The numbers tell the story and it all boils down to time management. If you bill for your time directly or on an hourly basis, diligent timekeeping is something you must do in order to get paid for all of the work you perform for clients. If you bill on a fixed-fee basis, accurate time records help determine how profitable specific clients and projects really are - and if they're unprofitable, time records help us realize the viability of a client for the long term.
How can you increase your billings while working the same amount - or less?
1. Make accurate timekeeping a top priority. You must have an accurate account of how you spend your time. Without it, you may lose significant pieces of legitimate billable time. In other words, you performed the work, but were unable to bill because you lost track of it.
In fixed-fee engagements, accurate time tracking will allow you to gauge the profitability of a given project, client or both. Given the number of hours that you put into a project or client, was the engagement worthwhile? Should you quote a higher price next time? Should you ditch a money-losing client? A solid handle on your time will make answering these questions much easier.
2. Reconcile your time daily. My company, Chrometa, recently surveyed more than 500 billing service professionals - a group that included many CPAs - about their billing and time-tracking habits. Respondents that billed hourly estimated that they were capturing only 67 percent of their legitimate billable time - so they are working three hours for every two that they are able to bill! This means that a firm with $200,000 in gross billings could be losing as much as a $100,000 a year for work that they performed, but never billed.
How often do these folks reconcile their time? Quite infrequently, they admitted. Over half of all respondents said that they usually didn't reconcile their time more than once a week - with some reconciling only monthly and some not at all.
On average, respondents spent over two hours each week on this reconciliation, searching through sent e-mails, calendar entries, notes and other items to build a seat-of-the-pants, somewhat-inaccurate "forensic analysis" to reconstruct their time.
As you would expect, respondents who reconciled their days more accurately and more frequently were able to account for all their time.
3. Record your time concurrently. Do you remember what you worked on yesterday morning? How about Tuesday of last week?
After the fact, it's very difficult to recall exactly what work you performed. We're all busy throughout the work day amidst a barrage of interruptions - the phone rings, an e-mail hits your inbox: You know the drill. It's getting harder and harder to focus.
The longer you go without recording your time, the more difficult it is to recall how you spent it. The optimal time to record your time is to do it as you are working on something. Granted, due to the ever-increasing urge to multitask, this is easier said than done, but you'll make your life a lot easier if you can jot down notes or time entries as you work.
4. Work on one thing at a time. Interruptions are a real killer. It's amazing how fast you can get something done - if that's all you do. These days, we sit at our computers in a state of "continuous partial attention." We mentally register everything, while comprehending little. What you really need to do is to look at everything on your list, and pick the single most important thing. Then work on that task, uninterrupted, until it's completed.
By far, the uninterrupted part is the toughest. It's very easy and tempting to check your messages, answer the phone, respond to an instant message or click over to a Web site, but if you can master the ability to focus singularly on one thing, you'll boost your productivity significantly. You'll be able to maximize your productivity by working smarter.
5. Invest in a mobile smart phone. Smart phones have come a long way from the infamous "crackberry" devices of yesteryear that seemed to merely tether us more strongly to our e-mail inboxes. The leading mobile smart phones on the market today are graceful devices that not only improve your productivity, but liberate you from your desk and office.
The ability to read and respond to e-mail anytime, anywhere, can greatly help you stay on top of your inbox. I never realized how much time I previously lost while running day-to-day errands - such as standing in the grocery store line. Now, instead of scanning the headlines of the National Enquirer, I'm cranking through e-mail - and best of all, my device automatically synchronizes with my desktop e-mail client. Previously I had to wrestle my large Windows laptop into operation just to get to e-mail. Now it's right in the palm of my hand, available on demand.
Of course, you'll want to be sure to capture the time that you spend reading and responding to e-mails. But don't worry - there's an app for that!
Brett Owens is chief executive and co-founder of Chrometa, a Sacramento, Calif.-based provider of software that records activity in real time. He is also a blogger, and founder of CommodityBullMarket.com and ContraryInvesting.com. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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