Time Tracking

Published at Nov 11, 2020

Our whole company is based on time tracking. While we can understand the love-hate relationship many people have with it, you shouldn’t overlook the benefits. Let’s go through a few things we learned about time tracking and how we make it less scary.

The benefits of tracking time

First of all, we think that time is the most precious thing we all have, so that’s what we sell. Clients trustfully hire us to work with them for a certain amount of days, giving the best we can during that time. We promise to focus entirely on our client’s projects and do the thing we can do best.

That also means no one is paying more hours than we work, and no one is paying fewer hours than we did. If we’re pretty fast together, that’s a win for both of us. If you’re adding more and more requirements to the feature, you’ll get more, also pay more in the end, and it’s also a win for both sides. That’s the fairest it can get.

That makes writing offers and invoices easier, too. Why should we waste time negotiating a price with you? It’s not what we are good at, and it’s nothing anybody benefits from. Our offers have a recommended amount of days we need to work together to help you the best. Our invoices are a monthly sum of tracked hours, roughly the amount in our offers. Or it’s less if we didn’t work as much as we expected, or more if there was more to do a particular month.

Also, that’s fully transparent for everyone. We can warn our clients upfront if we’re going to need more time and leave the decision to them.

Most of our invoices only include the sum of hours and a list of things achieved in that time. If someone asks, we also attach a detailed time tracking report. From our experience, clients who ask for that level of transparency have trust issues anyway, and we can’t build up trust from that alone, so there’s probably some more serious issues behind that question.

Most people here work from their home office, and so a lot happens without everyone knowing it, but the sum of tracked hours per project gives a good glimpse over what happens in the company. Note that there is a big assumption in it, which probably doesn’t work for every team. We assume if people spend time on a project, they move it forward. If we want to move a project forward quicker, it’s often enough to schedule more time of one or two project members for those projects for the upcoming months.

Without tracking time

Sure, it’s great not having to press a button before and after work. But, that can be very dangerous in many regards, especially for creative work.

I don’t know about you, but we forget about time when we’re in a flow state and deeply concentrated. There is no chance I could tell you if I was working one or four hours on a problem at the end of a day, or I could know if I was working 50 or 100 hours on a specific project at the end of the month.

Though, I like to look up how much I worked over the week on a Friday evening. A lot of hours can be a sign of a lot of uninterrupted work, which’s a good thing.

We even feel it protects us from doing more or less than we get paid. Both could be bad for a calm working environment, where you don’t want to do extra hours (stress!) and don’t want to slack around too much in between projects (procrastination leads to stress).

How we do it

We use Toggl Track for a few years now, but you can use whatever you like. It’s a service that everyone in the team has access to, has a big start/stop button, and a description field. That’s it.

By the way, some tools offer automatic time tracking, which checks what app you’re running for how long. If you struggle to build the habit of tracking the time, that’s probably a better start.

When you’re ready to work on a project, start by clicking the start button. When you’re finished, hit stop. There is no need to stop the tracking if you’re away from the keyboard for a few minutes. Only pause the timer if you’re about to take your lunch break, any other kind of long pause, or to switch to a different project (which we try to avoid).

For most projects, it’s enough to attach the entry to that project and roughly describe in few words what you’re doing, for example, “Designing wireframes”. There is no need to get too specific here and mention single tasks or anything like that.

What we’re tracking

Our whole billing bases on time tracking, so it’s essential to track clients’ work, including everything you need to advance the project. For example, when you’re designing, developing, thinking, doing research, or experiments.

Besides that, we also expect people to track internal projects (I’m tracking time on “Blog” right now), and we have a lot of them. For example, our website, all of our self-initiated projects, a sustainability project, social engagement projects, and many more.

Every team member needs time to learn, so we schedule days to do just that. We ask people to track that too. Learning doesn’t produce a tangible outcome, so the tracked time can be a great indicator if there was enough time to learn over the year.

Don’t track that

We don’t track other things, like socializing, watching a video between tasks, or other smaller breaks. We all need those, especially while doing creative work.

Also, we don’t expect anyone to get to the amount of time in their contract. There are probably many people sitting eight hours a day in front of their screen, but no one works eight hours straight—no need to get to that sum of hours for your working day.

Common pitfalls

We don’t want to sound too optimistic here. Yes, it can be unpleasant to press the start/stop before doing the actual work. All our projects are scheduled based on days, so people only have to press start and stop a few times in an ideal week. From our experience adding descriptions can feel tedious, too. For example, as I’ve already said, “developing the backend” is eloquent enough in most cases.

If you expect to track your whole day, that’s going to be disappointing, too. We don’t get tired to repeat it:

No one works eight hours straight. A day with four to six hours of tracked time has probably been a great day with plenty of uninterrupted work. We consider that a huge success already. There is no need to get to eight hours per day (or whatever your contract says).

Oh, and yes, we don’t confuse the tracked time with “performance” or take it as a metric of success for a single team member or us as a company. Tracking more time doesn’t make you or us more productive per se. We try to keep it fair for everyone. For you, for the whole team, and our clients, that’s all.

Your experience

What’s your experience with time tracking? Is there anything that annoys you? Do you have an idea of how it can get more comfortable? Share it with us on Twitter!