” I felt like if I wasn’t earning money with all that “spare” time I was wasting it. I had to consider whether what I was dealing with was toxic productivity and whether or not I was doing tasks just for the sake of being busy?
Finally, the big question: do I spend my time doing what I want to do? If I knew I only had a year or two to live, what kinds of changes would I make to my daily schedule? If I won the lottery and money wasn’t an issue, what would I do with my time?
Did I make changes?
I did make changes, but they weren’t particularly drastic. I carried on with my professional development plan, and eventually stopped tracking hours so closely (for awhile). Now I’m working between 12 and 15 hours a week, and my income, as of last year, had doubled. I’m on track to increase by an additional 25% this year.
I still fall prey to feeling guilty about the amount of time I (don’t) work, but much more rarely. Mostly I’m very happy to be able to do other things that are important to me in addition to doing work that I enjoy. I’m grateful to have control of my time and understand more clearly now why I don’t clock tons of hours. The work I do requires deep thought and it’s nearly impossible to track that. Even when I’m not at my desk the work is happening in my brain—often in the background, without my conscious self realizing it’s going on. Sometimes I sit down at my keyboard and the words are simply there in my brain waiting to be typed out because they arranged themselves while I wasn’t paying attention. Other times, I write a sentence, scroll social media, come back and write another sentence.
One of the changes I made was to start working in timed blocks and attempting to extend those blocks. On the days the words are waiting to be typed, I can focus for about an hour or so at a time, but on the sentence-at-a-time days, my focus only lasts for about 10 minutes. My goal is to get to the point where I can focus for around 90 minutes at a stretch. Focused blocks of work are super efficient. I’m always amazed by how quickly projects come together when I can shut out everything else.
Another change was to expand my service offerings. Until about 2019, I described myself solely as an healthcare information technology content writer. Around that time, I started taking on more varied technology writing assignments, and that has been one of the biggest drivers of increasing my income. Many experts say that niching down more and more is the key to doing well as a freelancer. In my case, expanding a little was more helpful.
I also started feeling more comfortable accepting more projects and stopped worrying about taking on too much. Knowing that my schedule is relatively light most of the time makes me less worried about becoming burnt out. I know that as long as I stay under 25 hours a week most of the time, I’ll be fine. Two or three weeks in a row of 25 hours, though, pushes me dangerously near burnout. In other words, now I know my limits much better than I did before.
Have you done this type of data analysis to see where your time goes? How did you feel about it? Did it make you want to change things?
It’s great to see how you used data to get a clearer sense of what you were doing and how it gave you a reality check. Too often, what we view as work — producing something for other humans to interact with or use — doesn’t take into account the variety of cognitive activities that are not production-oriented, but are essential for entering into that phase of productivity.
Oh, and thanks for linking to my blog series!
This is a good post! I love that you took the time to analyze how you spent your time. I did that when I was a freelancer and realized I was working way too much due to client communications. Either they would reach out because they didn’t know how to do something that wasn’t my responsibility or they would never get me the items I needed. I realized that I needed to let these people go for my mental health and to reduce my stress belly, lol.
Also, you are not alone in the mystery of understanding time. I am constantly underestimating the amount of time needed or overestimating the time needed.
I kind of wish I’d done a similar time-analysis earlier in my career. I suspect it would have been more like yours. Now most of my clients are actually agencies, which I like because they know what they are doing!
Time is an illusion, so we don’t have to worry about it, right?