Pain-free time tracking for solo freelancers

James Wondrasek
Dec 2, 2015 · 6 min read

Ah, freelancing. With self determination comes self administration. Charging an hourly rate? You gotta track your time. Charging a flat fee? Really, actually track your time. Don’t just make those numbers up.

The only good time tracker is a hands-free time tracker. The perfect, mind-reading time tracker doesn’t exist yet, so Timing is what I’m using and about to tell you to use.Timing is a Mac app (sorry PC people). It sits in your menu bar and tracks your applications, files and web browsing.

All you need to do is associate files, folders (folders are the smart way to go) and web pages with your projects. Timing sits in the background counting the minutes and hours you spend working on those files in those folders, or reading those pages on those web sites. All the times get added to the appropriate project. It does not get easier than that.

Have a look at this screenshot

Here’s what Timing looks like with two files in a folder associated with two projects — a “project” project and another project acting as a catch-all category for client projects.

Through the Timing menu bar icon you can also enter Custom Activities, to record those occasional things you do away from the computer, like meetings, phone calls and billable naps. You can also get it to prompt you for details if you’ve spent some time not touching your computer.

Now go buy Timing (it’s like fifteen bucks or something ridiculously affordable) or keep reading for some boring details on getting the most out of Timing.

Boring details about using Timing to track your time

Watching grass grow with Sujan Sundareswaran

Repeat: Projects can also be categories

Folders and documents can be associated with multiple projects. This means you can use projects as categories for getting strategic insights, like “Client Work”, “Personal Projects”, “Editing”, “Copywriting”, “Proof-reading”, etc. Whatever big picture you want to track you can.

For example, at Christmas time review how much time you spent on each of your clients during the year when choosing who gets the champagne and who gets the sparkling wine.

My least favourite category is my “Faffing” category. Every entertainment site I visit, every video I watch, every ebook I read when I should be working gets added to Faffing so at the end of the day/week/year I really know how much time has been spent working and how much I spent, well, faffing about. Great thing is — I add Facebook once and every time I visit it gets added to Faffing. So easy. So self-shaming.

Gmail is pain, desktop email apps are gain

If you rely on web apps for a major part of your work you may have tracking issues. I used Gmail for all my emails until recently. It was annoying because I could not identify individual emails in Timing. So I switched to Airmail 2, a desktop email client that has tight integration with Gmail. It places your subject line in the window title to make assignment to projects painless.

I’m going to assume all desktop email clients do the same. Make the subject line the first thing you write when you start writing your email. Or Timing’s simple matching will assign every email titled “No subject” to the first project you pick.

Google Docs and its stupidly long URLs

In Google Docs the document URLs are unique and have few enough levels that you can work out which URL corresponds to which document.

For example:

That long 1yu…lkc8 is the unique identifier for that particular presentation. It will show up in the Timing window under → presentation → d → 1yu…

Drag it to the right project. You only have to do it once.

A picture for Custom Activities

Don’t be vague when you enter the activity type. Include the project name. Once you have one “Meeting — Cheezy Dibbles” assigned to your “Cheezy Dibbles” project, future meetings will be easy to record.

You can also set Timing to ask you what you have been up to if your computer has been idle for a while. This is great for capturing your “breaks”. Using this feature I’ve learned that I spend about ten minutes out of every hour staring into space. Now all my strategic daydreaming is billable.

A few random things, like exporting data

ABT — Always. Be. Tracking. Set Timing to launch at login. You can do that from its menu bar icon. Do it and you will Always. Be. Tracking.

Timing has a Private Mode, also accessible from the menu bar icon, that you can turn on so it won’t record your sordid word processing. By default Timing doesn’t record URLs when Safari is in Private mode or for Chrome Incognito windows. Not that it really matters. You can always delete any incriminating evidence.

Don’t forget to turn Private Mode off when you start working again. If you can. But you’re human, so you’ll forget and have to bang your head against the desk two days later when you remember you forgot. Like this human did.

You can export everything Timing has recorded using Export under the File menu. JSON or CSV. Go for CSV, drag it into Excel and make yourself some pretty charts. The charts in Timing do need some work…

Learn how you work

The great thing about Timing is that it can show you how (in)effective you really are. Having an unbiased timekeeper like Timing recording everything means after a couple of weeks you will be able to see graphically where and when you are getting things done and when you are faffing (or whatever you wish to call it).

No-one can be creative eight hours a day, five days a week. We all have our own rhythm, those times when we can create cool new things, and those times when we should down tools and switch to less demanding tasks, like writing articles to garner attention.

By using Timing I’ve learned when to schedule in new work, when to revise and when to have a bath in the middle of the day. And over the two or so years I’ve been using Timing I’ve also learned how much time I will need for just about any kind of project. It makes scheduling easier, takes the guesswork out of pricing and ensures I can produce good work at my own pace.

To save you scrolling back up, here’s that link to Timing again. Go buy it.

Who wrote this?

I’m a Sydney Copywriter who occasionally tweets.

If you liked this you might like to learn about the best short form writing tool ever.

If you’re a writer, read about the powerful keyboard shortcuts I set up to make my writing routine frictionless.

When I’m not working on client jobs I like to write super short fiction, based mainly around Brian Eno tracks, and pen the occasional rant, which then comes true. Almost.

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