Tracking time is my obsession

When I ask people about their time tracking habits, most of them just say they are terrible at tracking their time. According to an informal survey I conducted, about 35% of you don’t even bother to track your time. And a whopping 40% track your time after-the-fact. Only 25% of you track your time as you work using a stopwatch or a timer.

I’m going to explain to you why I am compulsive about tracking time, and why I think it makes me more productive. All of us at Tornado Design track our time every day.

I track my time using a (software based) stopwatch as I work. It works great for me since I’m usually at my computer during the day.

I deal with lots of different projects and clients during the day and if I tried to remember what I was doing there is no way I could accurately remember. I’d be guessing, at best. And at worst I would forget half of the things and it wouldn’t be billed.

Since I track both my billable and unbillable time, I am able to accurately gauge my total utilization (the percentage of my time that is billable). This helps when determining hourly rates.

The most important aspect of tracking my time is knowing the timer is running. It’s a constant reminder that I am supposed to be productive and stay on-task. When the timer is running, I know I need to be working efficiently.

It’s akin to having a manager sitting behind you constantly critiquing your productivity. I take that pressure and apply it to my work.

On the flip side, when I’m doing unbillable tasks I can easily see that I’m not earning income and it reminds me to get back to the billable work.

I track time because it makes me more productive because I am constantly reminded by a ticking stopwatch.

Photo by bogenfreund on Flickr.

Do you bill clients for your inspirational moments away from the desk?

Steve Zelle, an identity designer, chimes in about why he thinks billing by the hour is a bad idea.

You really can’t force creativity to happen. There are ways to encourage it and a process is there to help direct it, but in the end it has to just happen. So while a project may only take an hour at a desk, I can assure you more time was spent thinking about it.

The post has a number of interesting comments as well — so don’t miss them.

Selling Projects in Blocks

Link: Selling Projects in Blocks

Summary: Sell your time by the day (as blocks of time) and use the increased flexibility to have a life. Using this method, clients can know project length (in days, or months) and approximate cost. Since you’re only selling 4 days a month, you’ll hopefully have one day a week to work on the other stuff on your plate.

While I really like this idea, it does not work for us at Tornado because we have so many clients and so many projects and we handle ongoing work for most of them. It could work for you, though. Especially if you have only a few clients / projects per month.

It doesn’t have to suck: paper based time tracking

Remember the days of paper based time tracking? Good thing those days are gone because adding up all of those timesheets takes lots of time!

Just in case you ever need to track time on paper, here are links to a few PDFs I’ve seen that you can print and use. They are all well designed so it makes it easier.

Pelago Paper Timesheet — A simple Letter sized timesheet designed for accurate tracking through a single day.

Simple Timetracking Sheet — A simple sheet designed for tracking multiple projects in a day.

The Printable CEO™ III: Emergent Task Timing — A clever PDF you can print and use to track your time.
printable ceo

Blue Flavor Version of Printable CEO — A variation with downloadable PDFs.

LEGO Powered Time Tracking — A clever LEGO hack.
lego time tracking

Let me know if you know of any others you think I should link up.

Making Time Tracking a Habit

Something I hear often from designers and developers is that they can never find the motivation to track their time — or they never remember to in the first place.

An underlying reason is that they simply don’t need to track their time in their job. A number of developers I know bill by the project and so there is no urgency to track time.

Convincing these people to track their time is nearly impossible, so I won’t try. I’ve put together a list of reasons why you might consider tracking your time if you happen to be one of these people.

For those who do need to track time, but dislike the process I suggest trying the following:

  1. Consider tracking time with a stopwatch based time tracking system. Not only will a stopwatch remind you that you’re on task, but it should keep you from becoming distracted because you’ll know the timer is running. The next time YouTube or Facebook call to you, you’ll realize you need to stop the timer.
  2. If a stopwatch isn’t your thing, you can always manually log your time after-the-fact. But you should know that your memory will never be perfect. If you forget about 15 minutes of possible billable time per day the lost earnings could cost you dearly.
  3. Track your billable time, and your unbillable time. The reason you want to track your unbillable time is so you can gauge your billable efficiency over time. You’ll know whether you’re 50% billable, or 75%. Knowing that could mean the difference between success and failure.
  4. Compare notes with coworkers or friends. Tracking time is best enjoyed as a team sport. Share your results with colleagues in your office, or outside.
  5. Don’t just log time to projects. Write detailed notes about what you did during that time period. You’ll find that the notes help with billing but at the end of the week you will have an at-a-glance report of what you did.

I realize that time tracking isn’t for everybody, but if you need to do it as part of your job, I hope these tips help. Feel free to email with any questions you may have about time tracking. I’ve been tracking my time for over 3 years now, and I love it!

Update: There are a few time tracking apps that will automatically pop up and prompt you to let them know what you are working on. You can set a frequent interval, such as every 15 minutes. This forces you to enter your time constantly through the day.

Time Pursuer or Time Follower?

End of last article: Some freelance professionals who track their time are clearly more productive than other freelancers, who also track their time, so what gives?

In previous blog entries, we learned:

  1. Time is real. It’s not a metaphor.
  2. Time moves forward, in front of you, never behind.
  3. People who track time uncover lost bits of time along the way. They are called Time Pursuers.
  4. People who don’t track time lose track of it and wonder where their day went. These are Time Followers.

It’s elementary, Watson.

By definition, if you track time during a project or throughout the day, you’re a Time Pursuer. While this is better than being a Time Follower (someone who doesn’t track their time), it doesn’t automatically give you more clues about how to better keep up with Time in the future.

Time clues are a messy thing. The more you take note of this time clue and that time clue – Yes: physically stop what you’re doing, write down what time of day it is, consider how far you’ve come and look ahead to how much you’ve got left to do – the more evidence you’ll have when you later review the clues you discovered.

Inside each time clue is an opportunity to make more money. The trick is in knowing how to open the clue and take advantage of that opportunity. The only way you can do that is track your time.

Some Time Clues & What They Mean.


Clue: For any given hour of billable time, you habitually spend a few minutes distracted. For example, hopping online and chasing down your latest Internet fancy of the moment. You do this often. You’re okay with this. It’s not like you’re losing sight of the Time path, just stepping off for a little rest in the shade.

Meaning: Add up those little moments here and there and you’d find passing on earning thousands more dollars a year.

Apply it: Forget about yourself for awhile. Spend 100% of that hour on your client. Schedule a break for later. You’re enjoy not working more and you’ll have made more money.


Clue: Checking emails always takes longer than you expect; Travel time to meet a client rarely includes packing up your things, getting out the door, finding a parking spot, etc.

Meaning: You’re relying on your expertise or ability to focus to do its magic “in the moment”.

Apply It: Track un-billable time as much as you track billable time. If an email can’t be replied to in less than five minutes, make a phone call.


Clue: A project or task took twice as long as expected.

Meaning: You overlooked something. Most likely, you didn’t include “Transitional Time” between phases of a project or task. For example, Drafting the initial Agreement, phone discussions, answering emails where a phone call would have been better, travel time to meetings, etc.

Apply It: Make a checklist of all the steps required to complete this type of project or task, including transitional items. My father has a formula for what it looks like: “Take your estimate. Double it. Add a third. And hope you’re half right.” Knowing how long it really takes to do a project or task will make new estimates creation much easier and more accurate.

cars in traffic

Clue: At the end of the day, you don’t know where the time went.

Meaning: You prefer to be blissfully ignorant. 1. Imagine being able to show a prospective employer your billable efficiency. When a clock is running it helps you focus on the task at hand. Distractions like chat and web surfing tend to be pushed till later.

Apply It: Routinely review your time use. Experiment with tracking your time in different ways. Imagine being able to reduce client complaints because you include how your time was spent on a project with your invoices.

Here’s a personal example of my experience in pursuing time by tracking it (spurred on because I’ve been thinking about it much more as a result of writing these blogs).


Clue: Tracking Time is easy and makes me more productive. I’m a writer, so I track my time with the Mac version of Microsoft Word. It has a “Notebook” option that allows me to create tabs along the right side of any project. The very top tab is “Minutes”, which is where I track my time. The tabs below it are where I store my various drafts.

Meaning: I’ve got a method for keeping track of time that is easy, intuitive and doesn’t get in the way of getting the project started or transitioning from one phase of a project to another or to a different project altogether.

Apply It: Continue to use my particular tool for tracking my time, but keep my eye out for something more robust; a way to pursue time that is still easy and “instant”, but that yields far greater time clues than my current method.

NEXT TIME: In preparation for the next blog, I’ll be taking a closer look at the time tracking tool I’d most like to see.

Joey Robert Parks - Phoenix Copywriter(Phoenix wordsmith Joey Robert Parks is primarily a non-fiction ghostwriter. In the last six years, he’s written five books for successful, entrepreneurial types; including: a fashion designer and stylist who got his start working for JFK and Oprah; and a book on creative innovation for a high profile, multimillionaire philanthropist. To see how productive Joey is this very moment, follow him on Twitter or visit

Billing hourly or by the project

Flexibility rocks

I think it’s a trend! More and more web design, development, and marketing companies are learning one of the best kept secrets in the business. Charging by the hour can be incredibly good for business.

A marketing / web design firm we’re friends with in Phoenix just switched from fixed-fee project rates to an hourly rate and wrote an excellent blog post about the switch.

They tout flexibility as one of the biggest advantages of charging by the hour. I would agree. It gives customers way more leeway in making changes, and doesn’t create a problem every time the scope of the project changes. This also frees staff up from writing detailed change orders, and revising estimates.

Our company, Tornado, made the switch to billing by the hour about 3 years ago and we haven’t looked back since! It’s a big relief on so many levels compared to billing by the project (fixed fee). I wrote about our experience a year ago in a post called: Two Years of Tracking Time: It’s worth it!

Which way do you bill your customers? By the hour or by the project?

How many hours do you REALLY work each day?

I’m not sure how many of you read Slashdot? I don’t read it, but a long time ago I subscribed to the Slashdot Poll because I found it entertaining and at the time it was one of only a few polls used online.

The current poll asks “How many hours do you REALLY work each day?” Fascinating question! At this time, 21,364 people have answered the poll. Here are the top 3 responses:

  • 5-6 Hours – 24%
  • 3-4 Hours – 19%
  • 7-8 Hours – 16%

Anyways, I doubt that many of the responders actually definitively know the answer to the question. Nobody can constantly produce 100% efficiency every day. It’s probably impossible to do that with all of the distractions we have today. Hence the importance of limiting distractions in your day.

Why Time Tracking is Important to Freelancers

Time TrackingIf you’re a freelancer in your chosen profession and you don’t track your time, you can count on one thing: you won’t be a freelancer for long.

At six years and counting, I think I’ve finally got freelancing down. Every time before this – this is my fourth time as a freelancer – I lasted about a year before my cash flow ran out and I ended up punching the clock for someone else’s pleasure. All because I wasn’t smart with how I handled time. I see that now.

Time has a flow, but unlike cash, it doesn’t rise or fall; it’s steady. Everywhere in the world, there are 24 hours in a day. Money comes and goes. Sometimes you have more. Sometimes you have less. (Well, more or less.) That’s why the cliché “Time is Money” is wrong. Time is not money. And as much as I like the implications, time is also not a river.

Before we can really talk about why time tracking is important to freelancers, we have to get a good look at this thing we’re all chasing and call it by what it really is. It’s not some clever metaphor or a list of things that all start with the same letter. Time is time.

Who’s Tracking Time?

I usually call myself a freelancer, but independent is probably closer to the truth. According to the all-mighty Webster’s, an independent is 1: not dependent; 2: not affiliated with a larger controlling unit; 3: not requiring or relying on something else; and 4) not looking to others for one’s opinions or for guidance in conduct.

When the very definition of how I see myself contains the idea that I don’t have any management issues to deal with because I’m an independent (or freelancer or self-employed; they’re interchangeable), it’s tempting to think it’s true.

But you know the truth. As a business owner, freelancers deal with decision-making, problem solving, goal setting and organizing every day. Sure, non-freelancers face those things, but they usually have the option of delegating those responsibilities to someone else. For freelancers, it’s something we can never get away from. Get better at managing yourself and you’ll instantly get better at managing your use of time.

How to Uncover Lost Time

Tracking time works best when it’s a conscious act. That’s doubly important to a freelancer because it’s a significant step in learning to anticipate distractions and teaching yourself to instinctively work around them. In my previous blog, I said, “Time tracking is important because it uncovers lost time.” Here’s how: That first post took me five hours to write. Because I tracked my time (in writing) and was conscious of where it went (and why), I was able to avoid those distractions and complete this post in four hours.

If I hadn’t kept track of today’s writing distractions (Twitter, email, phone calls I should have kept shorter) as well as the amount of time those things ate up, at the end of the day, I’d be at a loss to explain where all my time went. If I hadn’t kept track of my non-work time (“un-billable time”) and if I’d hadn’t done it in writing (like some casual way in my head), I wouldn’t have recognized these specific distractions when they came up and therefore, I wouldn’t have known how to handle them. You can’t avoid something you don’t know about, right?

The Heart of Time Tracking

Right now, you’re spending X minutes reading this blog. What if you could come away with three times as much time as the time you’ll invest reading it? A tongue twister, for sure, but it doesn’t need to be a head-twister.

You can uncover the most time by tracking time with your head (what we’ve covered so far) and your heart. Which brings us back, like some odd strain of time-travel, to where we started:

“If you’re a freelancer in your chosen profession and you don’t track your time, you won’t be a freelancer for long.”

Think back to why you chose this particular profession. Because that’s where your heart was, right? If you don’t want to track your time now, it’s either because it feels like a step backward or because you had a bad experience with it in the past. If uncovering more time each day sounds like a step backward, it might be time to consider a new profession. As far as recovering from bad experiences goes, that’s perfectly understandable. I used to hate doing it myself. Then someone told me something I should have known: If you don’t know where your business is spending its time, who does?

Which is well and good for a freelancer who is…oh, I don’t know, a writer…but what about other industries? Are the skills for tracking time the same in every profession? They are. And yet some freelance professionals who track their time are clearly more productive than other freelancers who also track their time, so what gives?

Next Time: What Time Tracking Clues mean to Consultants and Web-related Professions.

(Phoenix wordsmith Joey Robert Parks is primarily a non-fiction ghostwriter. In the last six years, he’s written five books for successful, entrepreneurial types; including: a fashion designer and stylist who got his start working for JFK and Oprah; and a book on creative innovation for a high profile, multimillionaire philanthropist. To see how productive Joey is this very moment, follow him on Twitter or visit

Five Ways To Stay Productive In Your Mobile Office

As an independent wordsmith, I’m well acquainted with working in non-traditional work places; for instance, my main office (home) and the other locale’s I frequent (coffee houses).

Notice the title of this entry. It’s not about how to be productive. Anyone can be productive, if they so desire, every now and again, sometimes on purpose, sometimes not. My objective is to show you how to stay productive once you get there.

In Rise of the Creative Class (a personal favorite), author and sociologist Richard Florida wrote, “We are becoming a society in which Creative Class people literally live in a different kind of time from the rest of the nation.”

Who is this “Creative Class”?

If you can identify with the following quote – from later in Florida’s book – you’re part of it: “While Creative Class people do tend to work long hours, many other factors contribute to the feeling of being crunched for time…The big news about time [is that it] goes deeper than simply working more…We now try to pack every moment full of activities and experiences—at work, at home and at leisure.”

From where I sit, (Lux Coffeebar, if you must know), these are the things that cause me to be most productive in my mobile office:

(1) Account for my surroundings

  • The local coffee joint has distinct advantages and disadvantages to working out of the home. Think of the cell phone commercial with the little time clocks in the trash. Pretend those little clocks are spread out all around your home office or moving around you at the coffee house. When you talk to someone longer than you should, you’re wasting time.

(2) Anticipate Distractions

  • Make decisions before you get to your home office (or wherever) about where you’re going to sit. And yes, even if you’re in the bedroom, that’s still before you get to your desk.
    • If it’s at home, think about the kinds of things that are likely to beg for your time: the laundry, that new album you wanted to check out on iTunes, updating umpteen social media outlets (Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, etc.) and any number of other noisy distractions. For me, even too much silence can be a distraction.
    • If you’re at a coffee house, think about all the options you’ll be presented with about where to sit. It doesn’t matter if you’ve never been to this particular place before. Sit by the door (or facing it) and you’ll want to look up every time someone comes in; sit near the counter and you’ll be well-placed for shouts of , “Americano for Chris!”
    • You know where the productive spots are, just like you know the best place to sit in a movie theater.

(3) Be Proactive

  • The average time tracker says, “I have an hour to fill. I’ll work on project X and see how much I can get done.”
  • A better time tracker says, “In one hour, I want to have completed this, this, and that, and this. And I’m going to spend this much time on each part. And I’ll check it off as I go and adjust the schedule in the moment. But I’m going to do it all in one hour.”
  • The difference is subtle, but significant.
    • It’s all about your motivation for tracking time at all. One person figures, “I have an hour right now. I’ll have another hour later.” The other person thinks, “I have an hour right now. I might have an hour later. I might not. I better use my time wisely while I have it on me.”

(4) Know when to say ‘No’

  • To people around you.
    • Say you have a significant other and he/she likes to chitchat throughout the day, but you’ve got a project that needs 100% of our concentration. Let him/her know you’re going into hyper-focus mode – or opt for a nonverbal method like putting on your headphones. (When I’m working in a public place, about a third of the time I’m wearing headphones, I’m not actually listening to anything. Ha!)
  • To Yourself.
    • There’s a difference between changing my mind about how long it will take me to do something and changing my time range because I’m tired of making decisions.
    • Don’t confuse “self-employed” with “freedom from commitments”.

(5) Track The Time

  • It’s called ‘tracking’ because you’re actively looking for clues about where The Time, somewhere out there in front of you, is headed.
    • It’s not called ‘following’ because that’s passive and lets time make decisions for you.
  • Time Trackers discover lost time.
    • They literally “find time” to do more work, because the act of tracking time helps them right then; in the very moment they need it most. Ever hand write a note and then — because of the very act of doing so — you realize you could probably just throw the note away?

The first four steps have one thing in common: They’re all decided and acted on before hand. Only the last one takes place in the moment.

I’d elaborate on that, but right now, my time’s up.

Next time: Why Time Tracking Is Important For Freelancers.

(Phoenix wordsmith Joey Robert Parks is primarily a non-fiction ghostwriter. In the last six years, he’s written five books for successful, entrepreneurial types; including: a fashion designer and stylist who got his start working for JFK and Oprah; and a book on creative innovation for a high profile, multimillionaire philanthropist. To see how productive Joey is this very moment, follow him on Twitter or visit

Productivity Ideas

Awesome Sign at Integrum

Productivity Ideas:

  1. Having trouble keeping focused at work? Keep getting distracted by sites like Digg, Slashdot, and your RSS reader? A suggestion that we heard recently was to try this trick: Schedule time for reading blogs. Set a time and make it a high priority. You’ll realize how much time you spend reading sites, and become aware of it.
  2. Track your time in 15 minute increments. By tracking all of your working time, you’ll find yourself more focused and learn where you are wasting time.
  3. Create a set working-hours-schedule. An easy way to begin is to limit your working hours to a certain number per day. Or, a certain workday ending time.
  4. Move your desk, or get a second desk just for your computer. Sometimes having a workspace that is large enough to accomodate both your computer and your paperwork is where it is at. The extra space affords more creativity, inspires you to sketch ideas, and not use your computer as much. In the past, I have also physically picked up everything on my desk and moved it to another part of the office. New scenery and a change in pace was all I needed to get motivated.

Time Tracking Software for Mac

A reader asks about tracking time on OS X:
So here’s the deal: I now find myself with clients — people who are paying me money to do stuff for them. How cool is that? For some, I’ve set up a monthly set fee, others I’m charging by the hour. But for both, I’d like to track time on a slice-by-slice basis and give them a nice and fancy set of reports on how much time I spent doing what.

For the majority of what I do, I’m doing it right here on the MacBook Pro. So a nice little tool bar or icon on the task bar would be handy. What do you recommend?
A Reader

Chris responds with a few time tracking suggestions:
Hello Reader,

Thank you for asking, we’ve researched a number of time-tracking apps and made a handy list of time tracking software at — check it out!

A popular time tracking application that works across Windows and Mac is Harvest (but get the widget so you can track time from the desktop).

And there is a Mac Desktop widget called TimePost2 you can purchase that works with a lot of different time tracking web apps.

One more recommendation: Billings. We’ve heard from many satisfied customers of Billings that it is a useful tool.

Use one of those programs until Minuteglass, our own software application, is released. Minuteglass is going to be released by Tornado later this year. It’s a time tracking application (for Web, OS X, and Windows).

I hope that helps!

Scoble Interviews Tony Wright of RescueTime

I just watched an interesting interview by Robert Scoble with the founder of RescueTime. In the interview they talk about their product which sits on the desktop and silently tracks which applications you use. Then it helps you see your actual productivity.

Tony Wright, the founder, reveals that by using their own product they realized an efficiency increase when a specific team member took a day off (after long periods of working on their product). Very interesting.

I have to give props to the quality of the video. Scoble really has an excellent setup with multiple cameras rolling at once to provide excellent video.

Lately I have been thinking about goals for this blog. Its ultimate purpose is to promote our own time tracking tool called Minuteglass (sign up for beta and we’ll email you when we’re launching). We’ve decided that sharing interesting tips and tools to help you track your productivity are an essential way to bring value to this blog. So expect more posts like this one in the future.