Freelancer Time Management and Why Time Tracking Sucks


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.

Time Tracking Sucks

by EvanHahn

Why I Say It Sucks

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.

But What About Excessive Requests?

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!

Making Sure You’re Paid What You’re Owed

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.

Hard Thinker


Now I know what you’re thinking.

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.

Make The Most of Your Time

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.

Writing Lists

Dr Stephen Dann

Make All Sorts of Lists

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.

Be Honest With Yourself

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.

Hot Potato

by lindstormORG

The “Hot Potato” Method

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.

Take Breaks and Take Care

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.

Time Tracking

by lucianvenutian

So, Back to Time Tracking

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.



  1. John

    While I do like your line of reasoning, I have to disagree. I wrote an blog post on this a few years ago.

    The argument that doing a job in less time equals less money is flawed because it assumes you won’t be doing anything productive with the time you have freed up. This time can be spent working on other clients or getting new clients or self promotional work or whatever. Also, you should raise your rates as you become more proficient. Because as you become more proficient you become more experienced, and worth a higher rate.

  2. Sarah Kettell

    I found this article while I was searching for different time tracking options, ironically.
    I get your point about billing hourly verses a set fee and it is something, as a new freelancer, that I am trying to work out myself. My problem is that I don’t really know my rate of speed for work well enough yet to accurately estimate how much time it will take me for a given project. For this, I think time tracking software is wonderful. I currently use Toggl, which I have on my desktop, browser, and iPod, to track all that I’m doing — even personal projects. This will allow me to look back and realize how much time I can expect on future projects to do certain tasks.

    The way I see it, eventually I’ll be able to estimate my time more accurately and quote set flat fees for projects, allowing for hourly fees if the project goes beyond what was originally quoted in work amount. :) Also, because I also time track my non-billable email time and such (I should really add Twitter/social networking time), I can assess how to better manage my time because I’ll be able to see what I’m spending it on.

    Granted, a more seasoned designer may benefit from not time-tracking some projects. But as a beginner, I think it’s a great way to learn how to cope with working on your own schedule and setting your costs fairly for both yourself and the client. :)

  3. Marlene

    Quite an interesting approach, I have to say. When it comes to my opinion, I think that there’s no one perfect solution. Some jobs or task types can be done as such, some of them need to be well reported, and that’s where time trackers seem to be useful.
    Jared, haven’t you considered that even those time trackers that you resent may be improved? And I think they are improving all the time. I follow the blog publications of OnePageOnly time tracker, and I see how many new ideas and innovations are added into it. Try to check it out, and maybe you’ll be nicely surprised?

  4. Moritz Hofmann

    Interesting thoughts, but I can’t agree them. If you use some kind of time tracking software, you don’t have to bill your customers hourly. But you have to know how long you worked on the tasks, even if you will get fixed prices.
    You’re right, time tracking must not be a work time killer, but with a good tool it’s done in only five additional minutes per day.

  5. April

    Yours is a different take on time tracking. I have to respect your opinion though. I guess it all comes down to what works for each one of us. It’s a good thing that you figured out what works and doesn’t work for you. Personally, I found time tracking the most convenient way of managing time and billing clients. All it takes is getting used to and choosing the best tool available. I have been using Freckle for two years now and I say it has been such a useful tool from when I was a soloist to managing a small team.
    Other time tracking tools do the same thing and I’ve heard people credit them to saving time and earning more, which I agree.

  6. Hey Jared, that’s really a good one. It’s a view from such a different angle, and that fresh conception really hit me. I used to track time from the very beginning, and yet it was helpful to get aware of the time a project takes to complete, right now it’s more a pain in the ass. It’s just that I never saw it like this. So some points here really made me thinking and gave me some good advices, which I will prove and see how I can implement those in my work life. I’m really challenged and stoked, because I believe this will give me more freedom at work which will lead to better results and a more balanced daily life. So thanks again, and be blessed!

  7. “Freelancer Time Management and Why Time Tracking Sucks.”
    My colleague claims that ‘all software sucks’. I tend to agree with him.

    “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.”

    This is one of the reasons why SCRUM and Agile approach came into existence. You can limit your delivery periods (iterations) to one week or 2 weeks depending on your project nature (sometimes even month). You can easily plan your iteration and say to your customer what you can do and what you can’t. If you can’t commit or estimate tasks for the iteration then simply make it shorter.
    We usually divide project into small pieces and plan all of them in rough without any commitment. Next we plan in details each iteration separately when the previous one has been finished – this time committing to deliver selected bunch of staff at the end of iteration. We charge for every iteration separately. It reduces the risk for both us and our customer.

    In my opinion this kind of issues are totally not related to the time tracking problem.

    “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.”

    The answer is simple. If you are so good and constantly do more than expected just increase your rates. Customer will understand. I tried it a few times and it works. It is natural to have a raise once per a few months but usually no more often than once per half a year.

    Time tracking is a simple idea. The more comprehensive idea is a project management. Not many time trackers have decent project management facilities and I’m not thinking about something big. SCRUM is light so the software which supports it should be also light.

    I’m not a fanatic follower of SCRUM. I just like simple and light idea behind it. I use it every day, usually tweaked to my needs and it works.
    Short iterations make your customer certain of your weekly or biweekly deliverables so the only thing they care and they are not certain is your daily progress.

    This is why we decided to start our project. it is desired to be not only user/freelancer friendly but also your customer friendly. I claim that such tool is even more important to your customer than to you.
    Yes, you can say there are tens of tools like that but that is not true as I can see.
    I was not able to find any tool which is a decent mix of time tracker and simple project management tool in the agile spirit where daily stand-up is the most important thing (even famous 37signals products).
    What we are going to add to MrTickTock except of several typical time tracker stuff like reports, integrations, billing, etc. is exactly ‘daily standup’ feature. You will be able to add a public comment to every time report. These comments together with time, your avatar and some other details will be visible to your peers and customers on a daily basis. This will be your daily stand-up.

    This idea connected to the time tracking activities will work only if you switch tasks no more than few times a day. It is not designed to track every minute of your activity. It is designed to help you manage your time in terms of project management.
    More… do you really need to report time against each task separately? I believe not. What we are going to do is to let you report time against project. You bill you customer for project time. It is usually not important whether you did coding, mailing, thinking, etc. You may think I’m not right but please think twice. It was not easy even for me to switch to that approach but when I did I could see it worked and took much less time to report my time entries.

    You may of course say ‘MrTickTock will suck’ or ‘your idea sucks’. I will answer ‘Yes, you are right but it sucks less than most of the other software and ideas’.

    Overall I think the SCRUM and good piece of software may be an answer for you and many other freelancers and small businesses or even groups inside corporations. I also agree that it is extremely difficult to find a good solution for every issue you want to solve but sometimes instead of looking for an ideal software that fits you, it is better to learn ideas and software which does not look to fit you at first sight.

    I’m certainly sure that MrTickTock is not the best piece of software and it won’t be. I’m just sure that idea I have works fine for me and my company so it will work for at least few other. Therefore I’m sure this is the way to go.

    A few things I agree with:

    “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 must remember that our personal life and family is much more important than our work.

    “Take Breaks and Take Care”

    This is the second important thing, also much more important than work itself but we constantly forget it.

    “I think I have a list for everything. “

    I have one too. I use google. However this topic is totally different from the time tracking and project management.

    “ Be Honest With Yourself.”

    This is also difficult.

    “ The “Hot Potato” Method”
    Great :)

    Wow. My comment is almost as long as your post :)
    Nevertheless it was great reading.


  8. Great discussion so far.

    Jared, you make a good point that if you know have the time management skills to get work done in less time, you’ll end up being better off and it’s a win/win situation.

    I personally use Toggl and RescueTime for tracking my time. I’m a big productivity nerd and I’m very cautious how I spend my day. From my experience most people are horrible at estimating, let alone estimating time. Especially when you freelance you have to make sure that your estimates include other factors that will cover your monthly fixed costs (if you truly want to get technical to make sure you make a good living). Most people cannot do that inside their head. Also, estimating how much time we spend on things is often not the case at all. That’s why I love rescuetime and toggl because I use them every day and after months of analysis, I can truly see how I spend my time.

    Based on that knowledge, I can make way better estimates. Numbers and data don’t lie. So I’d say keep tracking time for 2-3 months and then use that knowledge for in the future to make better estimates. Add in some nifty productivity and time management skills and your profit margins can become even better.

  9. Greg

    Billing by the hour is kind of not practical for me. I bid ‘based’ on an hourly rate, but I need to get paid for the product I deliver. I can knock out a high end design in a few hours for certain things, there is no way I am going to turn over psds for $300.

    Billing and bidding are some of the most difficult and unsettling things that I deal with. I am WAY faster than when I was a junior, but getting people to pay a higher rate is often a challenge. That is why I always try to get paid for a tangible, usable product.

    As far as getting tangles up in changes, I make my focus to find clients that know what they are doing and how to get projects out of the door.

  10. Tom Benson

    Yep, time tracking for freelancers is not vital. You just need to be good at estimating time requirements.

    Time tracking does become VERY important when you are employing people on a hourly rate on larger projects though. I could spend all day going over productivity vs. efficiency and labour recovery rates.

    It is also important for us to remember (as freelancers) that when we contract out our time to project managers on a hourly basis, they need to onsell our time at approx 1.5 x our hourly rate (at least under Australian Rules) before they are making any sort of profit (+ 9% super + their operational overheads – rent, power, water etc. etc.).

  11. Patt

    Based on the experiences shared by our users (we’re a time tracking service) i’d have to say i don’t agree.
    As Marcel previously stated, it’s vital to know how long it takes to do a certain task. If you end up competing with another freelancer who uses time tracking (and has solid data behind his quotes) for a project you’ll end up loosing money even if you “win” or loose the project.
    You will either quote less than the required time to finis the job (you end up working way more than you get paid) or you don’t get the project because you quoted too much (the other guy gets the project).

    On top of this, most time tracking apps these days offer much more than plain time tracking – usually invoicing (we offer project management, time tracking and billing) so you get a lot of value for a low price. As you said, there are a bunch of good apps out there to fit pretty much any kind of workflow one might have – i say it’s really worth trying some out and sticking with one, it WILL pay off :)

  12. Great discussion everyone and I appreciate everyone keeping their cool on this subject. I knew it would raise some eyebrows, but I think you all get the basic premise of what I’m saying. Learn to manage your time regardless of how you do it. Time tracking is a pain for me (even though I realize it only takes two seconds to start/stop) but for many of you reading, it’s simple enough. So yeah, thanks for the reads, take what you will from it, and heck, write a follow up on your own blog about why you feel otherwise. :D

    • John Gallagher

      You make a great point – managing your time, however you do it, should be your number one priority. I agree that the focus on time tracking as an activity is a big problem. I’ve never had the discipline to manage a timer whilst I work and it seems crazy to be telling the computer what I’m doing as I’m doing it.

      That’s why I’m making a time tracker without timers. It works based on the path of your documents and will track URLs too. At your convenience you train folders applications and URLs to be for projects then it remembers these. It’s still in it’s early days, but I’d be interested in your thoughts.

      Thanks for a thought provoking post on something most people just spout as gospel.

      • Interesting you say that about something you’re building. There’s actually one out there I used before that did something very similar. It ran in the background and tracked when I hit social media sites or blogs or whatever and I could specify if they needed to be logged as wasted time, per project, or research. You could customize what you wanted it to track. Things like photoshop would go to project time but I’d still have to remember what I was working on in PS to be able to tell it what project it was in particular.

        Can’t remember the name of it for the life of me though… :/ Best of luck with that and glad you liked the article!

        • John Gallagher

          It was probably RescueTime or maybe Slife. One disadvantage is it only works from applications, so it can’t really tell you want you were actually *doing* in that app. Mine can. Thanks for the best wishes!

  13. Joost Schouten

    Great article and I couldn’t agree more. I believe the trick is not so much tracking exactly what happened but track enough so you can project where you are heading. When you find yourself worrying about every minute it most likely is more an indication that you can improve on your planning than that you need tighter tracking.

  14. I wonder if the issues with time tracking have to do with the reconciliation of all of that data? For me, using an integrated solution, it’s not a big deal. Again, the online invoicing service I use have it’s own tracking widget. The widget is populated with your projects and tasks. You click start/stop. That’s it. And when the project is done you can then open that project and automatically generate an invoice from those hours. So simple. Or if you wish, you can keep the time data just for your own info and generate the invoice from the original estimate. Either way.

  15. Great article. Lots of great tips and ideas for time management.

    The only thing I don’t understand is the premise that time tracking is painful and time consuming. I’ve never found it to be a burden at all. I use an online invoicing service that offers a time tracking widget. The widget is automatically populated with all of my projects. All I need to do is hit start/stop. Takes a second. I’ve never found it to be a burden at all. And when a client comes back to me asking about why this or that cost such and such… I have very detailed records that I can consult. Of course, I keep them in the loop about out of scope issues as they arise, but you still can end up with questions sometimes.

    Ultimately, for me, time tracking is a sanity check. I still used fixed price estimates and bill according to the estimate. But time tracking helps me create better estimates, keeps me on track, and lets me know when I’m getting tight on budget.

    Also, I have a few clients that I work for on a “time and materials” basis. So for those jobs, time tracking is a requirement.

    Finally… I often bill out of scope work on an hourly basis. Clients don’t always like that but they understand that the dozens of “one more thing” changes that inevitably happen are extremely difficult to manage due to their piecemeal nature. If it’s a big piece of functionality, I do up a proper change request with it’s own fixed price, but more often it’s a dozen little things that no one foresaw. So I give them a ballpark “that’ll probably take an hour or so” and let them know that I will track and bill by the hour for that work. I have an “out of scope” task for these types of changes. So when they get an invoice, it has their original fixed price plus a line item for “out of scope” by the hour work. And I add a quick note to each task (i.e. adding sort drop down) so if they want more details, I have them. None of this take any effort at all. Takes a second to choose a project/task and click start/stop.

  16. Marcel

    Not agreeing. Time Tracking actually also helps yourself to actually know how long something’s gonna take, more or less, It’s a very helpful thing when it comes to make price-offers. Switching between tasks is easy and fast, just get used to it. I use On The Jobs, I’m fast and depending on the size of the project I make either more detailed or less detailed task splitting. Clients like transparency, time-tracking offers that.

  17. Filip

    Full Ack! You express exactly what I feel when it comes down to (too accurate) time tracking. I think time tracking is needed, especially in the beginning of your freelance activity. But after a while, with more and more experience, you know what kind of work will take what amount of time. I don’t think it’s a good idea to work completely without time tracking, but as you wrote: “Tracking every minute is ridiculous” — Thanks for this brilliant article.