Time sheets: It’s Not About a Salary, It’s All About Reality

There are people who dislike doing time sheets — filling out little grids of numbers which quantify the amount of time one has spent on given tasks, projects, activity types, client accounts, etc.    I am one of those people who dislikes doing time sheets — intensely —  though I have been known to use them very exactingly when (a) starting on a new job / type of project, as a way to calibrate my own sense of how long things take to do; or (b) when absolutely required by contract.

The act of completing a time sheet can feel tedious, especially if one is not  set up with a convenient real-time tracker such as a mobile app, a paper (yes, paper!) notepad, or even a set of Lego bricks.  Using your Sent Mail box in Outlook as an audit trail for how long you worked on a series of documents?   Yeah, been there, done that.  It’s both wearisome and worrying to be in a position of needing to reconstruct and quantify fleeting memories of hours spent working… or not really working… all the while having to discern the distorted temporal effects of hours spent with intense, productive Flow versus those dilated hours of torpid, lackadaisical sloth.

..and that’s a big part of the problem with time sheets:  Some time (and some efforts) are better spent than others!  Simply “logging your hours” doesn’t say anything about performance or results.

On the one hand, there’s a good reason many organizations use a system of salary-and-minimum-required-hours (paycheck and punch clock).  It simplifies planning, scales well, and is (sometimes, even) effective. The trouble is, an organization’s time sheet is often not as simple to use as a punch clock, and so that time sheet process creates friction and inefficiency.

My proposition:  If your organization uses time sheets as a way of measuring productivity, either get rid of them completely, or up the ante and do them really, really well:

  1. Make the time sheet process incredibly easy to use, with a state of the art user interface
  2. Set the system up so that people receive automated/instant feedback on their own productivity metrics

In other words, if the person is going to make the effort of both quantifying and qualifying how they spend their time, don’t add insult to injury of making the process feel unproductive and pointless.

On the second point, above:  By analyzing and synthesizing their input into a relevant statistics (E.g., % hours spent client facing,  # hours spent on average to move a project from stage A to stage B, etc.) — these can be done for the person themselves and/or with a a group benchmark to compare against… although be careful with the latter as it may lead to dysfunctional hyper competitive team dynamics if done without the right level of nuance and foresight.  Ultimately, this needs to be about instilling a sense of continuous improvement for the individual — people are deeply motivated by a sense of growth and mastery in their work —  as opposed to merely “scoring” or “grading” them.

There are literally thousands of time tracking systems out there….  and here’s my idea for a next generation user interface:


Imagine if something like that was your time sheet software.  You wouldn’t just be logging hours… you’d be seeing your progress as you logged them and have a sense of both purpose and accomplishment. 

(Yup, that’s right, it’s just a snapshot of the screen from a piece of gym equipment.  I’ve got a future blog post planned which will analyze the motivational differences between various visualization graphics used on LifeFitness™ cardio equipment… but for now, let’s just roll with this, okay?)

For a lot of companies, time sheets are here to stay… so let’s at least make those time sheets less annoying and more meaningful.


About danspira

My blog is at: http://danspira.com. My face in real life appears at a higher resolution, although I do feel pixelated sometimes.

Posted on October 13, 2013, in Accounting, Analytics, Business, Management, Productivity, Project Management and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. I, as you know Daniel, hate timesheets with a passion. Other than the timewasting, pedantic, detail oriented nature of completing them which drives me insane it is the complete arrogance to think someone else can analyse my productivity from them, or will be able to divine and define a recipe for success from them or worse provide advice on how i could spend my time better.

    I understand like a lot of “big data” that the information is not designed to be used in isolation and is predictive more than definitive but those that use the “big data” are often “small minded” and that is irritating. So whilst I like your idea I think we need a bigger corporate cultural shift that involves a separation of value from time based metrics rather than a move to more effective timesheeting.

    For example…….A lesson I actually learnt from the mighty Dan Spira, an idea needs to ruminate, to germinate……time for the sub-concious to problem solve, to cogitate, to sit with it before you even start to work on it…………..say that time is spent, cruising the internet, on Facebook, watching tv or simply engaged in activities that most in the world would call procrastination! If the outcome is better, more effective, the actual work faster and more efficient isn’t that a better use of time……But how do you realistically timesheet that?

    The problem remains that whilst we still equate hours with productivity and value derived, we will continue to reward time in the office, rewarding slow and inefficient people, or people who occupy their time with “make-work”. Timesheets will hold these people up as hardworking, valued members of the team with great “recovered hours”.

    Timesheets promote this culture……..a fixed equation of a 40 hour week to output……….but my life is not like that, how I spend my time is not like that ….if you want to work on the problem let’s create a system that values the idea I had that took me 3 minutes, that was genius. Or the person who spends the least time on something but gets the best outcome then went home and spent time with their friends/family. These are measures I can get behind.

    • Ah yes, good of you to remind me of my own opinions on such matters as ideation and creativity and the futility of over-planning & quantifying it. It’s too easy to get pulled into a Production Mindset, which I think where a lot of the above post is coming from, i.e., make production more meaningful by connecting it to a purpose with a possibility of mastery. That said, and as you point out, quality work does not mean quantity of work and vice versa.

      To paraphrase the oft-cited verse, Matthew 4:4, “One cannot live by timesheets alone.” If the measure of success is just putting in the hours and getting the salary until death/retirement, then that’s all you get. No wonder Wikipedia has so many volunteers from among well paid & highly “busy” people who “work” for nominal full-time jobs.

      This, I think, was the commercial you referenced in our convo earlier today — http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KfTDfdLF0bc — and it seems to be an apt video for this topic. “Pay yourself to do what you love.” Yes! Career progress has, for me, been largely about doing just that.

      ..and yes, in order to operate effectively and get paid, sometimes I have to track my own time – but mainly, because people like you ask me to estimate how long a project will take. 😉 Cheers mate, thanks for posting!

  2. just banging on now!

    So, that leads us to an interesting next step perhaps for timesheets. Instead of asking how many hours will this take you, I should ask how many hours will this take the average employee. The end result multiplied by the available hourly rate will give you an accurate “value” estimate delivered in a newly defined unit of “numpty-time”.

    It would be your choice to work out whether for that task you performed exceptionally against the numpty-time unit (ie. you took no time at all) you met the average (ie 1 hour = 1 hour) or you were slow and should dock yourself time and effort spent for being a total numpty! We could call them “numpty-timesheets”

    At the end of the day it comes back to quantifying value. If you tell me what you think good value is for 40 hours of work and I exceed that then congratulations as far as I’m concerned I did 40 hours of work. If that meant I had to do 60 hours or just 20 hours that’s my issue not yours…….or have I missed something?

    • Ha ha — “Numpty-time” — is that like the numpty-dance?

      So you’re talking about benchmarking timesheets relative to peer group average performance? Yes, I think that’s a great idea for the performer to get feedback on that. One challenge will be helping the performer get insight on peer group average quality across multiple dimensions (or facets) of the tasks they are quantifying, so they can gauge what trade-offs they should be willing to take, where their own pockets of numptiness exist, and so forth, to bring those 60 hours down to 40, or 20, or 10.

      For a boss (or client) with multiple employees (or providers) who submit both timesheets and work output, these bosses (clients) can compare the quantity-of-time vs. quality-of-output in aggregate… that is, if they are so inclined and have an informed view of what “good work” looks like and what “efficient” really means. However, the individual performer does not typically get to have this wider view… so the timesheet can become a source of stress by creating the perception of being judged in an unfair and/or irrelevant manner. .

      How comfortable would you be in, say, comparing the time it takes you to do a set task (e.g. draft a document) with a peer? If your company aggregated data on task-time-averages, would that be a useful metric for you?

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