On the face of it, time tracking is an absolutely great idea….
You’re working at a design agency where clients are billed by the hour. You track how much time you spend on specific project tasks, the finance department easily sees how much to charge the client based upon everyone’s timesheets (and can offer snazzy reports to back up the invoice), and you become more productive by seeing where your time is spent.

What’s not to like about this time tracking lark?
Well quite a bit, to be honest!

Timesheets are rarely accurate

First of all, time tracking reports are based on the assumption that the time tracked is an accurate representation of what someone worked on in a day or week. I’m sorry, but twenty years working as a designer tells me that this is complete nonsense.

C’mon, we’ve all witnessed someone like Mary getting into a panic on a Friday afternoon because she forgot to fill in her timesheets. In a mad rush, she begins to look over her work files, calendar and emails, to fill in all the blanks. At best, her timesheet is a mixture of time tracked and guess work. And I bet she’ll accidentally log time for a day she was actually off, at some point or other!

What the hell are you using the timesheets for anyway?

Why billing of course! But sorry, that’s not entirely correct either, is it? So Bob recorded 20 hours to complete those website updates, but the client signed off on an estimate for 30 hours. Way to go, Bob—you work fast, but hey, we could have billed another 10 hours there. You know what, that client was a pain in the ass; tell finance to bill 25 hours instead. The client will be delighted we came in under budget regardless!

Hey, our time tracking is accurate—we’ve got an app for it and everyone loves it.

Excellent, I’m really happy for you, but sorry to be a killjoy—I bet your time tracking app has got timesheet functionality too? Why? Because people forget to enter their time regularly. Not because they’re incompetent, but because stuff gets in the way. You know the scenario… You jump to the task at hand, hit the big ‘start timer’ button and you’re off! Five minutes in, Chris calls across the room about advice on a new concept so you nip over to see how it’s looking. One thing leads to another, and before you know it, you’re heading out to lunch. On your return, you sit down to get stuck into that task again. Uh oh, the timer is still ticking away and your scheduled half hour task is suddenly at two hours and 32 minutes. What the heck!

You get the picture. It’s a common enough scenario at work and one which small businesses should be working hard to eliminate—not through their time tracking app, but through how they allow employees to get work done.

Time tracking causes friction

The other problem with time tracking software or systems is the friction they cause. Some businesses like to get very granular—instead of recording just your time, you’ve got to add tags for ‘website design’, ‘design’, ‘UI’, ‘coding’. Suddenly something that should be relatively simple requires a lot of decision-making.

You’re wasting time—tracking time! You’re wasting time adding additional information about a simple task that you’re never going to read again. You’re pulling your attention away from doing work to planning and recording work.

You’re collecting data for the sake of it

C’mon, what are you going to do with all that data? What decisions are going to be made based on the pie-chart you’re looking at? If you’re in a small agency of five people, is that graph going to suddenly tell you the company needs another web designer to handle the increasing workload or is your team going to tell you?

Time tracking collects too much data

I’m not saying tracking time is wrong or evil. I’m saying that you should be clear about what you’re trying to achieve by tracking it and are okay with the inevitable discrepancies that will occur.

Some people use time tracking apps to stay really productive, by clicking the timer and using the Pomodoro Technique to focus in on a task at hand. Others can use an app religiously to get a better handle on how much of their day is dedicated to billable work versus non-billable—that’s the only two tags they ever use! But others are getting bogged down with making sure timesheet entries are filled in or are spending too much time adding information to time entries—and that’s just not productive.

What if….

  • You didn’t track time at all?
  • You removed all your project tags and just had ‘billable’ and ‘non-billable’?
  • You asked all employees to try the Pomodoro Technique?
  • You encouraged everyone to use Getting Things Done principles?
  • You estimated client work based on value, not on hours worked?

The big picture stuff in any small company should centre around staying in business, selling or billing enough to cover employees’ wages and overheads and providing a space for those employees to do their best work, free from unnecessary stress and bullshit. Does your current time tracking system add to that focus or hinder it? I would encourage you to take some time and consider that for a moment. Is there a better way that can help employees get more done?

The solution?

To be honest, I don’t believe there’s any one solution that will work for all companies and people, as that wouldn’t reflect the fact that everyone has different needs and ways of working. But arriving at a time tracking solution that doesn’t get in the way and rob you of time, that doesn’t take away your focus and create friction, and offers meaningful data or improvements to productivity—well, that’s a solution I would pay for right there.

It’s a solution we’re striving to fold into Tameday, our new project management app that focuses on removing as many pain points from your working day as possible, to let you get on with the stuff you need to ‘get done’.