This is the third in a series of posts about my quest to find the holy grail of time management processes. OK, I’m not really looking for the holy grail; I’m realistic enough to know that there is rarely a simple solution to a complex problem. My first step was to reduce my side project overload, followed by improved discipline managing my time through better prioritization of activities.
A little more than a week ago, I had to admit to myself that I had outgrown my system of time management via spreadsheets. While spreadsheets worked fine to track hours spent on client projects, they didn’t provide me with the tools that I needed to analyze the time that I was spending across all client projects, business development activities, side projects and other activities that consume my time.
Based on recommendations from friends, I decided to try Harvest as a way to track my time. It took me most of a Saturday morning to get everything configured in Harvest, which will cost me $12 a month with their solo freelancer plan (with a 30-day free trial), but after using it for a week, I’m confident that it is time and money well spent to keep me on track.
I have projects set up for each client, major side projects, business development, information gathering (email, Twitter, RSS reader), and more. I can enter my time into Harvest using a desktop widget or a browser, but I’ve discovered that I prefer to enter it in the web browser. I can enter my time after I complete a chunk of work by specifying the number of hours (or fractions of hours) spent on a particular project, or I can let the Harvest timer track it for me. The timer is a really nice way to keep track of time: click it once when you start a task and again when you complete a task. However, I’ve had a couple of mishaps when I forgot to click “stop” on the timer, so I’m actually using a hybrid of the two models by also manually entering start and stop times in the notes for client work (I like the extra record for clients anyway).
Another useful feature for me are the estimates. When you set up a project, you can specify an estimate, which helps me stay on track against the estimates I provided to the client. I also use estimates to track total budget available for projects with “not to exceed” specifications. Harvest makes this easy to monitor by reporting the actual hours used and the number of hours remaining in the estimate.
The various reports are flexible and easy to use. The overview report has an at-a-glance view of hours today, hours this week, and hours this month, compared to the previous period, along with hours broken down by active project. My favorite report is the detailed time report, which lets you specify a timeframe, client, project, and more. Most of the reports can be exported as a CSV file, and you can export all of your activity as a CSV file if you like to have your own personal backup (just in case they have an incident like the recent one at Magnolia).
What have I learned so far on my journey toward better time management by using Harvest? I spend way too much time in email, on Twitter and reading blogs. While all of these activities are important to my business, I need to spend less time on each of these activities to free up more time for paying work and business development (my two highest priority activities).
What are your biggest time wasters? What time management tools, tips, or tricks do you use to stay on track?