If you are a creative freelancer, entrepreneur, or business-owner, there’s one not-so-obvious thing you absolutely must do. No, I’m not talking about getting good at sales, brand-building, reading books, or improving your craft. These things are all critical, of course, but there’s one especially critical thing you’re probably not doing:
Tracking your time.
That’s right, time-tracking. Keep in mind, I’m not talking about tracking billable work time. If you bill your client or customer by the hour, you obviously must track your time. That is a no-brainer.
What I’m talking about is tracking all your time…time spent doing administrative stuff, time spent marketing or selling, working on your website, updating your portfolio, and especially working on long, complex projects that have a flat fee or are based on a proposal. Every minute of any task should be tracked.
Sounds obsessive? Maybe. But here’s the deal: Tracking your time has a number of absolutely incredible benefits, especially to the class of creative workers. These benefits include:
- Measuring your profitability (or lack of it) – This is a big one. For creatives, your time is your most valuable resource. Although your software, tools, and materials all cost money, it’s the time you put into a project that is your biggest cost.
Airlines track how much fuel they use. Starbucks tracks their coffee usage. Lego tracks how much plastic they buy. Unless you are creating a sculpture out of pure gold, as a creative your time is your most valuable resource. You need to be measuring it.
I encourage all creatives to give themselves an internal hourly rate. Like I mentioned, this is an internal rate, not an external “billable” rate you may show to clients (it can be the same but doesn’t have to be). What do you think your time is worth? If you think your time is worth $50/hour, and you’re charging $1000 for work that’s going to take you 40 hours to complete, you’re undercharging and leaving money on the table (or you may be working inefficiently). Either way, you won’t know how profitable or unprofitable you are unless you track your time.
- Adjusting your Rates and/or your Process – Directly related to the above point, tracking your time (i.e. profitability) will give you insight into what you should be charging. You may find you need to raise your prices because you’re taking way too long on projects. Or, you may need to invest in some software or tools, or learn a new technique, in order to work more efficiently. Best case scenario is you realize your projects are wildly profitable and you can confidently stay the course with your rates and process.
- Prioritizing – When you track your time, you will quickly realize that you’re either working too much or too little—likely the former. Knowing where you time is going will help you see what you’re actually working on, assess your capacity and decide your best use of time. You may realize you’re spending too much time on the wrong stuff. Time is your most valuable resource and it’s also your most finite resource. It’s limited, so don’t spend it doing the wrong thing. Tracking your time will give you the data you need to prioritize your tasks.
- Staying Focused – Tracking your time will lead to greater focus. When the clock is running, your brain will switch into “go” mode. It’s the difference between playing sports without a scoreboard compared to playing with a scoreboard. It’s the difference between a runner who’s jogging with friends compared to racing against competitors. When you’re keeping score, you play harder. When you’re tracking time, you focus better.
- Unplugging – If you’re like me, it’s easy for your workday to blend into your non-workday. Unlike a 9-to-5 worker who has a definitive beginning and end to his day, for creatives it’s not so clear. Although it’s great to care passionately about your craft, eat sleep and breathe your passion, and dedicate time to improving your work, it’s also healthy to step away from it. Human beings need time to recharge, rest, and play. Tracking your time will give you that clear separation because at the end of the day, when you click the button to stop tracking your time, you are technically “off the clock”. Although it could be argued that creative entrepreneurs and freelancers are never truly off the clock, having a cue in the form of turning off your clock will make that separation a little easier.
Thankfully, there are plenty of apps and software out there that make tracking time easy. I personally use Harvest, although a quick google search will reveal lots of other options (such as TopTracker, Toggl, and Due).
Although it’s not the sexiest of habits for a creative, it might be the most important. Find a time tracking app that works for you and start tracking your time for everything you work on…that’s right, everything.