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We’re going to continue on with the freelance series from a couple of weeks ago but I wanted to touch on this subject before going any further as I think it’s vitally important to your survival in the freelance world. The statement in the title is a bit bold to say and many people will go against me when I say it, but time tracking is a waste of time. Time management however, is your best friend. Just listen to what I have to say, then critique it in the comments, I can handle it.
There’s tons of time trackers out there and I’ve tried plenty of them. I used everything from Toggl to SlimTimer to some lame system the company I used to work for had. I even tried this one that ran in the background so I didn’t have to switch tasks every time I jumped to a different program. And I despise them all…not the programs themselves, but the idea of time tracking in general.
As a freelancer, you’d think that tracking your time and getting paid for every second you’re on the clock for your client is vital. But it’s not. In fact, I’ve found that my clients are much happier knowing that I give them a solid number for what I’ll be doing and when I’ll deliver it. They hate not knowing the final cost. And I hate to limit the project based on what can be accomplished in a set amount of hours. If you give a little, you’ll get a little.
Well, there is that. And this is where it comes down to you, the professional, to tell the client what is in scope. We’ll discuss project scope in a future post and how important it is, but just briefly I’ll say that making your project scope bulletproof is imperative. Remember that you are the professional here and if it’s not in scope, it’s not in scope. Personally, I like to give a couple of items and inform them that I’ve already gone out of scope of the project…just so they realize it. It tends to make them happy to know that you’ve gone out of your way and put in more than what you said you would. “Brownie points” for sure!
People will argue with me that if you don’t bill hourly, you’ll never get paid what you’re truly owed. I say this works the other way around and here’s why. If I bill hourly at say $100 an hour, then 10 hours of work owes me $1000. But what happens when I get better and faster at what I do? Suddenly that 10 hour job only takes me 7 or 8 hours. Now I’m actually getting paid less because I’m better. Now tell me how that makes sense.
Try this example on for size instead. I quote a job that I know will take 10 hours to do. I tell them $1000 flat rate and as I near the end of the project I realize I’m going to finish it in 8 hours. That means that now I’ll be making $125 an hour. In this situation the client wins because they knew the job would be a flat rate of $1000 and I win because I made more than my projected $100 an hour.
You say “That doesn’t make sense!” because I just said that time tracking sucks and not to do it. Basically what I’m saying here is not to waste your time switching between tasks and writing down every little thing that you can to bill more hours. It’s good to have an idea of the amount of time it will take you to finish something and how long it actually took you. But it’s my personal preference that logging your time and switching between tasks and such is a waste of time in and of itself. You’ll understand more as we move through this article and how this ties into time management.
If you’re working for yourself, you have got to have time management skills. It’s imperative that you set your schedule and stick to it. I have set up some flex times in mine that allow me to go to the store during the day or go to the park with my wife and kid or something like that. Whatever it is, just make sure you have a schedule for what you’re going to do with your work that week. If you’re married, make sure you set aside time to spend with your spouse and make them a priority. It’s something I struggle with for sure because I love what I do so much I’ll get engulfed in it and never make time to get away. As lame as it seems, it’s probably best to put your spouse (or girlfriend/kids/friends/family) on your schedule so you don’t neglect them. We freelancers are a different breed and tend to forget that not everyone shares our same love for our work as we do. Just remember to schedule, schedule, schedule and you’ll eventually get to the point where you’re making the most of your time.
Another thing you can do to help with your time management is to make sure your schedule is in blocks of time. I usually have 2-3 hour blocks that give me enough time to “get in the zone” and get things accomplished. You will never get the same amount accomplished in a day where you’re interrupted every 30 minutes as you will in a day where you’re able to work in 3 hour blocks. There’s honestly just something about “the zone” that helps me to accomplish more stuff on my list.
I think I have a list for everything. They’re awesome. Personally I use either plain ‘ol pen and paper or Tadalist. I have lots of small lists instead of 1 gigantic one. This makes me sane. I don’t have to look at a huge list and wonder where the heck I’m going to start. Instead, I can go to my list for a particular client and see what needs to be done for them. Or in my personal life, I can go to the list to see what needs to be done outside or in the garage. It keeps my wife sane too, which is a huge plus!
Another way I like to handle lists is to set one up for Monday, Tuesday, etc. This way I know what I have to get done each day. I usually put a couple of things that have to be done and then an item or two that would just be a plus to get done. Then, if I don’t get to the extra items, I’m still ok for the next day. It also forces me to work efficiently to make sure I get it all done before the end of the day.
Here is where I struggled a lot the first few months of freelancing. It always seemed like a great idea to schedule an insane amount of time to do work. But what was happening was that I was so focused on being in my office to work that I forgot I didn’t have enough work to fill the hours or vice-versa, I didn’t have enough hours to do the work. So I had to get honest with myself. I told myself that I would only schedule the time to work that I actually had client work, everything else would be dedicated to promotion or even taking some breaks during the day (you’re allowed to do that during your “valley” times). The moment I got honest with myself, my productivity skyrocketed and I found out that I needed time management skills like I had never had before.
This will just take a second to explain but it will be one of the most important sections in this article. I’m sure you’ve played the game “Hot Potato” where everyone sits in a circle and passes around a musical potato toy and when you get it, you get rid of it as soon as possible. The person who has it when the alarm goes off is the loser. That’s how this works. When you get something on your plate for work…do it and get rid of it. Make your changes, do your duty, whatever it is, and put that project right back on your clients plate. This will ensure you’re not working 80 hour weeks trying to hit deadlines that come up all at once. They will happen sometimes…but they’ll be few and far between if you take this advice.
Taking breaks may sound crazy if you have a ton of work, but it will work out in your favor. Even if you just take a brief walk outside for 10 minutes or go stand in the kitchen and get something to drink. Just get up, get moving, and do it often, about every hour or so. It will also help with your posture quite a bit too.
Along with taking breaks, taking care of your body is highly important too. Aside from the posture thing I just mentioned, which is very important, you also have to remember that you don’t get paid for sick days. If you’re sick and not working, nothing is getting done. Eat healthy, exercise, get decent sleep, take vitamins if you’re into that…whatever it takes, stay as healthy as you can. There’s no replacement for you if you’re stuck in bed and your clients project most likely won’t care how sick you are, it needs to be done.
If you do these things I’ve talked about here, there should be no need for you to track your time using one of those programs. Like I said, I’m not against the program itself, Toggl and Slimtimer (the two I mentioned above) are very good programs. The problem I have is the amount of effort and time people put into these things. Tracking every minute is ridiculous. And logging all that time is just a pain. I’d rather do real work to be honest. So, give it a shot. It might not be for you but it can’t hurt. Try a project where you just make it awesome and don’t worry so much about the time. Keep it reasonable for sure but just give these tips a chance then let me know what came of it.
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I'm a designer, husband, father, and Christ-follower for life. Usability is key, sandwiches are awesome, and there's just no beating a Starbucks white chocolate mocha. You are cordially invited to be a twitter stalker of mine and I hope you love the articles so much it makes you want to share them every 15 seconds for the rest of your life. That would be some serious sharing going on. Drop me a line on my site even if it's just to say "Hey!"