Time Tracking: Just How Productive Are You Really?

Time tracking can be a worthwhile exercise. Here’s why you should consider keeping a time log, even if only for a week or month at a time.

For freelancers, consultants and small business owners, time is money. Hours spent producing content, designing a website or developing an app generates income. Hours spent watching silly cat videos or scrolling through Facebook are hours when you’re not making any money (unless of course you’re a cat video curator or a Facebook marketer and even then, the justifications can get fuzzy).

If you bill clients by the project, the word or some other (non-hourly) metric, then the correlation between time and money isn’t as clearly defined. Still, time tracking can be a worthwhile exercise. Here’s why you should consider keeping a time log, even if only for a week or month at a time.

Time Tracking Benefit #1: Get Real About How Productive You Are

“Keeping a time log is not about figuring out how much time we waste,” writes Laura Vanderkam, time management expert and author of “168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think.” “It is about making sure we are not telling ourselves stories about our lives that are not actually true.”

Vanderkam says many of us over-estimate the number of hours we work and underestimate the amount of time we spend watching TV or checking social media. We all need some downtime, so a few social media breaks needn’t induce a major guilt spiral (one could argue that social media time is actually marketing time but once you’re on Twitter it’s a fine line between tweeting professional contacts and liking a celebrity’s new haircut).

If we tell ourselves that we can’t for exercise or take on a new project because we’re just too busy, that’s a problem. By cutting back the TV or mindless social media, maybe we could make time for the work or personal projects that are more important to us. And maybe we could choose to take a walk or call a friend during breaks rather than doing more mindless activities that feel like work but really aren’t productive and don’t energize us.

Time Tracking Benefit #2: Minimize Time-Wasters

While Vanderkam mentions above that time-tracking isn’t just about figuring out how much time we waste, the practice can help keep us accountable. “The act of observing something changes the thing being observed,” Vanderkam writes on her blog. “If you have to write down ‘Worked 5 minutes on a main project then took a 45-minute Facebook and web surfing break’ you may be a bit less inclined to do it again, you know?”

For me, when I start the timer on a work project (which I don’t do nearly enough), I’m less inclined to answer an email or check my Twitter feed because that timer reminds me to stay on task. It helps keep me accountable and focused rather than jumping around trying to multitask.

As it turns out, trying to multitask isn’t as productive as focusing on one task at a time, because we lose momentum constantly shifting from one task to another and those shifts also create stress. “Doing several things at once is a trick we play on ourselves, thinking we’re getting more done,” writes Peter Bregman in the Harvard Business Review. Tracking my time encourages me to single-task, which boosts my productivity in the process.

Time Tracking Benefit #3: More Accurate Project Estimates

If you bill by the project, then your project rate likely considers how long you estimate the project will take as well as other factors such as your target hourly rate, experience level and so on. But if you aren’t tracking your time, how do you really know how much time you’re spending writing a white paper or developing a client’s website? You don’t.

For all you know, the white paper project that stretches over a couple of weeks could be eating up many more hours than you realize because you’re working on it in fits and starts without actually adding up your time investment. Say your target hourly rate is $100 and you estimate that the white paper will take you about twelve hours, which equates to $1,200. You’re a savvy freelancer who knows to build a little extra time into your project estimates, so you quote the client $1,500.

But between conference calls to discuss messaging, emails reminding your client that you still need background materials and a last-minute expert whose quotes have to be added to the white paper, you wind up spending twenty hours in little chunks of time that add up over several weeks. Once you know how much time you’re actually spending on this type of project, you’ll likely want to quote higher for your next white paper or get more explicit about the project scope so you can avoid scope creep.


If you don’t already track your time, you might consider using it as a productivity tool in the ways outlined above. I’ve found tracking my time helps foster awareness of how my time is really spent and where I might be wasting valuable hours. At the end of the day, time is money for small business owners, so we want to make sure we’re not wasting any.

Of course, once you begin tracking your time effectively, you also have the option of using it as a billing tool. No matter why you want to start tracking your time, FreshBooks makes it so easy that you’ll actually want to do it!

P.S. It’s Ridiculously Easy to Track Your Time in FreshBooks

No matter why you want to start tracking your time, FreshBooks makes it so easy that you’ll actually want to do it. Within the Time Tracking section you have two options as to how you’d like to work:

  1. Log your hours after the fact, or
  2. Set a timer to log them automatically

Some people prefer to track their hours after they’re finished a task. There’s something satisfying about being able to wrap up your work by logging it into FreshBooks – it almost acts as a confirmation that you are done. Tracking after the fact can also be helpful if you’re spending a lot of time with your client. You may be too busy to start a timer in the moment but still need to get your hours logged – doing it after the fact allows you to focus on your client when it matters most but still keep an accurate log of how you spent your day.

Time tracking

FreshBooks also has a timer so you can get a to-the-minute record of your time. Just hit the start button and get to work. Whenever you need to take a break you can hit the pause button. Ready to switch tasks or call it a day? Just hit the log time button to submit it.

No matter how you prefer to track your time, FreshBooks presents your hours to you in a color-coded chart so you can see how you spent your day at-a-glance. You can also automatically pull your hours onto an invoice so you can be confident you’re charging for all of your work.

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about the author

Freelance Contributor Freelance journalist Susan Johnston Taylor covers entrepreneurship, small business and lifestyle for publications including The Boston Globe, Wall Street Journal, Entrepreneur and FastCompany.com. Follow her on Twitter.