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Summary:

Lots of clients like you to track your time and submit reports detailing your daily activities, so they know their money is being spent well. It’s good practice for them, and it’s good practice for you

Lots of clients like you to track your time and submit reports detailing your daily activities, so they know their money is being spent well. It’s good practice for them, and it’s good practice for you, since you have a handy log of how you work, and you can then analyze and improve upon your habits using that information.

The trick with time tracking is arriving upon a degree of detail that’s both useful and efficient. It doesn’t help you if keeping track of things is all you end up doing because it’s such a time and attention-intensive process. Conversely, a general account of “Peformed project-related work” for a time block of eight hours isn’t particularly illuminating, either for the client or yourself. So how granular should your time tracking and reporting be?

I worked with one company that insisted on providing time reporting for all project staff in 15-minute increments to all of its clients. It might seem impossible, and in practice, it was, though that didn’t change the wording of the guidelines. What ended up happening was that either the client would demand simpler reporting, or company assets on assignment would “go native” and refuse to submit such ridiculously extensive accounting of their time.

Over time, the most sensible way of going about time tracking for the company became apparent. Generally speaking, project staff would report changes in activity throughout the day in blocks of time of no less than half an hour, and no more than three. Then before passing on said info to the client, administrative staff would edit it, depending on the needs and wants of the particular client stakeholder receiving the report.

As a web worker working on a contract basis from home, your process should be similar. The easy part is knowing to what degree of detail you need for your own purposes of professional development: experience will tell you that. Determining what a client wants is trickier, but should follow a similar logic. Arrive at a standard first through trial and error with some early projects, and then use that as the template for all future engagements. Solicit and pay attention to client feedback after that to determine what’s right for the person you’re currently working with.

As with most things, the best way to go about it is to avoid extremes. Report too much or too little, and you’re likely to either over- or underwhelm a client. The perfect balance is hard to achieve, but a good balance shouldn’t be too hard to arrive at.

How do you determine how granular to make your time tracking?

  1. I have always used 15 minute increments myself but I recognize the difficulty in doing that with certain types of work. If the work is very cerebral and you go for a walk to think through difficult issues, then the 15 minute increments may become blurry. I think it really depends on the type of work you do and what suits you.

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  2. It does get annoying to record what you’re doing every 15 minutes all day, but the truth is, many of us get distracted pretty frequently. An hour of “work” could easily involve 10 minutes of random web surfing, 15 minutes of Facebook time — which you might not know unless you wrote it down.

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  3. As much as I have been given a “Please explain.” email once or twice, I use 15 minute blocks. Hour blocks, whilst good for quoting and scheduling jobs, are a bit too large to accurately (and without query) bill work done. Anything smaller than 15 minute blocks, however, and the client will start thinking they can also get deductions for any period of time you are not actually, actively coding (ie doing research, reading existing code, etc.)

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  4. This was a Nice Article!
    I agree that this is not easy as it sounds. The practical part is always more sophisticated.
    I found a cool tool some months ago, witch helps me out a little bit. For thous who are interested: http://www.colorhat.com

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  5. [...] Time Tracking: How Granular Should You Be? See All Articles » The Importance of Buffers [...]

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  6. I totally agree with Laura – distractions are endless, especially when you are working on computers (don’t even get me started on working on computers from home…)
    I have blogged about OfficeTime (http://officetime.net) as a time management tool (which I discovered via WebWorkerDaily) which can go as granular as a minute (no I don’t work for them…).
    I think it’s less about the block of time you decide to use and more about having the discipline to track everything you do… once you get into the habit it makes you so much more productive.

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  7. We make time management software for attorneys (www.chrometa.com), and most of our users track their time to the 6-minute increment…which can be REALLY hard to do.

    We surveyed people who downloaded our trial version last year – collected data from about 500 attorneys – and they told us they spend over 2 hours a week just reconciling their time. Going through their calendar, sent email, handwritten notes, etc.

    Here’s a piece we wrote up on the survey data – also of note is that they believed they worked 3 hours for every 2 they were able to bill: http://www.maximizeyourbillabletime.com/how-do-attorneys-track-their-billable-time/

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  8. [...] How Detailed Is Your Time Tracking? Darrell Etherington writes for WebWorkerDaily: [...]

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  9. I use a time tracking software, so tracking my time doesn’t take much effort as all. Me switching between tasks or clients is just a click away. I have only had a few clients that have asked for a daily task log, so I just print them a special report. I use TSheets, they are especially useful for me because they are web based and I can track my time through my iphone.

    I have to agree with your article that you have to find the right amount of time detail to show a client, then every once in a while you get those clients who are just picky (or maybe they feel like they are going to get taken advantage of).

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