Tracking and Saving More Time, But Spending More Money

by Liz Rowan

Two months ago, I signed a contract for a new part-time gig. About two days into the job, I started to worry. The job pays me for 20 hours each week. I can work those hours whenever I want, from wherever I want — it’s pretty great.

But the catch is that it’s 20 jam-packed hours. Unlike other roles where I’ve been paid by the project, I can’t waltz off when I’ve met a deadline. There’s always more to do, a steady flow of projects to work on. My 20 hours are filled, and since I’m new to the position, I can’t do any of the tasks on autopilot yet. I’m focused. I am determined. And I’m stressed about making sure I meet my hours.

My supervisor is confident that I’ll hit my hours and excel in my work. But after several years of working solely based on project deadlines scrawled into my planner and some head-math to work in my cushion time, I knew I had to set some guidelines. I started tracking my time.

There are time tracking tools all over the web and our devices: Freshbooks, Toggl, Harvest, TimeCamp. Some of these services advertise that we can do more with our day if we just pay attention to what we’re doing, and when we’re doing it. Some of them focus on worker accountability (that would be me).

Some of these tracking tools make life easier by turning tracked time into invoices, because billable hours are good hours. Very few of these services are free, because they usually come with some sort of invoicing component designed to make freelance life easier.

I had already been using Freshbooks to invoice publications, but a friend clued me in to their time tracking feature. I started tracking with gusto, noting to the minute how long it took to complete various tasks. If you peek over my shoulder, you can usually see the Freshbooks timer counting away in a top corner of my computer screen.

But as I got into the rhythm of using Freshbooks to track my time, I realized I was spending more money.

Take a simple grocery trip: I knew I had to stop at the grocery store to pick up last-minute dinner ingredients on my way home from a meeting. As I walked up the Metro escalator, I eyed the organic grocery store a stone’s throw away from the station. Instead of walking past my house by several blocks to stop by my usual grocery store, I was lured by the store that wouldn’t take me out of my way. Five minutes later, I had spent $19 and was on my way home. If I had stuck with my original plan, I would have spent about $10. I would have saved a few bucks, but I would have spent an extra 35 minutes en route on foot. I breathed a sigh of relief on my short walk home from the store. It was only 35 minutes saved, but my workday would be over that much sooner, allowing me to cook dinner and enjoy the evening. (By the way, sun-dried tomatoes can be surprisingly expensive.)

Other major offenders on my list of money-grabbing time-savers: Many, many taxi rides and Car2Go rentals. As we left a networking event, a friend who had driven asked how far I would have to walk to the Metro station. “Oh, I’m getting right into a cab,” I laughed. “Door to door in 10 minutes.” (Cab fare: $12.50.) Any sort of Metro/bus/walking combination after evening rush (estimated cost: $3.50) would have taken me an hour. I wasn’t about to play those games.

It’s not always easy to buy more time. Everyone has lost moments in their day, some more frustrating than others. You planned to read an article during your commute, but felt queasy on the train. Your internet wigs out and you spend time turning it off and back on again for 15 minutes. That five-minute phone call turns into a half hour before you realize.

But as time slips away, desperation sometimes kicks in — along with a craving for convenience. Suddenly, take-out seems like a reasonable option, even if it’s just you at home and there’s a $20 minimum order for delivery. Suddenly, jumping in a cab is the only method of transportation that makes sense. Suddenly, it is absolutely reasonable to spend money to keep your time, whether you need it for work or your personal sanity.

I’m well aware of the value of a dollar. But I’ve begun to reevaluate the value of an hour.

When a friend who stays home with her two small children asked me out on a midday shopping trip, I hesitated. Normally, I’d jump on the chance to take a brief daytime excursion. After all, DC’s museums, restaurants, and even thrift shops are all best served before 1 p.m. on a Monday.

But I couldn’t justify having to move three or four hours of work into an evening, or worse — a late night in front of the computer.

Big companies and freelance loners alike are tracking time to learn more aboutproductivity and how long it really takes to make progress at work. Search “time tracking” and you’ll quickly find Laura Vanderkam, perhaps the biggest productivity guru out there. She seems like a pleasant woman, but her reminder that we have 168 hours in a week seems like more than a threat than an invitation. “You have more time than you think,” Vanderkam’s cover for168 Hours scolds.
I have a plenty of time. But in managing how I use that time to achieve my work goals, I’m pulling out my wallet more often than I expected. Most of the time, though, I’m OK with the tradeoff.

Lisa Rowan lives in Washington, D.C. She is a writer and a vintage shop owner. You can rip her Philadelphia phone number from her cold, dead hands.

Photo: Elliot Bennett