Web workers do not live by tall Americanos alone. We need to eat too, and for many of us, that means billing clients for time spent on projects. But how do you keep track of that time? Here are half a dozen alternatives, each with their own pros and cons, for you to consider:
Don’t track it at all. At the end of the month, use your memory and your powers of deduction to figure out what you can get away with, and bill clients accordingly. Pros: No overhead or software expense for time-tracking. Cons: If clients figure out this is your system, they are likely to be crabby about it.
Pencil and paper. Armed with a watch (or the timer on your cell phone) and any notebook from a dimestore special to a Moleskine or a Circa, you can simply write down the time as you work it. Pros: No need to boot up a computer to record time spent in meetings or phone calls, and you can feed the office supply habit that many of us have. Cons: Wasted time transcribing all those paper records to some computer format so that you can do your billing at the end of the month.
Spreadsheet. Excel, Open Office, Google Docs & Spreadsheets – pretty much anyone can bang up a spreadsheet that takes hours times rate and then totals by client at the bottom. Pros: The least intrusive computer-based solution, and the easiest to “fudge” when you need to adjust hours so as to bill a client for more or less than actual hours worked. Cons: Ultimately, you’ll spend so much time adding bells and whistles that it would have been cheaper to buy a dedicated application in the first place.
Accounting Application. If you’re using something like QuickBooks or MYOB for your accounting, you can add on a payroll module to track time that should be billed to customers. Pros: Integration with customer billing, receivables, and taxes. It will make your accountant happy too. Cons: Likely to be the slowest solution, and you’ll spend time learning accounting software that you’d rather use for something else.
Time Tracking Application. There are a ton of these on the market. Wikipedia has a page comparing some of the alternatives; FindApp has another. Look for one that has a stopwatch that you can use to track what you’re doing as you do it, as well as export capabilities to your accounting or spreadsheet package. Pros: Single-purpose software is usually the best at what it does. Cons: Requires you to have the computer handy to track time, and most don’t store their data in an open format.
Spy on Yourself. Use an application like TimeSnapper to automatically track what you’re doing every time you turn your computer on. At the end of the day, use the automatic recording to figure out what’s billable. Pros: Nothing to remember; it’s like a flight recorder for your computer. Cons: Won’t record non-computer billable time, and it can be depressing to discover just how much time you waste cruising the web and playing games.
I’ve known successful web workers who have used each of these systems, and I’ve used most of them myself. The real key to success with time-based billing probably lies not so much in a ruthless accounting for every minute as in your attitude: are you delivering value to your clients? If you are, they’re far less likely to demand to see your detailed records.