Search form

Tracking Time, Managing Your You

Time-tracking is often viewed as the one most singularly evil impulse between you and your creative energies. For good reason? David Maas gives a first-hand impression.

There's always an uncomfortable moment when someone asks me about time management. I scope them out for indications of sincerity - do they really want to hear about time management or will they bluntly remember that they have a meeting with their mom shortly after I've begun to dish out my secrets. Well, put your moms on hold - here's one of the ugly realities of freelance time management. The time tracker.

Manic lines

I've had all sorts of relations with time tracking. I've been in a production house with a boss who'd installed automatic tracking software to tabulate each and every worker's each and every minute on each and every software. I've been a boss trying to get an overview of my team's productivity, so that we might make this or that more efficient - but more importantly - so that I could schedule our results and plan landmark evaluations. And I've been a freelancer, alone in my home office, tracking my time for transparent billing and defense of my free time.

It's no surprise that my main positive encounter with time tracking is this last, most intimate version. Trackign team time is divisive - it makes each member feel that only their output is of any value, and thus its been much more positive in my experience to concetrate on projections, checking progress in regular intervals, discussing issues along the way. Anything more minute than that cause a shift away from controlling the work and towards controlling the person. And controlling the person is... counterproductive.

Controlling your own person, however... is downright enlightening.

Case study:

I get nervous when not lined up with jobs into the foreseeable future... or at least I was, about 10 years ago. I've never had much of a security net about me and so... I was nervous. Even in the midst of a job, I'd always have an eye out for acquisition and send out some handshakes here or there to see if I couldn't get something lined up for afterwards, you know. I would have guessed that no more than 10% of my time went out to working the telephones. I never thought I was being anything other than practical. I mean, who's mother wouldn't love ya for making sure the table's set off into the 3rd quarter?

Then I tried tracking my time. I forget the name of the tracker I was using but it had a simple function that tracked time away from the computer, and when you returned it asked to what job / sub-job that time should be adressed. Result? My world collapsed around me. Remember, I was there alone in my home office being my own boss - which means I was being my own employee. No one required me to do this but I had an inkling that I might just be able to wring some wisdom from the statistics. Well, no need to wring anything, the revelation came pouring over me. I was spending 40% to 50% of my time on the telephone, half client communication and half acquisition.

As a result I set up no-call hours and communicated these to my clients. And I stopped acquisition efforts cold turkey. Result? I still had jobs lined up as densely as ever. There were gaps here and there, just like always, but there was also an overall steady employment. My client communication went from 20% of my time - or about 10.8 hours a week. (Yes, I was working an average of 54 hours a week, and yes - I still have the stat reports).

manic me

10 years later:

I don't always track my time. But I use them again and again... particularly when I'm working on numerous projects at once that all require various tasks... concept, communication, asset-creation. I use ManicTime now... which I recommend. It's a low-maintenance, sturdy tagging system with which I am in no way affiliated other than having purchased a license.

To illustrate how it can be used, the above graph represents my last two weeks. (Yeah, I need to work less.) Green (which I filled out here) represents all the tasks I do for me. Browsing, fixing the computer (me, comp), ordering a computer (me, comp), learning software (me, learn, software x). All those things that you do, but don't charge for. As you can see, I recently encountered hefty computer problems, and green dominates my curve. Should actually be red. And blink. And have an alarm sound. (You can change the color, I'll have to make a feature request for the others.) Getting things back in control now, thank you very much. But this way I have a concrete visual summary of just how bad it was. That helps.

Another handy curve comparison is communication across all jobs compared with total. As I mentioned above - an outright enlightenment.