Time tracking. When some people hear those words they cringe. For creatives, it can conjure visions of punching clocks, sitting in cubicles, and working for “the man”.
In many larger, more corporate companies, time reports are used to gauge utilization. They use “magical spreadsheets” to determine if a person is productive and valuable. More hours worked equals greater productivity which means greater value, right?
Not always. In recent years there has been a big push across creative industries to kill the billable hour. Many purists claim that breaking tasks down and tracking time hourly doesn’t reflect a modern workplace. That in fact, true value should factor in intangibles like a creative’s experience or the benefit a client stands to gain from a creative’s unique perspective.
As creatives ourselves, we get it. But somewhere along the line, time tracking and billing became synonymous. Some people now think that because of their creative skillset and unorthodox way of producing, they don’t need to track their time because the end result isn’t a billable hour. We’re looking at you Value Based Pricing evangelists…
So where does this mentality (or lack thereof) come from?
Often this stems from a perceived need for flexibility and freedom. Many freelance designers, developers, and creative types would rather die than work an 8-hour-a-day, 9am to 5pm job. The thought of tracking time brings up negative connotations of the corporate world we mentioned above—which many creatives have spent their lives rebelling against. They are hell-bent on doing things their own way and will not tolerate anything stifling their creativity.
If you’re working for yourself or even someone else in the creative space, you’re part of a real business.
That’s a great thought, and in a perfect creative world it might work. But seriously—grow up.
If you’re working for yourself or even someone else in the creative space, you’re part of a real business. And in a real business you need to concern yourself with things like efficiency, forecasting, and schedules.
I don’t care if you bill by the hour, by the day, by the project, or by the damn lunar cycle. How you choose to bill your clients is irrelevant. But if you want a true understanding of where your time goes and what it’s worth, you have to track it.
Time tracking can expose shortcomings
Let’s say you want to lose 10 lbs. If you’re putting in the time to shed the weight, you’re more likely to jump on a scale every day to see the results, right? Watching the numbers go down can give you a sense of purpose and a visual representation of the sacrifices you’re making. Tracking your progress tells you how well your new routine and regimen are working.
The same rules apply in your day-to-day work. If you aren’t tracking how long it takes do to a particular task, you’ll never know how long things truly take.
Distractions are everywhere. Know where you spend your time.
Once you start tracking time, you come to realize how much of your day is filled with distractions. You think to yourself, “I know I worked all day, but why am I only showing 4 actual hours of work?”.
The extra time you took at lunch, the call you took in the middle of the day, shooting the shit with co-workers about last night’s game—they all add up. If you know how much time you actually work in a day, it will be easier for you to make realistic commitments and forecast your availability to clients.
Time tracking informs progress
Like I said above, it doesn’t matter how you bill—you still have to commit to deliverables and deadlines when working with a client. If you aren’t tracking your time, you’re only giving them your best guess on delivery times. You’re agreeing to a price and deadline that may or may not be attainable. And that’s never good.
As a Project Manager with over a decade of experience, I typically have an idea of how long a particular task should take. But it’s not an exact science. Having data to support my hunch is always beneficial.
Here’s an example: We’re kicking off a web app design with a new client. I have a hard and fast delivery date and just a few hours to put this in the hands of stakeholders. I have two Designers available to me, so I look at past time sheets on a similar project we did a few months back.
Designer 1 usually takes 7 hours to produce a product dashboard. He is usually more deliberate in his process and we end up needing fewer revisions. Designer 2 averages about 4 hours per dashboard, but she sometimes sacrifices detail for speed. Which designer do you use?
Knowing these data points are invaluable when planning project sprints for clients. Without them, you’d never be sure of the right approach until things began to unravel. Again, that’s never good.
Data is your friend
The bottom line is this—without the numbers you don’t know anything. You don’t know if your hourly or day rate is right. You can’t give a value based pricing quote because you don’t know what your value is. And you certainly won’t know if/when you’re losing money on a project if you’re always guessing how long something will take.
Track the numbers, gain the insights, and put them to use running your business.