time tracking
January 30, 2019 7:32 PM   Subscribe

Freelancers, consultants and others who bill by the hour, how do you track time?

I tend to have several different writing or editing projects on the go and tracking time spent is one of my biggest challenges, particularly since my working style is fairly fluttery. I move between projects when feeling uninspired, or Alt-Tab over to a browser for a quick mental rejuvenation even mid-paragraph. This makes it really hard to tot up the number of hours spent afterwards and usually I end up just under-estimating the time spent. Consequently, I am also really bad at giving estimates when quoting for new projects.

It occurs to me that there must be a time tracking tool that can help me with accurate billing and, hopefully, quoting. Software, app or a manual/ analogue trick, what do you use (free or paid), and why do you like it?

I'm fine with adding a step or two to my workflow, eg clicking on a button when moving from project to project, but don't think I can maintain a non-automated time sheet with any diligence (though if you have a format you like, point me to it, I can always try). My main proviso is that I prefer an offline solution or at least one that doesn't require an internet connection. I don't need anything for teams, it's just me.

For what it's worth, I use Word on Windows almost exclusively but have both an Android phone and an iPad so can use any of these platforms.
posted by tavegyl to Work & Money (13 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
I've only ever used the free version of Toggl, but I really liked it when I was doing data entry for a couple different projects. Once you start paying, you can set up various rates, etc. Their Android app is pretty painless to use, too - It's only a few taps to switch projects.

This doesn't really answer your first paragraph after the break, though; to be honest, the way I solved this was to charge for the time. I don't know how long the quick mental rejuvenation is, but I think that's pretty much the cost of doing any work at a computer.
posted by sagc at 7:39 PM on January 30, 2019 [1 favorite]

Try the free version of Harvest.
posted by limeonaire at 7:54 PM on January 30, 2019 [3 favorites]

2nding Harvest -- I use an enterprise solution at work, but my freelance friends all seem to gravitate toward it.
posted by matrixclown at 8:59 PM on January 30, 2019 [1 favorite]

You could use tracking software like RescueTime, which can track application use as well as granular website use (and is a little creepy). If I remember correctly -- I haven't used it in a few years -- RescueTime allows you to granularly tag specific websites with a specific project/client name, or as time wasters vs. productive, etc. You can also tag specific use instances separately than a website's default (for instance if you typically waste time on social media, but occasionally you post things on behalf of a client as work, you could tag that differently than the default).

You could easily use this for time tracking -- although as far as I know, you'll have to spend a bit of time every day making sure all your specific use-instances are properly tagged. I'm sure there are integrations that will help you add everything up and automatically generate an invoice or something. (RescueTime + Harvest?!)

But! But here's one more suggestion that piggybacks on this, although I'm not quite sure how to set it up in RescueTime: I use multiple desktops on my Mac, then put all the browser windows + documents + etc for a specific project on its own desktop. (So for instance, anything I'm researching for X project goes in Desktop 3, and so does Scrivener or Word. Desktop 2 is for screwing around, social media, random articles, etc. Desktop 1 is for personal email and other mostly-important things.) If you're able to track desktop use, or browser profile use (and keep separate browser profiles + windows open for your procrastination vs. your Real Work), and if you're good about switching between them -- which is pretty instantaneous if you use keyboard shortcuts -- RescueTime might be able to just aggregate all the time you spend in a specific desktop, or specific profile. It's not quite as granular as "spent 10:21min on X" timelogging, but you may not need that type of timelogging anyway.

That said, quit underestimating your own value! Overestimate, then give your client a discount every once in a while, as a token of appreciation. Builds goodwill while keeping you honest.
posted by tapir-whorf at 10:55 PM on January 30, 2019 [1 favorite]

I typically charge a day rate rather than hourly, but when I do charge by the hour I keep track in a Google Sheet.
posted by nerdfish at 12:17 AM on January 31, 2019 [1 favorite]

I've been doing this for 7 years and I wrote and keep modifying an Access database which is no help if you don't know Access, but I put in timesheets from it and create invoices for non-timesheet clients and I have the data which shows (created query yesterday) how much time I spend on a particular job type.
posted by b33j at 2:15 AM on January 31, 2019

I use a combination of toggl and rescue time. Toggl is my main time tracking for external billing purposes, and I like using their pomodoro timers and trying to keep breaks/distractions to pomodoro breaks. But I do sometimes forget to start a timer, or that I've switched to a different project. This is one of the ways RescueTime comes in handy for me, since as my internal tracking I will quickly review detailed reports when it comes time to invoice and see where I need to manually true up my toggl reporting. Toggl does also have a timeline view that does something vaguely similar, but it's not quite as good as RescueTime. I only upgraded to the paid subscription for Toggl recently because some of the conveniences seemed worth it, but I could have gotten along without paying. My premium RescueTime subscription has been amazing though, since I find the filterable reporting helpful, appreciate the ability to create "focus time" sessions that block distractions, and set goals for types of time (productive vs nonproductive).
posted by shelbaroo at 4:51 AM on January 31, 2019

I use a basic, offline spreadsheet and manually enter my hours at the end of the day. I put my invoices together manually, too. Automated systems don't make any sense for me and the way I work.

Say I've got three projects on and I spend six hours flipping between them: I call it two hours per job, unless I know that I really only spent half an hour fiddling with job number one but spent some serious time on job number three. Sure, I want to be accurate and I don't want to rip my clients off, but accounting for every minute I spend goes too far the other way for me.

tapir-whorf is spot on with their "quit underestimating" advice (above).
posted by ZipRibbons at 5:48 AM on January 31, 2019

I use the little app that comes with Quickbooks called My Time.
posted by humboldt32 at 9:29 AM on January 31, 2019

Another vote for Harvest. I've used both Toggle and Harvest and I find Harvest to be just a bit easier to manage from the admin side as well as the user side (you are both, just like me!). I also use Harvest for invoicing and it has a few great features that actually made my move to QuickBooks Online kind of....too difficult! I gave up on that for another year.

A couple great features for Harvest. One, it makes starting/stopping clock really easy. And there are some browser extensions that are handy for this. If you are working on multiple projects daily and it's the same project, you can "copy rows" to a new day and have a pre-populated timesheet ready for time entry. But, you must have good habits!

I maintain good habits by having a set of saved tabs that I open every morning. They include Harvest, my task tracker (Wrike which also has time-tracking as does Asana, I think, but I like Harvest better), my work inbox and my work calendar. Very first thing, I start every work day with a time-tracker that is "unbillable" admin time for my business project. EVERY. DAY. Why do I do this? One, it gets my habit started for the day and I am motivated to get that clock off unbillable and onto something billable. Also, tracking that time that you spend dinking around not billing (YMMV) is crucial information. They recently added an alert you can turn on that tells you at a specified time to track your time for the day if you haven't already.

Another good habit - always make a memo! Anytime you go in to switch your time, make a note in the memo field about what you are working on. This helps you focus and also helps you later in sorting out your invoices, and reminding you of all the work you did. When I let this slide I am inevitably sad later. And, sometimes it happens that a clock gets off (forget to turn it off, assign it to the wrong task or client) and my memo helps me remember what the hell I was doing so I can correct it.

Final good habit - don't randomly switch projects all day. Be focused when you hit that clock. Be focused when you turn it off. Remember that sitting at your computer can feel like you are working but you might just be wasting time. Like me. Right now. My non-billable clock is running...gotta go!
posted by amanda at 9:49 AM on January 31, 2019 [3 favorites]

There are a lot of options, and this question has been asked a few times previously.

I use an app called Tracking Time. You can log in via their website, or on the app on your computer or phone.

It lets me set up clients, as well as projects and tasks. It's super easy to clock in and out of tasks. The free version is robust enough for me, but I'd pay for this if needed.
posted by hydra77 at 9:58 AM on January 31, 2019

Just an idea: when in a similar position a couple of years ago, I used a time tracking software that made screenshots of my desktop every X minutes. I could review or play back those screenshots whenever I had no idea where my day went.
posted by gakiko at 1:27 PM on January 31, 2019 [1 favorite]

When I was freelancing the app I settled on was paymo. There are a few time keeping options, including one that will break down the time you spend in each of the applications you use: "All time spent in apps, documents, and email or on specific websites like YouTube or Facebook is monitored. You can use the “Rule Filtering System” system to automatically link time spent to the right projects."
posted by funkiwan at 10:14 PM on January 31, 2019 [1 favorite]

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