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Working as a solopreneur, freelancer, entrepreneur, or side hustler means you have to know where your time is going, period. This is especially important for service-based businesses, but all kinds of small business owners need help with time-tracking.
You can use all types of tools to schedule your time, like calendar apps, a pen and paper, or even post-its – but how do you know what actually happened during your week? Can you categorize your calendar by client, project, or type of work?
That’s where time tracking comes in.
Table of Contents
- Productivity Benefits of Time Tracking
- The Business Benefits of Time Tracking
- Best Time Tracking Apps, Tools, and Solutions
- Next, Conduct a Time Audit Using Your Time Tracking App
- Set Goals to Improve Your Time Management
- Repeat the Process and Improve Productivity
Productivity Benefits of Time Tracking
The act of logging your time can be so beneficial for personal time management it’s astounding. Have you ever tried to use a Pomodoro Timer? How much extra work did you get done?
If you haven’t tried this, I urge you to check it out and see what you can get accomplished.
Someone in my mastermind group the other day said she did 4 pomodoro’s (25 minute timed blocks of work) the other day, and she got more done in that time period than she usually does in an entire day.
How is that possible? For some people, when you’re under the clock (even if it’s one you set), you are much more conscious of distracting thoughts that come into play, and can even start to gamify your work (turning it into a game).
Even the act of tracking what you’re working on through a day can keep you aware of the projects and goals you have enough to actually get them done.
- Helps you create daily routines and habits
- Helps you focus on one task, instead of continually context-switching to the point where you don’t remember what you started working on.
- Similar to the one above, I’ve actually used my timer to go back figure out what I was working on in the first place. Call me crazy, but more than a handful of times have I gone back and said “oh yea! I was working on this project, but somewhere along the line I ended up over here working on something entirely different.”
- If you’re working in a team, it helps you keep track of the projects your team members and employees are working on.
The Business Benefits of Time Tracking
One of the best things I did for my business was to start logging my time and seeing where it was all going. I started realizing that some of my clients who weren’t paying me as much were getting more of my time than those who were paying more. That didn’t sit right with me, so I started raising prices on some, and allocating more time to others.
But without tracking my time and what projects I was working on, it was all just a guess.
It’s like asking me how many calories I ate yesterday when I didn’t actually track what I was consuming. I wouldn’t even come close to being accurate – that’s probably why I haven’t been able to lose those extra pounds.
The two apps that I currently use to track my time are Toggl and RescueTime, but there are tons of others that can help you do this. It all comes down to what kind of work you’re doing, how many people are on your team (if you have one), and of course personal preference and usability.
Some of the business benefits of time tracking that I have found are:
- Understanding how much time each project (and client) is taking up and being able to compare that to how much you charge.
- Better time and cost estimates for future projects
- Being able to provide clients more accurate delivery dates for projects
- Helping with hiring. By tracking your time, you’re able to understand that you will need to bring on help if you sign 3 more clients
- Helping save yourself (and employees/freelancer) from scope creep
- Allow you to look back and see if what you actually got done were things that moved your business forward, or just felt like work.
Last but not least:
- It keeps you professional. And no, I’m not talking about outward appearance here, I’m talking about for you, as the entrepreneur. Especially in the beginning, it can be hard to treat your side hustle as a business, especially when you’re still working for someone else and have that steady paycheck coming in.
Bloggers definitely have this problem too, which is why you’ll hear over and over and over again to make sure you treat your blog as a business. What better way to start doing that then by tracking your time?
All in all, it’s really eye-opening to just stick with tracking your time for a week or two and see what happens. Even if you hate it after that time period, you’ll have a much clearer understanding of what you worked on, what got done, and if you’re seriously undercharging your clients.
Best Time Tracking Apps, Tools, and Solutions
There are a ton of time tracking apps, but I wanted to share some great places to get started for you.
ClickUp is a task manager first, but they have a pretty cool time tracking tool you can use as well.
It’s setup as a Google Chrome browser extension, and you can choose which task you’re working on and then track how much time you’ve spent on that thing.
The chrome extension also allows you to screenshot you desktop, email, add notes, and create new tasks.
In your chrome extension bar you also see how much time you’ve spent on the task you’re working on, which is pretty helpful so you don’t have to open another screen to check that.
ClickUp in an incredible software that allows you to manage your projects, track your time, and essentially keep up with your entire life.
They have a free plan which is great for most people, but if you want to add more complex integrations and store more documents, you'll have to upgrade...but their plans start at $5 per month, so it's super accessible for most.
Harvest was the first time tracking app I ever used. And it was only because I was in need of an invoicing system and Harvest just happened to track time as well.
Price: Free for time tracking, if you want to use their invoicing platform the paid version might be better for you. Starts at $12/mo.
Platform: Web, iPhone (iOS), and Android
Notable Integrations: Asana, Basecamp, Github, Slack, Quickbooks, Trello, Zapier, Xero
Harvest was a great place for me when I was just getting started with managing clients and invoicing. However, it’s just not as intuitive or easy to use as some others in my opinion.
It is more robust in the fact that they offer invoicing as well, but it’s just not as feature-rich as some of the other time tracking apps on this list.
If you are into using the invoicing portion of Harvest, here is an example of the layout of a sample invoice.
I also really like some of their invoice reporting, which shows month over month growth. As far as time tracking, it was just really boring – and if that’s what you’re looking for (which in all seriousness it could be), then go try it out!
RescueTime is more of a “passive” time tracking app. This will be great for those of you who know right off the bat you aren’t going to track your time religiously.
You essentially install it on your computer and it tracks every website you go to and categorizes your time into “Productive” vs “Distracted”. It sounds creepy because it’s tracking every website you visit, but it’s helpful for you to know how you’re REALLY spending your time.
I've been using this app for years and love the insights its provides. I can tell when I'm starting to "slip" and check social media or other leisure sites more frequently.
It also keeps me honest about how I'm spending my time. It's kind of like a calorie counter for your business.
Price: Free, but if you want more features – like blocking distracting websites – you can pay $9/mo.
Platform: Desktop – must be installed on your computer (PC/Mac/Linux)
Notable Integrations: None – this is more of a general tracker, not for specific clients
I use RescueTime in addition to Toggl because it tracks websites and applications on your computer that you are using.
Some of the sites you visit, like Facebook, YouTube, etc. CAN be productive if you’re running ads or engaging for business, but likely they are NOT productive.
I like the reporting feature of RescueTime because it will show me gaps of time where I’m getting caught up in a YouTube hole, or browsing Facebook for WAY too long.
Here is what the dashboard looks like, which can either make you feel really good, or like you don’t know what you’re doing with your life.
This next part breaks down each category of time you’ve spent over the time period selected:
27.8 hours in Gmail? I clearly need a change in my routine :O
This last one is a DOOZY. No wonder I feel like I’m losing my eyesight…
All of this data is awesome to be able to go back and look at. I’d definitely recommend installing RescueTime, because you don’t have to manage it at all, it’s just always open and captures how productive you are…. And after taking these screenshots to show you, I’m realizing I might need to make some changes.
This is not a great platform for tracking time working on clients, but is great to help you see if you’re being productive or not.
This one works well for remote teams, but is also a great option for solopreneurs. I have only tested out the trial version of Hubstaff, but it is intuitive and manages a ton of data for your projects.
Price: Free for one user; $5/mo+ per user for more features
Platform: Desktop and mobile app
Notable Integrations: Quickbooks, Freshdesk, Paypal, Trello, Insightly, Asana, Zendesk, Wrike, Github, Salesforce
Hubstaff includes time tracking, invoicing, timesheets, app and URL tracking (to make sure your businesses employees aren’t on Facebook all day). They also take random screenshots of your employees desktop throughout the day to make sure your people are working on what they say they are working on.
Here is an example of their Max OSx desktop timer. It’s not as visually appealing as some of the others on this list, but it definitely get’s the job of time tracking done.
If you do have employees or freelancers who work with you, you can actually pay them directly through Hubstaff.
If you are planning on hiring a bunch of employees, contractors, or freelancers and virtual assistants in the future, it might make sense to just start with Hubstaff.
In the beginning, it might seem like overkill, but it’ll make your life much easier down the road when you want to start tracking other people’s time as well.
This is the time tracking software I used for a long time. Toggl is simple, intuitive and you can add a bunch of projects to assign your time to. This helps me keep track of which clients I’m spending a TON of time on and if I need to re-evaluate my pricing strategies.
Price: Free up to 5 team members; paid plans start at $20/month
Platform: Web, Desktop app, iPhone (iOS), Android, Chrome Timer
Notable Integrations: Asana, Freshbooks, Basecamp, Google Docs, Trello, Github, Slack, Teamwork, Salesforce, Quickbooks, Evernote, Zapier, Zendesk
You can add clients, projects for each client, as well as tags, which essentially allow you to tag projects so you can see how much time you actually spend on a specific type of work.
For example, if you work with clients you can add tags like “phone calls” or “email”, whatever will help you keep track of the activities you repeat for most clients.
They also have an iPhone app to help track time when you’re on the go – reading on the bus, or out on a call.
One of my favorite parts of Toggl is their desktop app. It will literally remind me every 5 minutes (if I don’t have a timer running) to track my time. This is great for those of us (like me) who often forget to track their time. You can also change the interval it reminds you to track time if every 5 minutes is too much.
Cool features of the Toggl Desktop App:
- It shows what project you’re working on in the menu bar (at least on a Mac)
- It reminds you to track time if you aren’t doing so at the moment
- If you walk away from your computer and forget to stop the timer (or just having moved your mouse – i.e. maybe you’re distracted on your phone), when you come back it will ask if you want to get rid of your “idle time”.
They have great reporting, a visual timeline that passively tracks your time if you aren’t in there, and allows you to import and export data as well.
Lastly, the integration with Asana is amazing. I can literally start the timer from inside any Asana task, and not even have to open Toggl.
Due.com is a tool that kept coming up in my research and people were raving about it. I wasn’t that impressed, at least with the time tracking piece of it.
Price: Free if you don’t process payments with their invoicing system.
Platform: Web app, Apple Watch app
Notable Integrations: Basecamp
The user interface just didn’t speak to me. To track time for a task, you had to create a project, create a task to assign to that project and THEN start the timer.
One of the things I love about Toggl is you can just start the timer at any point, and when you’re done with that task you can go back and assign it to a project or task. I don’t see that functionality here, but I hear the invoicing features are fantastic.
Maybe the way Due.com has it set up is helpful for some people who might just never go back to categorize it properly. For me this would keep me from ever using the timer.
You can just go back in and add how much time you worked on a project – so that’s a nice feature.
The invoicing side of things does look quite nice. I like this dashboard they have that shows how much money is outstanding, past due and received.
All in all, I wasn’t wildly impressed by this platform and the “ease” of time tracking. They also don’t have a mobile app if that is a deal breaker for you.
Price: Starts at $15/mo
Platform: Web, Mobile Apps (no desktop app at this point), Chrome Timer
Notable Integrations: Asana, Bidsketch, Acuity Scheduling, Basecamp, Zapier, Trello, Slack, Shopify, Salesforce, Insightly, Zendesk, and a ton more. ***link to integrations page
I really like Freshbooks features, many of which are similar to the ones I’ve raved about with Toggl above. It has a visual timeline and a Google Chrome timer that allows you to start a timer without navigating to their website.
They have great reporting for those of you with team members, so you can see at a glance what everyone is working on and how much time they’ve billed.
And because they offer a great invoicing platform, you can also automatically bill clients for hours worked. Now that’s pretty cool.
They also have that coveted Asana integration I showed above where you can start a timer from right within an Asana task.
I use Quickbooks for all of my bookkeeping and invoicing stuff, but Freshbooks is one I keep considering switching to because I would be able to track time and send out invoices from the same platform.
Timely is a time tracker I hadn’t heard of prior to doing research for this article, but I’m wildly impressed. This is one of those platforms that was built to do one thing and do it really, really well.
Price: Starts at $8/mo
Platform: Everything? They have iOS, Android, Mac, Windows, and even an Apple Watch app.
Notable Integrations: Google Calendar, Gmail, Office 365, Github, Trello, Asana, Todoist, Wunderlist
They give you multiple ways to look at your data, and the one I find most awesome is the calendar view. They actually show you how much billable time you had each block of time and add that up to show your days billable hours. Here, take a look for yourself:
It looks like it mixes RescueTime (tracking your websites and computer activity) with your own inputs. If you forget to log time for a project but it noticed you were working on a client website, it will recommend that you assign that some billable hours to that project…automatically. What?!
They also allow you to see how much budget is left in each project (so cool!) so you can see at a glance how everything is progressing, if you’re potentially going to go over budget (before you actually do!), etc.
Okay, so in this age of SAAS is king (software as a service) – there are thousands of others I can’t list, but I did come across some names a few times that need a mention:
- Everhour – integrates with a whole slew of apps, and starts at $5/mo
- Triggerapp – is also a full project management tool and you can use it for free
- Clockify – Really simple, free time tracking app
Next, Conduct a Time Audit Using Your Time Tracking App
Alright so once you have chosen a tool AND logged the data of where your time is being spent, you’re going to want to actually look at it and see what changes need to be made to your routine.
As you saw from my RescueTime screenshots, I spend WAY too much time in email.
Find Out Where You Are Wasting Time
Go into your time tracking app of choice, and see where you are spending the most time. I’d look at the top 10-20 places and see if they correlate with “productivity.” If not, write them down.
Are you spending too much time on social? Are you wasting time around the office every day? Do you have a 30-minute time block you can find to get some exercise in, even though you’ve told yourself you don’t?
Be honest with yourself – and just so you aren’t shy, I’ll go first: I had RescueTime running for a LONG time and just really looked at it while writing this. Yes, that’s true.
Set Goals to Improve Your Time Management
Then, we are going to take those items you wrote down and come up with ways to reduce or even eliminate the time you’re spending doing those things.
Set SMART goals to remove one thing at a time. Don’t sit here and tell me you’re deleting Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and canceling Netflix all in the same day.
Just pick one, start small, and then once you master the time you USED to waste on that thing – move on to the next.
The key here is to make sure you’re actually implementing new strategies based on the time audit.
Repeat the Process and Improve Productivity
If you’re like me, you’ll set a reminder 2 months from when you start a new goal to check in and make sure you haven’t fallen back into that habit.
I can’t say I always DO something about that reminder, but I’ll set it. Don’t be like me. Follow up with yourself and see if you’ve stuck with it.
Then, repeat the process with another goal and continue to improve yourself and your business.