Are you managing and monitoring your time properly to maximize business success? If not, don’t despair! It’s never too late to make positive changes. The following “dos and don’ts” may help you develop smarter freelance time tracking habits.
#1 Do Merge Time Tracking and Time Management
The better you get at managing your time, the easier it is to track it. Depending on your personality, preferences, and problem areas, you may need to have both a big picture time management strategy for your workweek and a detail-oriented technique for workdays. This approach can be particularly helpful for very right-brained freelancers who have difficulty with organization.
Dawn Foster uses Time Chunking to manage her freelance work, “I batch my client work and other tasks into similar chunks. I save my tasks for a specific client and work on them all at once, which helps me stay focused on that client for a period of time and helps to avoid getting projects confused by jumping too quickly between clients.” When you spend too many chunks of time on a particular project, it’s easy to figure out which client is costing you money.
At a more granular level, there are methods like the “Pomodoro Technique” that can help you stay focused and motivated while enabling more accurate time tracking. Mixing bursts of work with scheduled break periods is supposed to make you more productive without killing creativity. You can get an idea of the basics at LifeHack. This hardline approach could be particularly helpful if you are a work-at-home mom or dad. Your kids might learn to fend for themselves in 25 minute increments and save their questions, requests, and complaints for your break periods. (Here’s hoping!)
#2 Don’t Let Your Time Tracking Software Ruin Your Life
Choose your freelance time tracking software based on your preferred time management method rather than letting an app dictate how you manage your time. In particular, bear in mind that time tracking is bad for your business if it is destroying your creative flow. Your tracking tool should be as unobtrusive, minimally disruptive, and easy to use as possible. Otherwise, it can feel like a ticking tyrant breathing down your neck, telling you how slow or easily distracted you are. Definitely don’t choose software because you think it will force you to form new habits or be more productive. Your freelance business isn’t supposed to be like fitness boot camp with a personal trainer spraying spittle in your face and pushing you to work harder.
Quick tips for picking the right tool: Graphic Design Blender has a long list of time tracking tools for freelancers that’s worth a look if you’re shopping for an app. As with most business tools, something simple that gets the job done is always best. If you are juggling 20 clients or managing a team of subcontractors, you may need features like project management and integrated billing. If you are a sole proprietor and have a handful of projects or clients at one time, you may not want to waste brain space learning a whole new system. Take your hardware into consideration when you choose your application. Some of the popular apps like Yast have a well-reviewed web version but a less satisfactory mobile app.
#3 Do Track Two Types of Time
Your freelance time tracking process should always account for both billable and non-billable hours. You must review and analyze these two distinct sets of data if you want to make good business decisions. You don’t have to be punctilious about tracking every minute of non-billable time. However, you do need to have a general idea of how much effort you are putting into your business without getting paid. You should also know what those non-billable activities are helping you accomplish. Here are examples of non-billable work that pays off down the line:
- Developing your branding to demonstrate more value so you can raise your rates
- Extending your access deeper into a good referral network
- Learning skills that open up new revenue streams and opportunities
If you are spending lots of non-billable hours scrambling to find projects to fill out your work schedule each month, that’s not a good sign. A healthy, well-established freelance business should give you a steady stream of repeat and referral work so you can use non-billable time to implement long term marketing and business growth plans.
#4 Don’t Use Freelance Time Tracking to Pad Your Billing
Time tracking can be a somewhat fluid process. Even if you keep a close eye on the clock, you may not be absolutely accurate. That’s not something to freak out about. If you bill by the hour (which I don’t advise), rounding up or down to the nearest 10 minutes is reasonable. In contrast, using obsessive time tracking to squeeze your client for a few extra dollars is problematic. It’s not good for your mental health or for your business. It makes you stingy with your time and it makes your clients feel like they are being nickel and dimed.
As an example, I recently read a conversation on LinkedIn in which a client complained that a freelancer had charged her for the time required to fill out time sheets and generate an invoice on a project. Seriously, these were line items listed out on the final bill! The client was happy with the work that was done and she did pay the invoice. But she swore she would never do business with that freelancer again. It’s probably not the first time that this particular freelancer lost a client without ever knowing why.
If you feel resentful about the extra time you have to spend on activities like time tracking and billing, you are not charging enough for your services. It is a common mistake to think freelancing means being paid a set wage for hours worked. With that mindset, extra admin tasks will always feel like unpaid overtime. Remember that you are in charge of how much you charge. If you feel cheated, don’t point the finger of blame elsewhere. If you are billing by the hour, moving to a per-project billing structure is the first step in loosening the stranglehold of the time clock.
#5 Do Figure Out Why You Dislike Tracking Your Time
Do you hate time tracking with a vengeance? Do you find it unbearably tedious and depleting? Perhaps you are using the wrong tools or technique. Another reason you might begrudge time tracking is because you are overdoing it. I love what Mridu Khullar Relph says on that topic: “In terms of freelancing, I’m not a believer in tracking everything because there is such a thing as too much data. After a while, you can get lost in it and lose sight of the real goal, which is to make good money while also having fun with your work and having the freedom to slack off every once in a while.” As a world-class slacktivist at heart, I totally agree. If you feel like time tracking is running or ruining your life, take a break. Going a month without tracking your time isn’t going to destroy your business. But it may give you a chance to begin again with a fresh perspective.
What if you maintain good work/life balance but still find it difficult to sit down and start that timer? There could a serious underlying problem with your freelancing choices. Take a close look at the projects you are agreeing to work on. If you are doing work you hate, you will always dread spending time on it. To save your career, you need to phase out the stinkers and start replacing them with projects you actually enjoy. This works just like phasing out low-paying clients in favor of high-paying ones. First, you have to decide that you deserve it. Then, figure out how to make it happen—one job at a time!