Why Tracking Time is Critical. And 6 Steps to Get Started

Published On:
January 31, 2018

As they say, time is money. So, whether you are an entrepreneur, a freelancer, or you manage hundreds of people, the time you collectively spend on “work” is therefore an investment. But how do you know if you are investing for the best result? What if you are throwing your money away? Without knowing where time is being spent, it is difficult to know the impact your work has on your business outcomes. It is just guess work. But if you can see how time is allocated, you will have the information needed to optimize its impact.

But tracking time is boring. It takes too long. I never remember to do it. I am salaried, so I should not need to track my time. OK, but let’s go back to our time-is-money cliche. Imagine you spent one thousand dollars of your hard-earned cash and at the end of the day had no recollection of what you did nor any record of the purchases. Would you feel like your money was wasted? Would you plan your spending differently and track it as you went? I bet you would.

With insights from time data you can: Identify where time is spent on low priority work and refocus effort on the most important tasks. Discover tasks that do not pertain to your mission or responsibilities and eliminate or move them to the right place. React to trends in demand to balance the workload across your resources and avoid burnout. Identify emerging demand that requires training or hiring to fill a skill gap. Build a fact base to justify strategic decisions like taking on new responsibilities or investing to grow the business. Measure your profit margin on client projects then use that data to improve your estimation and project planning.

So, here are a few tips to help you keep track of time and use that information to your advantage.

1. Choose a process and set your target.

If you measure work by the day you will not get any insight into how time is spent, and if you measure by the minute, you will spend more time logging time than working. We recommend 15-minute increments as it offers enough granularity to make decisions without becoming a data collection burden. In terms of process, do not wait until the end of the day to figure out what you did at 8:45 this morning. Record your time according to your measurement unit – here, every 15 minutes. That may sound like a lot, but if you try it, you will be surprised to see how often you change tasks. If your task spans more than 15 minutes and you cannot stop to write it down (i.e. in a meeting), simply record the time immediately after.

2. Define your categories.

 If you asked someone, “How did you spend your day” and they replied, “Doing work”, you would likely follow up with, “What specific tasks did you do?”. Enter, Categories. To start, list the most common categories of tasks, like meetings, lunch, breaks, email, etc. then, use job descriptions to find more specific categories. Next, think of anything else you do on a regular basis that is not on the list. Lastly, always include an ‘Other’ category to hold those tasks that do not seem to fit anywhere. In a group setting, there will be category overlap, but each person’s role should dictate their time categories.


3. Use the right tool for the job.

Simple is better. When tracking is made easy, it promotes quick adoption and habit formation. Choose a tool that fits culturally, something everyone can use or is used to – Excel, Google Sheets, a SharePoint list. Also, there are plenty of no- or low-cost smartphone apps out there, so you can enter time as long as you have your phone – and who doesn’t? Some apps come with timers, so you can start and stop a clock as you do your work. As your needs evolve and a more robust tool is required, your process will be so well-run that it will act as a perfect set of requirements for a technology purchase.

4. Enforce the process.

 This process must be mandatory, and compliance must be one hundred percent for your organization to benefit from the effort. Provide reminders in your daily huddles. Spot check daily submissions and ask that issues (or missing time) are remedied immediately. Keep a published compliance scorecard to create visibility of this important process. Do not forget: if you are a manager, track your own time too. Your time is crucial to the overall analysis and will show the team you are subject to the same rules they are. If you work for yourself, create reminders in your calendar.


5. Analyze your data.

Collecting data that cannot be acted upon is a waste of time. Set a schedule to analyze time data – weekly and monthly are recommended. Examine where time is being spent by each person. Is it in line with job descriptions? Why do some categories have many hours while others have none? Figure out the categories where time is spent but where the actual work is still a mystery. Meetings? Can you break that down further? Dig into the ‘Other’ category to find out what could not be categorized and keep the ‘Other’ hours to a minimum. Do you see trends week to week? Are there days when resources are underutilized or overloaded? If you are a project-based business, compare time data with client revenue to see if you are spending the right amount of time on projects. We have seen many companies discover they spend far too much time on high-maintenance clients that do not generate substantial revenues. This drives down profit margins and withholds resources from doing higher value work.


6. Optimize the work and your business.

Use the information from your analysis to make changes to how work is done, thus maximizing the return on the effort you invest. Use trends to identify tasks that take significant time, but do not add value, and decide how to eliminate or automate them. Move tasks that do not fit role descriptions to the appropriate person or team. 

Leverage time data to discuss performance improvement, training needs, or advancement opportunities with your resources. Move work among team members to level the burden during times of peak demand. And when you feel the team is optimized under the current load, you can have a fact-based discussion to take on additional work or to grow the team.

Time is the scarcest resource we all have. How you (and your teams) spend it can make the difference between profit and loss, personal and professional growth, or achieving your goals. Use these tips to create a process that will ensure your prize investment will give you the return you are expecting.

Go ahead, the clock is ticking.

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