The Uneasy Relationship Between Time and the Indie Worker

Cal Newport recently (well, not that recently -- I'm working through a backlog here) wrote about hisstruggles tracking his work. One method involves selecting meaningful milestones and working toward them and the other one involves simply tracking the number of hours spent on a project. Each has pros and cons; tracking milestones prompts greater hustle while tracking hours is simpler.

I've been having my own uneasy battle with this basic issue.

On the one hand I'm a huge proponent of the Steven Pressfield mantra of "do the work." If I've got something I want to accomplish then I need to lash myself to the chair and churn baby churn until I reach my goal. The creative muse isn't going to wait around until my coffee is sufficiently fancy, my keyboard sufficiently clicky, my beard sufficiently hipstery, and my inclination to work ever so perfectly initiated. Nope. Great work comes to those who show up consistently day after day and hammer out those hours as they perfect their craft. I love that mindset.

But. Well -- can't that be a little... I don't know, archaic?

Should indie workers, people who can work from anywhere at almost any time, be showing up 9-to-5 like people with corporate "jobby jobs?" I mean, what's the point of working your ass off to create an independent career if you're just going to treat it like a normal job? Hell, if you're going to do that you might as well get a normal job and enjoy a little job security and some benefits, right?

See what I'm talking about here? I'm a man conflicted.

For the past five months or so I've been tracking my working hours with a nice little iOS app calledATracker. It's not super fancy but it is very easy to quickly tap whatever project I'm working on and let the timer run in the background. I like knowing how much time I'm spending on various projects and on various areas of responsibility when it comes to my ever complex professional life. For some of my projects, time tracking is an essential part of being paid, even. I don't spend too much time analyzing the data after the fact and I'm never really shooting for an overall amount of total time worked in each day. I'm just letting it run almost entirely in the background. This relationship with time seems to be working pretty well for me.

On the other hand, I tried tracking my "start time" and "ending time" for work each day. The idea behind that initiative was to just see how many of my waking hours were spent with me "at" work. For a normal day without interruptions and an adequate amount of motivation, this wasn't a big deal. Many days I work what almost seems like a normal 9-to-5 job except I'm just sitting in my home office instead of a cubicle. But some days I wanted to work from 6-11 AM, take a big break during the middle of the day, and do a couple more hours of work after dinner. Is it fair to say that my working day was 6-10 PM, then? Obviously, not. Why was I trying to track my working day like it was one big contiguous chunk of productivity? What's the point of sticking to my chair and trying to "put in my time" when my brain is fried and doing almost anything else would be a better use of my time? But, dammit, I have to show up and "do the work!" Mr. Pressfield wouldn't take that as an excuse and neither should I!

Does this mean that I just work when I feel like it and spend the rest of the time goofing off? No. I still think a commitment to showing up every day is a huge part of being successful. I can't choose to deliberately practice only when I'm truly feeling like it. At the same time, though, I don't need to slog through a 9-to-5 day like a guy with a normal job if that's not going to be the best use of my time. With this mindset I align more closely with the ideas of Tony Schwartz; managing energy is far more important than managing time.

Where does that leave me? And bringing it back to Cal's point about tracking work, how should I be keeping track whether or not I'm pushing myself to fully utilize my abilities? Track the milestones of my projects? Track the hours I've put toward those projects? Track my overall "butt-in-chair" time?

I don't know.

How do you do it?

Photo by Fabiola Medeiros.