5 Time tracking tips and strategies

Tracking time is perceived as an arduous and creative killing task. There are a few things that you can do in order to mitigate the pain-staking task of tracking time for yourself or your assistant labor. Primarily you need to stop viewing time tracking as a ‘clock in’ ‘clock out’ system of tracking time for administrative over-watch. This data is used for so many business tasks outside of just tracking your weekly time commitment. Eliminate that thought from your mind and you can achieve the benefits of keeping solid time data without limiting your creative production efforts.

Here are some (not all) of the great benefits of tracking time:

  • A) Time information will help in preparing better proposals for the future.
  • B) Manage current project status and plan for project shortfalls.
  • C) Time data will assist you in optimizing a billable rate.
  • D) A time log can help keep contractor or assistant developer hours on track with project goals.
  • E) Your time data can help prioritize weekly goals once you start to understand trends within your own processes.

Here are some tips for tracking time more effectively without killing creative production.

1) Establish broad task categories

This simple point can alleviate most of the woes that production focused professionals face when tracking time. I have seen some time tracking tools guiding individuals to track based upon tasks so specific that it takes a fraction of an entire day just to keep straight. These systems always sell themselves behind the principal of “practice makes perfect”. Why should you waste time practicing time tracking when you have 100,000 other items to master?

Creating 10-15 broad task categories in which you can easily bucket time should be goal number 1. Instead of having a separate task for UI, UX, and front end reviews; create a single broad category labeled UI/UX and establish the assumption that review time is spent within the context of the task being reviewed. Have these broad categories listed on a piece of paper hanging on the wall, always a quick reference away. Create tasks in which you can confidently input 5,10,15 hours of time to each week instead of 1, 2, 2.5, etc.

Never spend time tracking time for a task with only 5 minutes of work during the week, this just causes headaches. Have a line item for general business work to encompass everything surrounding all of your basic entrepreneurial demands; this is sunk time anyways from a client perspective but no less important from your perspective as a business owner.

2) Distinguish time spent on specific clients and projects

When tracking time each day, make sure you are specific about the client and project you are working on. Be single minded in regards to labeling the project you are working on. Most clients are engaged for a single project from start to finish although you may have a more complex client relationship. Your time tracking selection list should be specific enough to read well on an invoice sent to the client but also provide data for your desired uses.

Let us say that for one client there are digital marketing components teamed with a front-end re-design of the client’s website. These differences while under the same proposal and client umbrella probably should be listed as separate projects in your time tracking system. This will assist the client in better understanding where time is being spent but will also provide you an idea of how to build out a better proposal for your next client engagement.

This ambiguous project set-up is really up to your motives for time tracking. If you are simply tracking for optimization of billing, discerning time by task may be enough for your goals. On the other end, if you are tracking time for future proposal management, you may want to track time within specific project buckets.

3) Track Time daily in a notebook, weekly in a spreadsheet

Another shortcoming of so many time tracking software’s currently used by professionals is the need for constant annoying time tracking of every hour of every day. This is a simple fix, two times every day at the middle and the end of the day spend 5 minutes recapping how you spent time during the past few hours. List time out in 30-minute increments instead of 5-minute increments in order to save brainpower during your day. If you wrote ten separate emails during the day and each email took 2-4 minutes, don’t waste time opening up a time tracking application ten times, just summarize the full 30 minutes into that single broad category you can depend upon.

If you can eliminate the nuances around time tracking by creating a broader focused effort, you can alleviate a lot of the headache around the tediousness of the task. Every Friday at the end of the week take that note pad you’ve been tracking time on and input the data into a more formal time tracking software package or excel spreadsheet.

I am not going to sit here and tell you that there is an application out there that can turn time tracking into an automated afterthought, I have never seen it. Tracking time in a notebook once or twice daily and then in a spreadsheet once per week can literally save you effort, energy, and focus.

4) Always track time up to 40 hours per week

Here is a simple rule to follow that will help to give you some consistent data for your habitual trends. So many times do I see professionals in this space track time up to 32 hours, 34 hours, 28 hours, etc. I think it is great when individuals are tracking time when work is being done but let’s not miss the time when work is on hold for a break or we are working on more proprietary efforts. For example, let’s say you are taking an hour on Thursday’s for writing a blog entry for your website, I am a firm believer that you should track that time every week. Show the work you put into your own business and personal growth.

This time can be analyzed and reviewed after a few months of time tracking in order to better understand your habits in the production space. Perhaps we find out that Thursday’s are heavily distracted days for you, perhaps those days would be great for you two spend on business development work rather than the gritty work your currents clients demand? The improvements are limitless when looking at your habits around time expenditures.

5) Have a visual monthly review of time spent

Some of the most entertaining client engagement meetings I conduct are when we review a visual output of time expenditure. It is extremely easy to create visually helpful graphs for your review of the time you spend during a period of time. You should be able to discern useful data just from looking at one of these charts after a few months of worthwhile time tracking.

There are a few different time tracking reviews that are especially helpful to the entrepreneur. One being the client/project actual vs. estimate review for which you should use to predict future proposal work. Creating a side-by-side comparison of different client engagements can help you better understand the difference between valuable time spent vs. non-valuable time spent. Also having a simple pie chart that shows production hours vs. non-production hours can help you better prepare for the weeks to come when a busy season may be approaching with newly engaged client work.

Conclusion

Ultimately time tracking is only very useful in decision making every so often but the repercussions of making wiser choices earlier on can be felt on a daily basis. There are so many examples out there of entrepreneurs pleading ignorance towards the time they spend on a daily basis. Most professionals can avoid sinking time into valueless tasks for which additional billings are not possible by properly tracking time and doing comparisons to proposal estimates. At the end of the day the client deserves to be served within your 100% capacity, prove that to them and prove that to yourself with the hard data of your time.