Time management can make or break an owner-operator's business

Successful owner-operators know that simply running hard is not enough. If it were that easy, anyone could do the job and expect the profits to roll in.

It generally pays to slow down. There is a tradeoff in higher costs, not to mention the increased risk, for driving fast. If driving slower takes time away from you, you can find ways to get some of it back.

For example: take vacation time or plan major work on your tractor during the first week or two of the quarter (early January, April, July and October). Never take time off during the last two weeks of the quarter (or the last week of the month) when freight typically is abundant.

Sometimes it works to your advantage to look for loads that take you “through” home rather than “to” home. The latter can interrupt your revenue stream and require additional time to get back up to full speed again.

As an owner-operator, you should look at time off differently from a company driver. If a company driver takes a week off, they lose only the opportunity to make a weekly paycheck. When an owner-operator takes a week off, they won't be earning any revenue, yet have fixed expenses to pay that never stop. 

Unlike a company driver, when the owner-operator returns to work, he or she not only has to replace the lost revenue, but also quickly cover the fixed expenses that were spent during time off. For example, with fixed costs of $100 per day, seven days off would cost $700 in payments that still have to be made.

Though truly long-haul work remains the bread and butter of many an owner-operator, opportunity in regional- and short-haul work continues to expand. Though the COVID-19 pandemic presented some counter-trends, over the long term, average length of haul has declined markedly in dry van and, increasingly, in refrigerated.

Shorter hauls take more time, and they cost more money on a per-mile and per-load basis. While carrier pay packages adjust to shorter hauls with premium per-mile rates or through other schemes, they’re not always quick to follow the freight trends.

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As freight regionalization continues to hit other segments, close work on the part of owner-operators and their customers and dispatch assumes much greater importance in maximizing income.

[Related: Controlling fuel costs key to any owner-operator's survival]

Ways to increase time efficiency

Make the most of your waiting time, such as while loading or unloading, getting your truck washed, stopping at the scale house, etc.

Take care of your rig. Check your tires and lights, and clean windows. Review maintenance records.

Take care of yourself. Take a walk if you can leave the rig. If you aren’t able to leave, do stretches or exercises in the cab. Answer mail, write emails, pay bills. Cook a healthy meal, or read a book.

Plan. Wipe off reflective tape while waiting or doing a pre-trip; you’ll be more visible and invite fewer inspections. Organize any clutter, especially on top of the dashboard; a cluttered dash is an open invitation to be inspected by law enforcement.

Rush Truck Centers logoThe Overdrive/ATBS Partners in Business owner-operator business education program is sponsored by Rush Truck Centers, the premier solutions provider to the commercial vehicle industry with 150-plus full-service dealership locations in the United States and Canada. The PIB book is available for download via this link.[Related: Ways owner-operators can avoid trouble at the scale house]

Review your log status with regard to expected pickups and deliveries, and where and when your next stops are likely to be. Ask for directions to every stop, or use mapping software, whether an app on a mobile device or software such as ProMiles or the many truck-specific GPS units from Rand McNally, Garmin and others.

Otherwise, follow these steps for maximum efficiency:

Deliver on time. If you deliver late, the consignee may assign your dock door to another driver and put you last on the list. Delivering 15 minutes late can cost a whole day or even an entire weekend.

Deliver as early in the day as possible so that you have a time cushion to prep for your next load or dispatch. On appointment loads, deliver 30 minutes early. An empty trailer gives you plenty of options, but a load sitting on your trailer gives you only one option -- waiting to deliver.

Early departure also helps when winter weather poses potential delays. Leaving late is the major reason for service failures -- such as running out of hours on the morning of a delivery.

Know your hours of service options. Federal hours of service regulations were changed fairly significantly in 2020 with expansion of flexibility to split required 10-hour sleeper berth periods into 7- and 3-hour rest periods (or other variations up to a maximum 3 hours for the shorter rest period). Unlike with the prior rule, the shorter of the two periods now also pauses the 14-hour daily duty clock, delivering better opportunity to make calculated decisions about time management: take time out to avoid traffic congestion, take an extended nap when you're ahead of schedule in the duty day, and more. If the time spent not driving isn't longer than 3 hours, you won't be penalized by reduced available work hours. Learn more about this change and how to make it work to your advantage via this link.

[Related: Rolling the 14: How to pull off the split sleeper in the hours of service]

Manage fuel-related expenses. You have to manage the cost of fuel and fuel taxes, as well as the cost of time to fuel, which usually is about 45 minutes per stop. The typical owner-operator carries 200 gallons of fuel or more but buys only 100 gallons at a time. Often it saves time to put 175 gallons in the tanks instead of continually topping off with 100 or less.

Be prepared to deadhead instead of laying over. The time and money lost to a layover almost never can be made up. If the deadhead can get you to a good load within 24 hours, it might make sense.

If you’re leased, don’t surprise your fleet manager/dispatcher. Keep him or her informed of every detail that affects service and your schedule. Set a personal and reasonable goal each week for the miles you want to run, and tell your fleet manager or dispatcher. Work with him or her to improve your miles and revenue.

[Related: Keen fixed, variable cost understanding key to owner-operator success]

Find more advice on a myriad of owner-operator business topics in the 2024 edition of the Overdrive/ATBS coproduction of the "Partners in Business" book. Download it here. 

The Business Manual for Owner-Operators
Overdrive editors and ATBS present the industry’s best manual for prospective and committed owner-operators. You’ll find exceptional depth on many issues in the Partners in Business book, updated annually.
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