Consultants use many tokens to indicate status. We talk about the projects we work on, the people we meet, and the long hours we put in. Of the three, the hours we work usually takes on the most significance. As the one aspect of our lives that we as consultants really control, it becomes a major symbol of how dedicated we are to our job and to our clients. Unfortunately, the use of hours as a status symbol also blinds us to some of the basic facts of time management.

One night, several of my peers and I ended up in the same city. Taking advantage of the opportunity, we met for dinner. After a year or more of separation and, in two cases, job changes, we had a lot to catch up on. As the evening and boasting wound down, we ended up telling tales about how many hours we had put in over the last few weeks.

One of my peers talked about his 60-hour workweek. Another mentioned that he clocked 110 hours one week, although it involved a “little bit” of double-billing. I had put in a respectable 65 hours that week, but brought up my constant 75-hour-plus billing as a sign that I hadn’t slacked off. Then, we looked expectantly at the gentleman at the end of the table. David was the oldest consultant there. He was also our mentor, the man who taught most of us the architect’s trade. Surely he worked harder than we could possibly imagine.

David looked at us over the top of his wine glass. Then he laughed. “Gents,” he said, “I billed 35 hours last week. I put in another 10 helping some of you with your projects.” We sat stunned. He went on, “If you want to see why, compare my XYZ project’s documentation with what I did for the PDQ project. I think you’ll learn something interesting.” Dinner broke up after that and each of us wandered back to our respective hotel rooms to do some serious thinking.

I fired up my laptop and pulled down the files David had recommended. It didn’t take me long to see the difference. XYZ’s documentation was exhaustive, but very stale. It represented thinking that worked reasonably well but failed to show the spark and flare of true creative design. PDQ’s documentation demonstrated that flare, approaching business problems with creative infrastructure solutions. After reading them both, I sent David a message asking what changed. He sent back a simple response: “I stopped filling the queue.”

Stop filling the queue
After some reflection, I realized what David had been trying to tell me. Somehow and in defiance of all consultant logic, he actually got more done by cutting back.

The next day, I went over my own work for the last year. Some of it bordered on brilliant. Most of it demonstrated a rote approach, indicating that I was just trying to get things done. When I correlated the quality of my work with my timesheets, I saw that my best work usually came when I billed out approximately 40 hours, with another 10 of administrative work and phone calls.

Was David telling me to work less? Not really. During the weeks that I worked normal hours, I actually accomplished quite a bit more for my clients than I did when I worked like a madman. What he pointed out was simply that the more work you have to get though in a week, the less of it you can actually do.

Each of us has a specific work capacity. The more work you push into your work capacity, the longer it takes you to accomplish anything. In effect, our ability to work functions like any other queue—wait times increase exponentially as we approach our maximum capacity.

One of the ways that professionals get around having a full work queue is by using forms and templates. We don’t have to think all that clearly to cut and paste. Grab an old architecture, change the names, make a few tweaks, and it looks like you accomplished something that week.

Unfortunately, our clients don’t pay us for cut and paste. They don’t want easy answers. They want our full attention, focused on solving their unique problems. The more we try to do, the closer to our absolute capacity we come, and the less we do to earn the money they pay us.

Judging your own capacity
Learning to judge your own capacity takes time and self-reflection. You have to look frankly at the work you’ve done in the past. Was it good? Bad? How could you have improved it?

Good time-recording techniques will help you here. If you have accurate records of how long it took you to perform specific tasks, you can track your work patterns back to your work quality.