Author Topic: Freelancers and others - how do you track time spent working?  (Read 3695 times)

Sandia

  • 5 O'Clock Shadow
  • *
  • Posts: 43
Hello fellow Mustachians,

My side-gig (and hopefully eventual full-time job) is editing/writing, especially on the topic of natural sciences. Up to now, I've been able to do this under contracts for university professors, but now - due to hiring freezes - need to become a freelance contractor to keep my gigs going. This new set-up means I suddenly have to set my own hourly rates, which means I need to figure out how fast I usually work so I can develop better cost estimates in the future.

So, most important question: how should I track my time spent working? Do you use software or something else to track time? I'm hoping for a system that's very easy to implement, to get into the habit of tracking time straight away.

I'll be working on at least two different computers on at least three different projects this semester- maybe I need a web-based app? Or does anyone recommend a simple paper and pen?

Sometimes I jump from task to task a lot when working on the computer, "multi-tasking" or taking frequent small mental breaks when my brain is churning away at something on the backburner. Should I time in and out for every 5 minute break (~2 or 3 per hour when I'm really distracted), or just factor that into how long it takes me to work?

Do you have any other advice for someone starting their own freelancing business?

If it's relevant, I am in Australia and will probably have other questions about this new business soon... Thanks for taking the time to respond!


lhamo

  • Walrus Stache
  • *******
  • Posts: 9625
  • Location: Seattle
Re: Freelancers and others - how do you track time spent working?
« Reply #1 on: March 04, 2016, 08:30:06 PM »
In my last job we used to have to record our work time in 15 minute increments, and I tracked mine on an excel spreadsheet (some people could use Outlook, but it only broke things down by half hours and I was jumping between 10-15 different projects in a day so needed something more robust).  The way I had it set up I had all the different project codes across the top row, would keep notes as I changed tasks during the day (sometimes using my email records to reconstruct), and then at the end of the day I would enter the total amount of time billed to each project code in the row for that day, and then transfer to the on-line timekeeping system (due to organizational rules, we had to both enter our time in the online system AND keep a separate set of records to show exactly when/how the time was spent).

It sounds horrible, and it kind of was, especially once I was working on so many projects (when I started I only had 6-8 subcodes, which was much more do able).  But you get used to it. 

Try to avoid doing too much multi-tasking, because it is really inefficient and hard to track.  Best if you can set aside "chunks" of time for each project, and then take short breaks as you move between them.  It isn't really fair to the client to bill for time you aren't actually working on their stuff.  Yes, it happens, but you should try to minimize it.  You will get more work the more efficient you are, anyway.

SU

  • 5 O'Clock Shadow
  • *
  • Posts: 90
Re: Freelancers and others - how do you track time spent working?
« Reply #2 on: March 04, 2016, 10:12:19 PM »
I use the free version of an app called Hours Keeper to track this type of work (writing and editing for academics). It's easy to use - I just create different 'jobs' and then clock in and out according to who I am working for. The app can generate invoices etc. and you can add work after the event if you forgot to clock in/out.

I think how you account for breaks is a personal thing. I regard them as part of the process and generally bill for them. For example, if a task takes 3 hours, I don't clock out if I get up to make a coffee in the middle of it. But if I am editing a paragraph and make lunch in between editing the first two and last three sentences, I only record the 5 minutes it takes me to do the editing.

In my experience doing this work at a few different places, they are not especially price sensitive ie. they will pay for good work rather than worry about your hourly rate. So more than worrying about how to bill for 5 minute breaks, spend your energy on getting feedback from your clients and developing a good portfolio of work and references.

If it's relevant, I'm Australian, but not working in Australia. If you want to make a career in science writing, Cobi Smith at the Uni of Melbourne is a good example of someone doing it well (although she seems to be doing more law stuff now, she started out in science).

shelivesthedream

  • Magnum Stache
  • ******
  • Posts: 4601
  • Location: London, UK
Re: Freelancers and others - how do you track time spent working?
« Reply #3 on: March 05, 2016, 04:00:21 AM »
I don't officially record my time, but I ballpark it for my own purposes and to estimate better on future projects. I include how hard I was working! For example, 2 hrs at 100% (doing nothing other than working), 3 hrs at 75% (basically working but with a film or the radio on in the background, making cups of tea, occasional chats with my husband - whatever), or 4hrs at 50% (working ish, but getting up to do chores answering emails, not really pushing it, like I have all the time in the world). I know that I often like to work at 50-75% if there's no rush, but I can work at 100% if I need to or want to. I usually get paid a flat fee, not an hourly rate, so I can manage my time however I want. And I'm not currently pushing it to earn as much as I can. It's useful to be able to tell how long something will take me at my various levels of effort.

protostache

  • Pencil Stache
  • ****
  • Posts: 896
Re: Freelancers and others - how do you track time spent working?
« Reply #4 on: March 05, 2016, 05:48:40 AM »
In my experience doing this work at a few different places, they are not especially price sensitive ie. they will pay for good work rather than worry about your hourly rate. So more than worrying about how to bill for 5 minute breaks, spend your energy on getting feedback from your clients and developing a good portfolio of work and references.

Absolutely. I have two types of clients. First I have day rate clients that get billed an entire day for any day in which I do more than have a 15 minute phone call with them. If they demand an hour rate, they get charged for eight hours without fail. Second are my month rate clients. They automatically pay me a monthly rate for a negotiated number of days of work per month without the expectation of an invoice. Typically we'll agree to a rough schedule with the understanding that work days may shift as needed.

Day rate clients typically have short term projects or time limited engagements. If I like them and want to keep working with them, I work hard to convert to a month rate. In no case do I charge in less than one day increments. I'd rather be doing productive work for a client than worrying about small administrative stuff like accounting for bathroom breaks.

I'm a software consultant, so your milage may vary on the above.

Smokystache

  • Bristles
  • ***
  • Posts: 334
Re: Freelancers and others - how do you track time spent working?
« Reply #5 on: March 05, 2016, 06:24:00 AM »
Another perspective - some freelancers suggest that you shouldn't charge hourly (instead charge by the project).

Here is one brief overview of the reasons why you might not want to charge hourly (and a few reminders why hourly can be a good way to do it):
http://freelancem.ag/freelancing-basics/hourly-flat-rate/

The most compelling reason I've heard NOT to charge hourly is that it punishes you for gaining experience and getting better/faster at your job or adopting technology or other ways to become more efficient. For example, the same project that used to take 8 hours, now takes 6 hours (lets say you charge $50/hr). Maybe you have access to a new database or just get quicker at putting an article together or hire out a piece of the job that makes it more efficient for you, etc. The client gets the same final product - but when you're inexperienced you get paid $400, but when you're an expert (and perhaps even turn out a better product!), you get paid $300.

Also, clients love to know the total price upfront.

Of course, if you're working with clients that like to "add just a little more ..." or it is a type of project you've never done before (and can't create a good estimate of how long it will take), then hourly is definitely the way to go.

DebtFreeBy25

  • Stubble
  • **
  • Posts: 239
  • Age: 32
  • Location: Appalachian and...tolerating it
Re: Freelancers and others - how do you track time spent working?
« Reply #6 on: March 05, 2016, 09:42:17 AM »
I don't officially record my time, but I ballpark it for my own purposes and to estimate better on future projects. I include how hard I was working! For example, 2 hrs at 100% (doing nothing other than working), 3 hrs at 75% (basically working but with a film or the radio on in the background, making cups of tea, occasional chats with my husband - whatever), or 4hrs at 50% (working ish, but getting up to do chores answering emails, not really pushing it, like I have all the time in the world). I know that I often like to work at 50-75% if there's no rush, but I can work at 100% if I need to or want to. I usually get paid a flat fee, not an hourly rate, so I can manage my time however I want. And I'm not currently pushing it to earn as much as I can. It's useful to be able to tell how long something will take me at my various levels of effort.

I really like the idea of accounting for how hard you're working in addition to how long you're working. You also may want to track how difficult or tedious you find a project to be. Personally, I recommend tracking your stats in a google doc because you're working on multiple different laptops.

My recommendation is track your total number of hours worked each day and allocate those hours to the different projects you're working on. For me, this is easiest to do on a daily basis. Tracking your work distribution hourly or several times a day makes logging your hours a major task. On the other hand, only recording your hours on weekly basis would likely result in numbers that are much less accurate. I would note lunch and any major breaks or distractions but consider minor distractions and short breaks to be part of the process. If you regularly multitask, I would figure the distribution as a percentage. If you worked mostly on Project A but were also responding to emails about Project B from 9am-12pm, you might log 2 hours for Project A and 1 hour for Project B.

neo von retorch

  • Magnum Stache
  • ******
  • Posts: 3340
  • Location: SE PA
    • Fi@retorch - personal finance tracking
Re: Freelancers and others - how do you track time spent working?
« Reply #7 on: March 05, 2016, 11:08:47 AM »
I use Grindstone to track my tasks. You can then output timesheet reports by task and time period, and have it output decimals or fractional time.

dios.del.sol

  • Stubble
  • **
  • Posts: 150
  • Location: Los Angeles
Re: Freelancers and others - how do you track time spent working?
« Reply #8 on: March 05, 2016, 01:44:11 PM »
I use a free app called toggl. You have to pay to specify billable hours, but I don't need that.

SilveradoBojangles

  • Bristles
  • ***
  • Posts: 318
Re: Freelancers and others - how do you track time spent working?
« Reply #9 on: March 05, 2016, 02:01:02 PM »
I use a free app called toggl. It's great, super easy. If I forget to turn it off when I walk away from my  computer, it keeps recording but asks me if I want to keep the time during which my computer was idle. I can summarize my hours by project, client, activity, etc.

startingsmall

  • Pencil Stache
  • ****
  • Posts: 622
Re: Freelancers and others - how do you track time spent working?
« Reply #10 on: March 05, 2016, 07:19:31 PM »
Relatively new to freelance writing/editing here, but I also prefer to charge by the project.

As another poster mentioned, I like to work at about 50-75% effort. I already work 40 hrs/wk at a job that I hate and like to keep my freelance work 'fun!' I don't feel like I can do that if I'm charging hourly, though. Some of the work I've done comes with a price already attached (an editing client pays by the page, a writing client supposedly pays hourly but they provide an estimate of how many hours it should take and use that to calculate a price per project)... but if I'm asked to set a price, I always guesstimate how long the project will take and calculate a flat fee based on that.

Sandia

  • 5 O'Clock Shadow
  • *
  • Posts: 43
Re: Freelancers and others - how do you track time spent working?
« Reply #11 on: March 06, 2016, 12:58:30 AM »
Hello everyone, thanks for the replies.

Smokeystache and startingsmall, I had heard about billing by the project, but also that generally people create that total project fee by estimating how many hours it might take. Are there other ways to estimate project costs upfront, especially for someone just starting out?

Shelivesthedream, I really like your idea of tracking effort (and preferred levels of effort). I'll definitely be adding this to my records.

lhamo, I had considered just using Excel (and Dropbox), but it sounds like it would take a lot of time to get used to the system. I like your point about working in "chunks" of time; I'll strive for that.

SU, SilveradoBojangles, dios, and neogoddess, I'll be looking up those apps, thanks.


yakamashii

  • Stubble
  • **
  • Posts: 113
  • Location: Japan
Re: Freelancers and others - how do you track time spent working?
« Reply #12 on: March 06, 2016, 06:55:22 PM »
I think billing by the project is ideal for reasons stated previously (everyone knows the cost up front, you don't get penalized for working faster or otherwise improving/becoming more efficient). An accurate project cost can be difficult to peg starting out, but the more data you gather, the better you get at estimating.

I work in translation, where we have the benefit of the relatively immutable unit of source word or character. Sometimes I'm asked to quote per target word, which is nowhere near as certain and can seem like a bad deal, especially when you're editing your output and making changes to streamline the text. It's not a good idea to have a setup where it can seem like doing a better job ends up costing you.

Keep data on yourself. Rigorously. The rate you earn per hour of your time and energy does not have to be the same number as the one you quote your clients. I have a target rate in mind, and because I keep data on myself (how long it takes me to do different types of jobs in different fields, source-to-target ratios, associated non-billable hours and other post-translation tasks, etc.) I can quickly quote in source characters/words, target characters/words, or hours in such a way that I end up with the money I need to do the work.

Sandia

  • 5 O'Clock Shadow
  • *
  • Posts: 43
Re: Freelancers and others - how do you track time spent working?
« Reply #13 on: March 06, 2016, 10:06:12 PM »
Yakamashii, wow, it sounds like you collect a lot of data on yourself! Do you use a specific software to write this all down? Or just maintain an amazing spreadsheet?

Also, what kinds of associated non-billable tasks do you track?


yakamashii

  • Stubble
  • **
  • Posts: 113
  • Location: Japan
Re: Freelancers and others - how do you track time spent working?
« Reply #14 on: March 07, 2016, 05:23:45 PM »
Yakamashii, wow, it sounds like you collect a lot of data on yourself! Do you use a specific software to write this all down? Or just maintain an amazing spreadsheet?

Scratch paper and Excel. Scratch paper to write down times and tasks, Excel to log it all at the end of the day and play with the numbers later on.

Basically, I write down what time I sit down at the computer, then write down start and end times next to tasks I have written out as I start and finish them. I write down the time when I get up for a meal, a walk or some other break longer than 15 minutes. I do this throughout the day, then total everything up at the end of the day and put it where it goes on the spreadsheet.

Also, what kinds of associated non-billable tasks do you track?

I probably should have said "non-billable hours and associated non-translation tasks." Here's how I define and handle that data:

Non-billable hours = Volunteering, networking, presenting, studying, unsuccessfully quoting, tooling around online (including posting on forums . . . )

Associated non-translation tasks = assessing files and quoting, accepting via email or phone, asking questions midway through, breaks up to 15 minutes, editing, proofreading, delivering by email or FTP, responding to questions and comments post-translation

I don't keep a separate time for each associated non-translation task because some of them don't take very long. However, they all count as time spent on each job. This is probably intuitive, but I have it set up this way because when I started keeping data on myself years ago, I only counted translation time, and essentially fooled myself with sexy numbers that didn't tell me what I needed to know. It only hindered me to believe that x amount of text takes five hours to translate when, after adding in the associated non-translation tasks and a reasonable break or two, it really takes six or seven.

I also don't sort non-billable hours, and probably should someday because there are good N/B hours and bad N/B hours.

This data I keep are mostly for me to know how much time I'm spending in front of the computer. It amounts to navel-gazing and screwing around with spreadsheets, but it also helps me quote in several different terms without ripping myself off.