Time tracking for freelancers: What learned from my own habits

L Daniel Swakman
Sep 1 · 4 min read

This was my 2018. Or to be more precise, this is a month-by-month breakdown of the projects I spent my working time on last year; including client work, side projects and internal work. It is the result of meticulous but basic time tracking throughout the year — a practice I have been doing for 7 years now. I’ll walk you through it, and what I’ve learned from it.

Who am I? I’m an independent digital designer working freelance with startups and small businesses, helping with being design-centric in their brand or product. As a freelancer, keeping track of how many hours I spend on which projects is essential not only for billing, but also for an insight in my process, creating project quotes, and even strategic direction of how I want to spend my time.

Let’s dive into the actual overview graph a bit:

The colours are related to project types; so from bottom to top blue is ‘internal’ work, no particularly for a project or client; the red is for long-term client #1 (Paraşüt), the pink is for long-term client #2 (LuxFox), the blue bars are side projects (Pheme & Muhit), the green is collaborating with a design agency (Overnice), and the yellow is project work for various clients.

Because the nature of independent design work often involves the coming and going of project throughout the year, as well as the balancing act of weaving these projects together in a fluent schedule, the month-by-month stacked graph made the most sense to me.

Insight 1: almost 1/3 of time on ‘internal work’

Internal work apparently makes up a large part of my time, more than 30%. In this group are tasks like admin/invoicing, archiving, portfolio & website work — but also time spent on networking and acquisition. I even log work time where I was simply not productive.

This is very useful to know when scoping and pricing client work; that is essentially extra time that needs to be taken into account.

Insight 2: 10% on side projects!

Over the years I have come to enjoy spending time on side projects more and more. These are projects that don’t have a client, often undertaken with friends but sometimes also alone. It allows me to pour a sense of ideology, and ‘making the analogue or digital world a little better’ — like this, this and this. 10% is a good start — but I aim for 15 or 20% for this year.

Insight 3: A surprising consistency

If you consider the stereotypical image of a freelancer taking it easy one week, while pushing overtime in the other, then the truth could not be further for that. A week generally consisted of 40 hours, and the variation between projects is as smooth as the graph above suggests.

This is partly attributable to the fact that 25% of the time was spent on long-term clients, which inevitably bring a sense of stability.

Takeaways

Time tracking pays off! Not only do I get a sense of reflection from my daily sessions of writing down how much time I spent on which project (I have previously estimated this takes me about 10 minutes each day) — they also allow me to do one-click analysis for billing purposes plus, they facilitate a yearly multicoloured visual reflection on how I spent my year.

Tools used

  • The star of the show: Toggl. In using the app (mostly web, but occasionally Android & iOS apps too) for 7 years intensely, it still baffles me how 99% of my needs are fulfilled by the free version.
  • Trello is the indispensable tool on the other side of the spectrum: planning before I do the work. Same story: the free version has been serving most of my needs for multiple years now.
  • In order to make this visualisation, after exporting the data from Toggl, a lot of the graph work is done in Google Sheets. Also free (this is becoming a pattern).
  • For the final visualisation and styling of the graph, Illustrator was used.

Hope this was an insightful overview of my work method and encourages others to get an insight into how they organise their time. It is an essential tool for setting up a healthy (design) business. If you have any insights, feedback, questions or suggestions, feel free to ping me.


L Daniel Swakman

Written by

Designer! Mostly digital. design⇄code, making things at http://ldaniel.eu . Co-started @muhitapp. Fav side project: http://pheme.app.

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