Our modern work culture has trained us to think the only way we can be successful is by working extraordinary numbers of hours each week. People working their "hustle" (honestly I don't care for that term) will all but brag about the 70, 80, 90 hours each week they put in. I have to wonder, are they being as productive as they can be, or are they compensating for poor productivity with increased hours. Many people in the technology field work as contractors, obligated by said contract to a 40-hour billable period each week. However, as is often the case, they are limited to not "over-bill" a client if they need to work more hours. How do you balance a hard limit of hours with milestones and deliverables set in conjunction with staff personnel who do not have that hard limit?
Learn how to estimate
One of the best tools in a consultant / contractor's toolbox is the ability to estimate work accurately and consistently. Building this skill takes experience and effort but there are some hacks you can use to help this along. First, write down how long it takes you to do each task no matter how long or short. What you're building is a historical record for you to use for reference in estimating your workload and what can be done within a fixed amount of time.
Let's say for example you're working on a spreadsheet and one of the requirements is to create a Pivot Table and accompanying chart for analysis. When finished you found it took you about an hour to create the table and chart to a level of completion suitable for submission. That hour number becomes a reference measure for your future estimates. Now when asked to create three Pivot Tables and accompanying charts, you could comfortably respond it will take four hours.
Wait, your math is off
If you're paying attention you'll notice I added an extra hour to the estimate. There's three reasons for this. First, there is start and stop time to be included when transitioning from one objective to the next. Second, you need to provide a buffer to allow for unknown problems that will likely creep into your work. Third, any task longer than an hour is likely to get interrupted, so you need to allow for the loss and regaining of focus.
Things start to add up
Working from a fixed pool of 40 hours, you start to subtract from that number rather than adding up task estimates to get there. So at this point we're at 36 hours after estimating our three table project. Factor in meetings (1.5 hours for a 1 hour meeting - including prep and recap), recurring administrative tasks, and known scheduled activities such as SCRUM sessions to get to a realistic number of hours you have available to work that week.
It's important you keep those estimates recorded as the week progresses so you can be sure not only are you not overextending yourself, but that you're also not overbilling your client AND you're getting done the work you've committed to.
But I'm not restricted to 40 hours
If you're in a position where there is an expectation you will keep working until the job is done regardless of the number of hours you have to put in (whether that comes from management or yourself is a different article) using the 40-hour measure can be just as useful. By tracking your time, refining your estimates, and projecting your workload you can balance your effort against your periods of peak productive flow.
How do I get started?
Begin by recording the time you're spending on the work you're doing. Keep notes and at the end of the week do some analysis around creating the building blocks for your estimating system. If you can get your time under control, you'll be able to use it more effectively and treat it like the non-renewable resource it is.