As a freelancer, time tracking is an absolutely critical function of the business. If you don’t track your time, how can you know which projects are worth doing? How can you tell that you’re actually getting your desired payrate or slowly getting suckered into more and more scope creep? I remember a time when I used the most neanderthal approach to tracking time. I literally took a kitchen timer and set it on my desk. I then recorded my time on a spreadsheet. The latest iteration is my use of the desktop task timer app, now available on the Mac App Store.
￼I’m a huge fan of simplicity, and this mac app certainly embodies that philosophy. You start off with three empty task bars and a simple widget at the bottom to create new clients to assign them to. Give each client a color and a price, and you’ve got the basis for an invoicing system.
But I don’t just stop at invoicing my clients. I also like to keep track of the time I spend on all sorts of other tasks like blogging, sending out proposals, answering emails, skyping, and accounting. I create groups for each of these tasks so I can see how much time I’m devoting to the other aspects of the business. This is important because it doesn’t matter that you’re getting $50 to $100 per hour if your ratio of marketing to billable hours is off.
Log hours. Invoice clients.
Desktop Task Timer has an invoicing system built into it. I’ll readily admit that it’s not the easiest system to learn, but once you get the hang of it, you’ll be fine. You can export a time log for specific clients, and you can also assign a payrate to those clients. Once a project is done, you can export a date range to a .csv file. This is really nice when you want to send an invoice. Your clients can very easily see which tasks are taking up the lion’s share of the time.
￼There are a few issues with the app. I found myself accidentally assigning the wrong groups to certain tasks a little more often than I would have liked. I’m not sure if that was just me being an idiot, but it is worth noting.
I also had to ask the developer how to export a date range to invoice my clients. It’s not entirely clear how to do this once you start using the app. You have to click on the date, allow the calendar to pop up, and then select a range of dates with your mouse. Doing so will show you a list of all the projects within your date range for that particular client. You can then export everything to a .csv file. The functionality is completely there. It’s just not as intuitive as it could be.
My favorite feature.
I’m not a perfect person. I tend to get distracted. I’ll go take a shower, brew another pot of coffee, or call up a friend in the middle of a task. With my old scheme, the time tracker would keep on recording my time. When I got back, I would have no idea how long I was gone. Whatever time got recorded was completely inaccurate.
Desktop Task Timer has a cool feature that shuts off the timer when it suspects you are no longer doing anything productive (Facebook doesn’t count by the way). A message will pop up, asking you if you would like to discard your inactive time. You can then be sure that all time logged is productive time. Very useful.
I am certain there are other productivity apps out there that do something similar. I am merely pointing this out because it’s a feature I use all of the time.
Managing tasks from the status bar.
I’m a huge fan of Apple’s spaces concept. They’ve done a really great job of it in OSX Lion. Having said that, it can sometimes conflict with time tracking software. You have to keep switching spaces if you run a lot of different apps. Desktop Task Timer allows you to turn the timer on and off straight from the status bar within any space. It’s yet another handy feature when you just want to turn off the timer and take a quick break from your work.
Desktop Task Timer is fantastic little app at reasonable price. I still think it needs to go through a few design iterations before it’s ready for a more mainstream user. I needed help on some of the complicated aspects of using the app, things like crafting invoices. I had no idea you could get the calendar to pop out of the side by pressing on the date, for example.
I have used a lot of other means of tracking time. I have used the time tracking apps that come with Odesk and Elance, mostly out of necessity. They are okay, but they take too much control of my computer (not to mention the implication that I’m not being productive enough and my clients need to spy one me). It’s annoying to have an app constantly taking screen shots and accidentally disconnecting from the server. I’ve spent extra time making sure those apps are working, and that’s ridiculous because I don’t get paid for it. Desktop Task Timer is very simple. It doesn’t connect to a server at all.
Pretty soon I’m going to review an online service called Freshbooks. I have more than one computer, so I’m excited to see if it will improve my overall workflow. I’ve been a little hesitant to go with a fully cloud-based system, but let’s face it. I’m totally useless if I don’t have some sort of Internet connection. To go fully cloud is merely acknowledging the reality I already live in. Stay tuned, and I’ll let you know what I think.