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Columbia Business Monthly

Forget Work-Family Balance — Embrace Billable Hours!

Jan 02, 2018 01:21PM ● By Emily Stevenson
By Dr. Robert E. Ployhart
Professor of Business Administration, Darla Moore School of Business

Many people make New Year Resolutions, and one of the most common resolutions is to have greater work-family balance.

At the risk of sounding like Scrooge, I say humbug! Don’t try for balance; your life has never been in balance and it likely never will. I don’t know anyone whose life is nicely balanced between work, family, friends/others, and self in a sustainable manner. You may fondly recall times in your life when the elements were balanced, but those times are like the phases of the moon—each a brief moment in the continual motion of time.

Balance may be unrealistic, but there is value in striving to make sure the different parts of your life are in harmony. How does one manage the competing tensions of work, family, friends/others, and self in a way that is sustainable and appropriate for one’s life? How does one do this, considering that few of us have the same schedule each day, much less every week? How does one manage harmony in a chaotic world? It may sound crazy, but I believe one solution is to manage your life like a consultant and live according to billable hours.

Billable hours are how professional service firms (e.g., lawyers, consultants) manage work that is dynamic, fragmented, and spread across multiple clients. The logic is simple: every hour of a day should be “billed” to a specific client. For example, assume a consultant takes 12 minutes reviewing and signing a document for a client. The client will be billed for 12 minutes of work, or perhaps the time is rounded to a 15 minute minimum. In this sense, every minute of the day is theoretically accountable to a client, and it ensures time is maximized to key clients.

One can use this same billable hours concept to manage the demands in one’s life. Here is how:

First, set a baseline and identify how many hours are currently being “billed” to work, family, family/others, self, and anyone else that gets your time. This is a subjective exercise, but do it in a way that is realistic. If you work 60 hours, then bill 60 hours for work. It doesn’t matter whether you feel good or bad about working that much; write it down because 60 hours is what you are doing. Finish this exercise with each of your “clients” (for example, 50 hours with family, 10 hours with friends, 20 hours for self, etc.).

Second, track your time that is “billed” to each of these “clients” over a few weeks to a month, to check that your baseline judgments are accurate. If you can’t bill to the minute, then I suggest billing in 15 minute increments because it provides a reasonable approximation. Remember—be honest.

Third, take a hard look at the data and ask yourself if your “billable hours” are how you want to live your life. Do you have the right “clients?” Are you spending the desired amount of time with each client? If you don’t like what you see, then make the necessary revisions and set billable hour goals for each client group.

Fourth, it is time for the fun part—track your revised billable hours and strive to ensure you meet your goals for each client group. For example, if it is Thursday and you have exceeded your goal for “self” but not hit your goal for “family,” then you are done taking time for yourself and you should be spending it with your family.

Fifth, wait a month or two before you consider revising your goals. Every week is different, so a month will provide an opportunity for the weekly variations to even out.

You are probably thinking that keeping track of your time will only waste time. However, if you “bill” to reasonable increments (15 minute increments, 30 minute increments), the task becomes much more manageable. Further, there are a number of apps that enable one to keep track of billable hours very quickly and easily. After a few days it will feel natural.

The beauty of the billable hours approach is that it forces one to confront some important questions: Who are the most important people in my life that deserve my time? How much time should each group get? How much time should I reserve for myself? Further, this approach is flexible and easily accommodates unexpected changes in one’s schedule. Finally, this approach is quantitative, and enables one to precisely view where and how time is spent. Tracking behavior will change behavior.

I tried this approach a few years ago, and it was an eye-opener. I rarely have two days that are similar, and most days are extremely fragmented, so my estimates of how I spent my time were very inaccurate. I learned a lot and made some major changes, and overall felt better about how I was spending my days.