For me, a Productive Hour means 60 minutes of uninterrupted deep work with a full focus on the given task. If I’m interrupted or just pause (answering team mate’s question, lunch, etc), then I’m stopping the timer for this task and track it as a “not-productive” time. My daily average for development is around 4.5 productive hours and I can push myself to do 8 – 9 hours when doing a less mentally demanding activity.

Immediate benefits of using the productive hour for tracking your work

Normalization and objectivity – now you have a unit which can be compared (for previous days/weeks, or with different persons), you can measure your productivity and figure out ways to improve (earn more money).

Effectiveness – new KPI – I track “non-productive” time as well. So, I can introduce these metrics:

  • Time in the office = productive time + not productive time
  • Effectiveness of work = productive time / Time in the office

My average productivity is 76%. This means, during 1 hour spent in the office, I’m productive for 45.6 minutes. I can use this information in multiple ways:

  • I can optimize my productivity, so I work 50 minutes instead of 45.6.
    • By being roughly 9% more effective, in theory, my income could be higher
  • I can track the influence of my behavior on my effectiveness. There are various things which can impact on this, such as; sport, meditation, ketogenic diet, drinking coffee, green tea, nootropics, consumption of alcohol and partying etc.

Planning – based on my historical and current stats, I can see:

  • How many productive hours I can do per day
  • The average amount of error, when estimating on projects
  • How many projects I have in the pipeline and how many hours it should take to clear them
  • Based on the stats above, I can see when I’ll have the time to complete a project.

Improving – only the things which can be measured can be improved. Having good statistics about your business helps you to find the areas to put the most time or resources. So I know things like:

  • Which types of projects are the most valuable for me
  • What kind of clients I want to work with.

The only fair way to bill your clients is per hour – if you are not tracking your productive hours and billing your clients per hour, then you are basically ripping them or yourself off. Take, for example, these two scenarios with an hourly rate of $100:

A.) You have slept well, you are feeling great and no personal stuff is bothering you. So from 7 hours in the office, you pull out 6 productive hours. This is an impressive efficiency of 85% (but you don’t know this, since you don’t track it). How many hours do you bill the client?

  • 7 for $700, so the client overpays $100 for you chilling on Facebook
  • 5 for $500, based on your guess, so you give $100 to the client for free
  • Or how do you know, what to bill?

B.) You were celebrating your friends birthday and it was a hell of a party. So you show in the office, spending 5 hours there and working for 2.5 productive hours. The rest is spent watching some crappy YouTube videos. How many hours do you bill the client?

  • 5 for $500, based on your presence in the office, so the client overpays $250?
  • 3 for $300, as a random guess number, so the client overpays $50?
  • Or how do you know, what to bill?

From my personal research, a surprisingly huge amount of freelancers do not track their productive time and they are not able to reliably describe how they are billing their clients per hour.

How I approach the productive hour

Distraction-free environment

When you are doing mental work, no matter the difficulty, you want to avoid interruption at all costs. If someone disturbs you, it completely kills your flow. This happens because the context of the task is loaded in your mind. And your mind has a limited capacity. So, once disturbed, you trash the context of your important and money-making task and switch to the newly introduced context of the (inferior) task. Then you trash the inferior task and load back the context of your original task. If the task is too complex, you often lose some of the small pieces of information and thus you are losing value. Elon Musk calls it Context Switching Penalty And here you can read more about how distraction kills your productivity.

So for me, it means:

Putting my mobile phone into DND mode, face down, so it’s completely silent, no ringing, no vibrations, even when someone calls me. In the beginning, I was uncomfortable with the fact that I wasn’t easy to reach. But then I realized that there is no news which could not wait 25 minutes.

Putting my MacBook into DND mode, so all notifications are disabled https://www.imore.com/how-set-and-use-do-not-disturb-mac. When someone writes to me, there is just this small icon in my dock. Based on my experience, engaging in real-time communication is almost always a big waste of time and I’m a big proponent of batching. The only time I’m communicating with someone real-time is when I’m doing a paid video-call consultation with my clients.

Blocking addictive websites, like YouTube, Facebook, Reddit, 9gag and other stuff, because there is always this one last funny video I want to see.

The principle behind this is, that forcing myself to ignore these entertaining things will cost me will power. Leaving 9gag after the timer starts ringing, suggesting that I should start with another Pomodoro, is obviously not easy, because these sites are designed to be as addictive as possible. Elon Musk says: “the best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads”. In order to not waste energy, I summon the SelfControl app to help me and block all distracting websites.

Being fresh on the psychical and physical side

I’ll cover this briefly because each of these things would deserve its own article. But beware, I’m kind of an extremist.

Sport and exercise – I’m training a lot. Like 10 – 14 times per week. It is a bit extreme on my side. For example, when I only count five training units throughout the week, I feel really guilty.  My ability to do deep work is much better after exercising.

Nutrition – surprisingly, this is one of the most important parts of being productive. I’m following a long-term ketogenic diet. Being obsessed with nutrition, I’m trying to eat as well as possible. I eat a very rich variety of food and consume more than 0.7kg of vegetables per day. Of course, I’m avoiding alcohol. A few glasses of wine per week are fine, but I try to not get drunk, as it really destroys my productivity.

Workplace – sharing the office with a few freelancer friends, I recently purchased the DX Racer Formula OH/FD01/NR chair. I also have big headphones, so the noise around gets canceled.

The deep work itself

I work in 25 minute blocks and have 0 – 10 minutes breaks between them. So it is not a standard Pomodoro, but a modification. Different people have different needs. I have an attention disorder, so when I started measuring and tracking deep work, I was only able to work 10 minutes in a row, followed by a five minute break. By using a lot of tricks, I was able to ramp it up.

I’m tracking time with Toggl and I’m also tracking “non-productive” time as a project, so I can calculate my efficiency. I’m also carefully tracking all my projects and the time I’ve spent on them and the earnings. At the end of the month, I put all of these into an excel macro and it generates an awesome report, where I’m able to see which my activities for the month and the connection between the activities and my earnings.

How I raised my earnings after introducing the productive hour

When I transitioned into full-time freelancing, I wasn’t aware of all these tricks, of course. So I landed a client, usually through Codeable, did a rough estimation of time (based on my current hourly rate) and started working on the project. Then I delivered the project, got a 5-star rating, but I always felt as though I had missed some value and that my hourly rate was actually lower than expected.

So I started to track my time very very carefully and saw that my real hourly rate was approx 30% smaller than my target hourly rate. This info was very valuable and I started looking at why it was happening. I figured out two things:

  • When the client required change from the scope (which could not be anticipated by me at the beginning), I almost always said yes and did it out of good will. I felt too uncomfortable to point out that this wasn’t originally discussed and scoped and it would not take me 5 minutes, but at least 25 minutes and I’d be working the time for free. But once I was tracking the productive hours, I was able to see how much this cost me and started working on it.
  • I tended to undervalue projects because I underestimated the risk factor. Even though I have more than 10 years of experience in freelancing, there is always something which pops out and could not be foreseen when creating the estimate. For example – the client’s server not working out or invalid credentials etc.

I started by carefully explaining to my clients which changes were not part of the project scope and how I could do them, but they would need to be covered in terms of payment. There are situations which are questionable, so I follow the principle in dubio pro reo and when it’s unclear whether this thing should be part of the original scope, or should not, then I’m covering the costs.

My real hourly rate raised, but I still wasn’t hitting the targeted hourly rate. So based on the research above, I increased my risk factor and I started to get much closer to the hourly rate I wanted.

Key thoughts

  • Tracking your freelance time is crucial for any improvement
  • Productive time / total time by computer = your work productivity
  • Deep work or flow makes you more effective
  • Distractions lower your productivity, so make your environment distraction free
  • You can compare the estimated time and tracked time and learn from the difference
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About the Author

Hi! My name is Tom Herudek and I am full-stack WordPress developer for hire.
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