The freelance lifestyle is an attractive one. But with all of the flexibility comes the reality that work might not always be as regular as we
Earlier in 2019, I was on the verge of a breakdown…
In retrospect, it was a good problem to have.
I was fortunate enough to have a growing blog & podcast, other fun projects, and great freelance clients.
I had lots of great work to do!
But I also had lots of work to do–and I was getting completely overwhelmed with all the plates I was spinning.
It’s at this point that a friend gifted me a time tracker.
Who gifts a friend a time tracker??
As it turns out–a friend that changed my life.
After several weeks of experimentation, tracking how I spend my time started to yield massive productivity gains–and also cleared up my mental overwhelm.
Work got easier. I got more done. I was happy–clients were happy.
In this post, I’ve asked six other freelancers and entrepreneurs (who use a time tracker) to share their top tips for getting started tracking your time.
But before we do that…
What is a time tracker?
A time tracker is any sort of device, app, or software that allows you to easily keep track of how you are spending your time.
You can generally customize these tools based on your needs.
- Freelancer? You can track how much time you are spending for each client.
- Blogger? You can keep track of your different activities (email? admin time? learning? content creation? marketing?)
Just about anybody who does work on the internet can benefit from using a time tracker.
But why? Why is tracking your time beneficial?
There are several benefits!
First, the honest truth is that you have no clue how much of your time goes into any one activity.
“Whatever Pete, I totally know how much time I spend on email vs actually productive activities.”
You might be able to estimate pretty close…
But every person I know who has started tracking their time has said they were blown away by how little they actually knew.
There is great value in data! Knowing what less-useful activities eat up your time is the first step to making changes and being more productive.
A side benefit for freelancers:
Using a time tracker can help you find your effective hourly rate (EHR).
Sure, you might have different clients who pay you different hourly rates. But what about clients who pay you on a project basis?
And what about other “non-billable” admin tasks that eat up your time for different clients?
If you have a clear picture about which clients actually take up your time–and how much you earn–you can more easily choose which clients to drop, which to keep, and which to request rate increases for 😃
How can I get started with a time tracker?
Yes, you could grab a sheet of paper and try to write out every task you do, how much time it takes, and then add it all up.
Or, you could use a free app specifically designed for this activity.
Here are a few time tracking companies/products:
- AND.CO (hey that’s us! and it’s free! And we have a mobile app!)
- Timeular (comes with a physical device)
- Toggl (free and paid plans available)
- Rescue Time (free and paid plans, but their free plan only keeps three months of historical data)
We totally not biased at all (joking), but if you also need invoicing & proposal tools, etc, just use AND.CO stuff!
At this point, I’d like to share some of the best time-tracking tips I’ve seen, from a few creator friends of mine!
What activities should I track?
“Professionally, I track different categories of work (billable work by client, administrative work, pursuits, and continuing education). I keep an Excel spreadsheet wit ha column for each week, and I write down how many hours I spend (rounded to 0.25 hours) on each task. This helps me predict how long certain projects will take for future clients, which helps me plan my weeks without getting overloaded. I also have a handheld day planner where I track total hours of work each day, so I can see how much I’ve been working on weekdays vs. weekends and try to reallocate my energy.”Kim from Frugal Engineers
I love that Kim doesn’t need/want a fancy software tool, she just uses Excel.
That’s low-hanging fruit!
In a nutshell, I track weekly availability by person (total working hours) and weekly hour estimates per client/project. This allows us to have a somewhat accurate idea of how much time we can commit to certain work. If something new comes in, we can check our weekly availability and know when we can reasonably start and how much time we can put towards it. Outside of just managing time, it helps us create more accurate statements of work for clients.Cody from Option Gray
Clients like to know where their money is going. Time tracking allows you to provide detailed & accurate reports that’ll make them happy (and make you look like a pro in the process!).
Everything is separate. It is split up by both client/blog and then the task I’m working on. For instance, for our blog, I track the amount of time I spend writing, scheduling social media posts, sending emails to our list, and doing administrative tasks. For my freelance clients, I separate everything the same way for each one. It makes it easier to provide detailed invoices at the end of every month. Additionally, you can link project management software to your time tracking tool to make it even more efficient.Sam from How to FIRE
Again with the “making invoicing easier” bit for freelancers. Crucial.
How has time tracking boosted your productivity, and what did you learn in the process?
Tracking my time has helped keep me more accountable with my work time. I might be sitting at the computer during work time, but “just quickly check my phone”. Suddenly 20-30 minutes have gone by! The time tracking app I use tracks the activity on your screen and will ask you if you’re still working if you’ve been inactive too long. I attached a photo of this reminder. (this happened as I was writing these responses…. The dog puked on the couch so I jumped up to clean it right away without stopping to check the time! A perfect example of why this app works well for me!)Bri from Frugal Minimalist Kitchen
I have seen productivity increases, although I wasn’t expecting to. When the timer is on, I’m super focused. It has helped me stop task switching (away from client work to things like emails). I think I’ve realised that I can get a lot done in a day. When I get to the end of a 4-hour work stint I’m often surprised at how much I’ve achieved on that project. So I do think having the timer on helps a lot. In more practical terms, I use the built-in timer that comes with my accounting software and it makes invoicing for billable hours really easy! So there’s a time saving win there too.Elizabeth from Girls Guide to Project Management
The double-whammy time saver!
Not only does tracking your time help you cut down on unneeded tasks and get more focused, but it can also make billing clients easier, too!
I recently did an 80/20 analysis of my freelance engineering work and realized that more than 80% of my headaches were coming from a small fraction of my freelance work. I decided to politely drop that particular client, and now I enjoy work a lot more (and my hourly rate has increased after dropping that high-maintenance client). It’s hard to turn away money, but doing this kind of analysis helps me stay effective.Kim from Frugal Engineers
How game-changing is that?
It goes back to the whole effective hourly rate analysis–getting a clear picture of which clients consume your time can help you make important decisions.
What are some common mistakes people make when trying to track their time?
It’s not always easy to track your time and see immediate gains. Here are some thoughts…
I think a lot of people make it more complicated than it needs to be. Ideally you will have some summary document somewhere for analysis, but sometimes just writing down a start/stop time can be what you need.Patricia from Keen Eye Copyediting
When it comes to trying any new strategy, the most important step is getting started–and that holds true with tracking your time!
I initially tried to track time at too granular a level.
Looking back at some timesheets from a long time ago, they have things on like ‘webinar prep’ for one very specific webinar I gave. It’s not helpful now to know that I spent 1hr 50 on preparing for that webinar. I was tracking how long it took me to write each article as well, which makes your timesheet have dozens of lines on – the admin of the time tracking system was unwieldly. Also, I’ve suffered at the other end of the spectrum too with tasks being too vague. Apparently on one day I worked 25 hours on ‘blogging’. That isn’t even possible!!Elizabeth from Girls Guide to Project Management
Figuring out exactly what tasks & activities to track will likely need some trial and error!
The most important question to ask yourself is likely “is this helpful to me?”
Going to granular or too broad might not be useful. Experiment and find what works best for you.
What is your single best tip for solopreneurs & freelancers who are just starting to track their time?
I love these answers ❤️
Get an app that makes it really easy. You need to be able to click and go. It’s a habit to get into time tracking so don’t make it hard for yourself.Elizabeth
I’d recommend getting a time tracking app that automatically tracks your time for you, rather than manually writing it down. It will prevent you from spending extra time on tracking, and keep you more accountable!Bri
Agreed. You can start using the AND.CO tracker in about three minutes.
Someone who is just beginning to track their time should make sure to review their reports on a weekly basis. This will allow them to take a look at what they accomplished over the week and set goals for the next. Finding areas to improve, whether increasing or decreasing time spent on certain tasks, are great metrics to track.Sam from How to FIRE
If you track your time, and then fail to double-back and analyze what you’re recorded–you’re actually wasting your time.
Schedule a 10-minute weekly meeting with yourself to analyze how your time was spent–and use that data to get more productive going forward!
Here are some other key resources for productivity:
Outside of time tracking, here are some other great resources to increase your effectiveness & efficiency doing online work!