Let’s be honest – I heard your mental “Ugh no! I got into this to work in my pajamas, drink copious amounts of coffee, and be FREE from stuff like this.”
You can totally work in your PJs and load up on coffee, but if you’re running a business of any kind, you need to track your time.
Without Data, Estimates Are Guesstimates
Estimates are the foundation of most service-based businesses. Think of how often you get an estimate – for car repairs, cleaning your carpets, remodeling your kitchen. Depending on the skill, experience and data the estimator has, the accuracy of those numbers varies widely. Time tracking creates the foundation for you to estimate accurately.
While many in the web development/freelance space don’t seem all that excited about tracking time, I’ve come across some artists and artisans that have naturally embraced it. Andrea Rennick, a quilter who’s turned a hobby into a business, tracks the time it takes to create a quilt, broken down into specific stages. By adopting this practice, she can accurately estimate the work for different sizes and styles of quilts. Several award winning botanical watercolor artist:s I follow track their painting time. I recently saw a stunning piece with a note that it took 96 hours and 15 minutes total painting time. When these artists accept a commission or bid on an illustration project, they have an accurate foundation to work from.
Optimism Isn’t Always Your Friend
People are notoriously bad at estimating. There’s an endlessly optimistic voice in our heads that says any task will be a little simpler than it really is. We gloss over the annoying bits and potential complications and say, “oh I can do that in two hours.”
When we track actual time, we learn that a simple blog post we planned to do in an hour doesn’t actually take an hour. You spent an hour writing, 15 minutes proofing and editing, 30 minutes finding images and processing them, and another 30 minutes setting up the post and pushing it out on social. That’s really 2 hours and 15 minutes, over twice the estimate.
On a web project, did you factor in the time to set up your local development environment? How about client communication and overall project management? Sometimes you need time to research and experiment to find the best approach, did you give yourself that time in your estimate?
Tracking your actual time and activity will help you identify these patterns. Four specific areas where time tracking will help you:
1) Measuring Estimate vs Actual
To improve your estimating abilities, you need to compare estimated vs actual time. Let’s say your initial estimate was for 100 hours of effort, and the project came in at 136. Whoops. Analyze your estimated time by task/phase and compare it to actual. Where did the extra time come from? Improve your next estimate.
Improving your estimates doesn’t automatically mean changing your pricing. It gives you information to make better decisions. What could you do to bring that dev time more in line? Perhaps you need to become more efficient personally and that can be a matter of time and experience. Knowing that has power.
2) Fixed Price Projects
Fixed price projects are very popular. You develop an estimate eternally and assign a fixed cost to the project. Most clients loves this as it removes perceived uncertainty, and it’s simple to administer from a billing standpoint.
The obvious catch as a service provider – how good is your estimate? Profitable projects come from accurate estimates.
3) Product Pricing
Perhaps you want to package a service offering into a fixed price product that you sell repeatedly. Writers could offer a package of content for a small business marketing site. Designers might sell a branding package and developers could offer predefined support services.
The key in pricing any of these products is a history of time performing these services, including their related tasks in communication, administration, billing, etc.
When you do something often, or over a long period of time, you naturally get better, faster and more efficient. What if you want to speed up that process? Take a look at your historical time tracking and identify areas that are taking longer than you ideally want to spend.
Do you code a lot of themes but start from scratch every time? Perhaps developing your own starter theme or system will help. Do you struggle with coding more complex page templates? Set aside unpressured time to work those – makes notes, create snippets, whatever will help your efficiency.
Sometimes design ideas take a long time to come. Can you jumpstart your process with some rituals – creating moodboards or a creative exercise?
Beyond skill development, there are many areas where time is spent that can benefit from systems and automation, but that’s a topic for another post. Time tracking will help you identify what they are.
Time Tracking is Essential
Time tracking is an essential part of your business toolkit. I suspect most of the aversion to time tracking comes from in the corporate/agency world where hours are currency and systems are painful. When you are time tracking for yourself/your business, you get to choose the tools and methods that fit into your workflow. There are some minimum criteria I look for in tools to make the process more appealing:
- A nice clean modern user interface with clear and easy method to set up and configure up tracking by projects, tasks, clients, etc and an easy export process for analysis.
- A web version, desktop version and a mobile version – a variety of integrated inputs allows you maximum flexibility. You may want to use your phone as your primary input even while working at your desk. Browser extensions and desktop apps give you even more options. There are some neat tools that work ONLY on your iPhone or only as a desktop app – I avoid these.
- If you use a project tool like Asana or Trello, make sure there’s an integration available.
If you’re not happy with the tool you’re using, or are not tracking time, check out these two solutions:
Toggl offers 4 pricing tiers with a compelling free option: teams of up to 5 and unlimited projects. They have a desktop app for Windows, Mac and Linux, a Chrome extension, and iPhone and Android apps. They also have an extensive set of integrations and add ons.
Toggl has a special feature I’ve not seen elsewhere. With their desktop app installed, you can enable a feature called Timeline that records each website and program that you view for more than 10 seconds. This info is private to you, and not rolled into reports. It’s a really interesting way to see where your times goes.
Harvest is one of the most well known time tracking solutions for freelancers and times. While they do offer free plan (1 user, 4 Clients, 2 Projects), this is a sophisticated solution for teams. They also offer web, mobile apps, desktop apps and browser extensions. Harvest’s strengths allow you to configure Clients and Projects in any way that works for you, and do sophisticated reporting. They have extensive integrations.
There are many other time tracking tools out there, these are the two that I use consistently and recommend. They have good interfaces and usability, and the desktop, phone, browser integrations mean you can track time in any way that’s comfortable for you.
If you’re not tracking time, I recommend you pick a tool and start immediately. For more suggestions on coming to grips with time and productivity, check out Time Block Your Weeks.