Where did my time actually go?
I started my consultancy in 2002, worked for 15+ companies (2 of them consumed about 75% of my time), moved interstate twice, renovated an 1890’s village home in Vermont, created a company that offers Software Development, Database Development, Microsoft Access Development, Microsoft Access to SQL Conversions, Web Site Solutions, and Online Marketing, helped my wife’s business get off the ground, became an active member of the Chamber of Commerce, helped my son (a young adult with high functioning Asperger’s) take his high school hobby of drawing crude yet ridiculously funny cartoons to the next level with a web site and videos, which I plan to in the near future help him turn into a coffee table book and DVD to sell on his web site, created several pro-bono web sites… the list goes on and on.
How did I accomplish so much? More importantly, though, what was I actually doing during those years? During my work week I kept track of billable hours for hourly projects, but I never tracked fixed price jobs, gratis work, self-necessity work, office management, or accounting. I didn’t track what I was doing outside the office either. I worked from 6 AM till 9 PM Monday through Friday, sometimes on weekends too. I had no idea where my time really went except for the two or three big time entries I would create in my home-brewed MS Access timesheeting software each day, which is really all I needed for the big corporate clients. We worked on big projects so the time would be entered as:
6am to Noon – worked on Freight Tracking App
12:30pm to 5pm – worked on Freight Tracking App
5:30pm to 8pm – worked on Freight Tracking App.
It was like that most days, and projects lasted weeks or even months. But anyone who has read this far knows that those days were likely a lot more complex than that, with phone calls, emails, research, documenting, reporting, etc. In my case I had to manage multiple server installations, virtual machines, development environments… so “Working on Freight Management” is really the time tracking equivalent of answering “what did you do yesterday” with “I woke up, breathed for 16 hours, then went to bed”.
The last two years, though, have been transformative. The two big clients both disappeared on me within 90 days of each other – one was liquidated after a bankruptcy and the other was suddenly sold to a company in Finland with their own programming staff – and I found myself having to go out and actually market my business, sell my services, network, re-invent myself, and this really created a need for tracking my time so I could know if I was being productive, producing action instead of just movement. We all have a tendency to busy ourselves with seemingly important and non-essential tasks that allow us to avoid doing things we don’t really want to do. I needed something… an online time clock… an honest time log… a way to really and honestly capture the time I spent so I could learn from it and become more productive. I searched, searched some more, researched various time tracking services, comparing features and cost.
Then I stumbled upon TimeCamp – the best Time and Attendance Software I’ve been able to find and it’s my new best friend, and as it turns out, a very strict taskmaster allowing me to reach personal multi-tasking nirvana.
How TimeCamp won me over by answering “Where Did My Time Go?”
Back around the turn of the century – remember Y2K? – I wrote what was then a pretty cool time tracking app in MS Access and I used it consistently until just recently. It had an old school Windows look and feel. Pretty Ugly by today’s standards, but functional. It allowed me to track time by date, client, project, invoice#, start and end time, job, task, and sub-task. It wasn’t hierarchical, it was linear with each row of data containing every field mentioned above. It worked, but I always knew it would have been better to create a task hierarchy with unlimited levels, and only select a task, along with a date, start time, and end time. Reporting would allow you to select a date range and from this you could determine how much time to bill a client for work performed during that time period. I thought it should include a desktop tray app that you could click to select tasks as you worked at your computer. I thought about writing an app like this, but then I found TimeCamp and it did everything I was imagining, and more. I decided to give the free version a shot, and it only took a couple of weeks before I signed up for the paid version.
Let me introduce you to “totally awesome”.
Web Based Timesheet
This web based timesheet software is all you really need to add your time entries. You can start, stop, and continue timers on any entry in the list. This list is from a couple of days ago, and I used it here because I could fit the entire day in one screenshot. This is not a typical day for me. Some days have as many as 30 or more time entries. But I didn’t use this web page to add my time entries, I used the totally awesome desktop app.
The TimeCamp Desktop Application
The desktop time tracking app is what really sets TimeCamp apart from anything else I’ve found. It is almost what I envisioned when I thought about writing my own. It’s a very small, seemingly almost non-existent little interface:
The only reason I say almost what I envisioned is because you can’t put notes into the time entries from there, a feature I and many other TimeCamp users would like to see, so instead of just selecting “ADW – Web Site Work” and trying to remember tomorrow morning what I was doing, it would be useful to select the task from the desktop app and enter a note for that currently running time entry. No doubt a feature that we’ll see some day in the future.
There is a tray app that sits down by the clock, which is really all you need, and it controls whether you see this little window/interface or not. With it, you can manually select tasks, sub-tasks, etc., by scrolling and selecting – or searching – and when you select a task the previous task ends and a new one starts. From here, if you need to define a new task or subtask, you can create one on the fly.
Time Tracking in Automatic Mode
Automatic Mode is a pretty powerful feature of TimeCamp. In your project and task definitions, you can set up keywords to use in automatic mode. When the desktop app encounters a window with a title that matches your keyword, or a website with a page title or keyword that matches, TimeCamp will automatically switch to that task. For instance, if you set up the keyword Facebook on a task called Wasting Time, every time you go on Facebook TimeCamp will record the the time in the Wasting Time task. But aside from spying on your employees – which it really isn’t since they are working for you on your equipment getting paid to do a job which may not allow going on Facebook during work hours – this is really useful for keeping yourself in check, making sure your employees time spent on social media isn’t billed to clients, making sure YOU don’t bill your clients for time they shouldn’t be paying for, and ensure you don’t forget to bill your clients for time they should be paying for. It can be extremely advantageous to define keywords for client related web sites, social media properties, online software, project files and folders, and other definable stuff that you can attribute to client billable tasks. For example, you can automatically track every second you spend on a client’s web site or any files and folders specific to the client. With creative naming conventions for files and folders you can ensure that you capture everything you or your employees work on for a client, and also all of the ancillary, non-billable work that you and your employees do so you can analyze it and work towards becoming more efficient.
An important note about Automatic Mode: make sure that you don’t have the TimeCamp desktop time tracking software collecting time if you have another timer running. Because TimeCamp can record time from multiple locations simultaneously, a timer running on the web page or another online project management application (Trello, for example) which connects to TimeCamp to track project based time can run concurrently with the desktop timer. It takes a bit of awareness to make sure you are only running one timer at a time if you use multiple timers. TimeCamp can interface with a long and growing list of other SAAS web applications, so using Trello.com as an example, if you’re going to start a Trello timer you should make sure you pause your desktop timer.
I mention Trello above because I use it, but as of this writing TimeCamp can interface with Trello, Redmine, Asana, Podio, Wunderlist, Jira, Pivotal Tracker, Basecamp, Assembla, ActiveCollab, QuickBooks, Teamwork, Insightly, Xero, Freshdesk, Zendesk, Targetprocess, OpenProject, and iCal.
Time Tracking in TimeCamp is organized by Projects and Tasks. Projects are the top level time entry. Projects have tasks and tasks have subtasks. I don’t know how deep you can go with subtasks, but I’ve used up to five levels. I found some quirkiness with how the treeview renders with more than 4 or 5 levels deep, but it’s not an issue once you know what you’re looking at. You don’t actually select time items from here you define them. This is a small sampling of what I’ve set up:
I set up main projects like Business Administration, Clients-Billable, Internal Tasks (which is built in to TimeCamp and is associated with the ToDo list), Non-Billable Projects, and Personal. Under those I broke them down into up to four levels of granular detail. At last count I had 122 projects and subtasks. Nearly every one of these has keywords that I can use with Automatic Mode to switch tracking based on what window has focus on my computer. It’s not 100% yet but it’s getting there. Whenever Automatic Mode doesn’t know what I’m working on, a window will pop up and allow me to choose what I’m working on from the list of defined projects and tasks. If one doesn’t exist, I can add it.
Within every project or task item you can assign keyword rules, assign people who have access to the tracking item, specify their role, set a budget of estimated hours (or leave it blank for hourly billables), cost per hour, and specify if the item is billable or not. You can move the task and all of its associated time and subtasks to another project or task, or you can move only the time entries associated with a task to another task without actually moving the task. Within the definition of each project and task you have access to reports, you can create comments, or even delete the task. If you delete a task, any time entries associated with it end up in the Unassigned Computer Activities for the day the time was recorded. Be careful with this, because it’s very time consuming to go through all of the unassigned activities one day at a time and re-assign them to another task, but at the same time it was very wise for the designers of TimeCamp to add the ability to move all time items to another task so you can delete an unwanted task. Here’s a screenshot of the task configuration screen:
Data is useless without the ability to analyze or report on it. TimeCamp has created a pretty good selection of useful reports that you can take advantage of.
Reports by Projects & Tasks
Reports by Computer Time
Report for Attendance
TimeCamp is designed to track time by seat so a company can purchase as many seats as they need depending on how many employees need to be tracked. Or, just one seat if you are a solopreneur like me. There is extensively flexible control over tasks and their visibility and usage, so you can assign access to different tasks to various employees based on the job they do, excluding tasks they will never use.
The Bottom Line
We all know that it’s human nature to take mental health breaks throughout the day and check your email or spend a few minutes on social media, and it should be OK for employees to have some freedom so they’re not going stir-crazy with heads-down drudgery, but we all know that one employee that spends 7 out of 8 hours every day pretending to work while playing Solitaire or Farmville, and you should have no problem separating the slackers from the producers. And even when you are all alone and responsible for yourself like I am and have no one looking over your shoulder, TimeCamp can transform your life because it will act like a digital supervisor and force you to think about what you spend your time on, thereby making you way more productive – which is good for you and good for your clients and your business – than you ever could be when you’re just floundering around all day every day spending inordinate amounts of time on busywork and can’t answer the question: what did you do for 80 hours last week?
Since I started using TimeCamp, I no longer ask myself “where did my time go?”. I actually get an email every morning telling me where my time went the previous day:
Notice there’s no Facebook on this one? I’ve gotten disciplined using this software and I really and truly only spend a couple of minutes a day on social media now unless I’m working the Social Media Marketing stuff for my business or a client’s business. And I also get a weekly email every Tuesday telling me how I did the previous week, like this:
Now this may appear that I’m less productive than normal, let’s keep in mind I worked 77 hours and 27 minutes that week, averaging 11 hours and 3 minutes per day. The No Work (off-line) entry is either lunch or dinner, or time I spent away from my desk. I spent 15% of my time on email. Yup, 15%. If you start measuring the time you spend on email, you’ll stop opening Outlook or your Gmail window so frequently. I’ve actually been working hard to get this down, unsubscribing from a ton of useless emails. I get about 250 emails a day – well I used to, and I’m getting better at managing the time I spend on it. “qw” is Accounting. “pb115” is Powerbuilder. The top activities take up 47% of the time, the other 53%? Work – either internal or client work that is the result of dozens of other windows that were opened and worked on but didn’t make it into the top 5 activities. Another thing worth noting about this report is that it is broken down by CATEGORY, independent of my Projects and Tasks. So therefore, some of the 15% spent on GMail.com may have been client communication related to a project, not just dealing with non-work related emails.
Now that I know where my time goes, it’s nearly impossible for me to waste time playing around on useless websites or social media because I know it will show up on the reports. And just because it’s only me, you might ask – who cares? I do. I have a very high level of work ethic and I have too much to do to waste even a minute on time sucking unproductive activities.
Timecamp has really had a positive effect on my bottom line. I spend between 10 minutes and 30 minutes every morning going over the previous day’s time entries and I can’t tell you how many times I find billable time stuck in non-billable time blocks because I had a timer in manual mode and forgot to switch an unbillable task to a billable task. When I find these I move them so I have actually recovered and billed time that I normally would have missed or forgotten about. On the flipside, as hard as I try to be diligent about switching between automatic and manual modes and selecting the correct task for what I’m doing, there are times when I forget and I find non-billable time stuck in billable time blocks. It’s inevitable that when you are working on something for a client you may get a mental reminder to go do something important in your accounting. Normally, if anything takes only seconds or a minute or two I don’t switch tasks, but there have been times that I switched to something else to quickly do one thing, and then spent 15 minutes doing other stuff and forget to switch the task. I can easily find those and move them out of billables and make sure the billable and nonbillable time is as tight as possible so I can intelligently evaluate and streamline how I work, make sure I get paid for what I do, and keep track of all of the time I spend on work that can’t be billed out so I can either determine it is necessary work for my business or modify what I do to become more efficient.
The verdict? In my opinion TimeCamp is, well, TOTALLY AWESOME!!! I don’t know how I ever lived without it.
PS: I didn’t even cover it all in this article. There are more features like Invoicing and the ToDo list, multiple user environments, etc. that I didn’t even get into. Try it out yourself for free at TimeCamp.com.
Jerry Boutot is a Microsoft Certified Application Developer (MCAD) and Microsoft Certified Professional (MCP). He owns AppDataWorks, LLC, which develops custom software, totally awesome search/social/mobile ready web sites for small businesses, and provides web hosting, online marketing and SEO services to his small business clients to help them make money online. He can be reached at 352-610-9890. FIND JERRY ONLINE: