Increasing Web Project Efficiency with Time Tracking

Everyone wishes they could have more time. With extra time, we could get so much more done—finish those long-delayed projects, get more sleep, learn new career skills, read Lord of the Rings backwards (or forwards). But we don’t have the ability to create time. We’re stuck with those finite number of hours per day and nothing’s every going to change with that.

Given how much we value time, why do we allow it to pass so casually? Shouldn’t we track and understand where it’s going?

The obvious answer: yes. Especially for our web projects.

Why Time Tracking?

There used to be a point where I wouldn’t track any of the time I’d spend on a project. Time tracking was too much of a barrier to my creative process. So I’d jump into a project and begin the work, and hours would pass, but no big deal—the mission was accomplished.

And here’s why I was wrong—and why I completely changed my time management habits.

Time is a valuable resource

When we have something that’s valuable and tangible, like money or stocks, we tend to be good at tracking it. We use budgets and bank accounts and forecasting spreadsheets to see where every penny is going. That knowledge and persistence is what makes people successful.

So why shouldn’t the same be done with time?

Time is worth more than money, because once time is gone, it’s gone for good. Money can always be found again.

Therefore, it makes sense to treat time with the same diligence that we show our money. During the working day, a smart businessperson can tell you what they did, how much time they spent on it, and how it contributed to the success of the business. Web project managers and web designers should adapt the same philosophy. How much time was dedicated toward what projects? Chances are you know how much money is in your bank account.

Making more time out of wasted time

Tracking time spent on business and projects is like exercising. At first, you’re slow and inefficient, and it may take your body a long time to finish a routine, but when you get into the groove of things, and your body becomes more accustomed to that routine, you’ll find yourself exercising more efficiently as your speed and strength increase. And if you’re smart and you track your exercising, you’ll be able to see these improvements and identify where to make further enhancements.

Your time is no different. Once you start tracking it, you’ll see a bloat of inefficiencies. It’s nothing to be ashamed about, because now you’ve seen the light: you can work toward creating more time by eliminating the waste.

A worldly view of all projects

Having a solid grasp of what you and your team accomplish during the business day means tracking all time spent. I don’t mean the time used at the restroom or grabbing some coffee. Generally, anything that will take more than five or ten minutes should be tracked.

Provided a good time tracking system is in place, you’ll have data. Good data. Data you can pull up in an instant to see where time is going. All of this gives you a clear picture as to how your projects are doing and what resources are going where.

How to Time Track

Finding time tracking software isn’t difficult. There are tons of applications out there, and many project management systems incorporate some element of time tracking. However, finding software that will work efficiently within your project environment isn’t so easy.

To be effective, time tracking software must flow seamlessly from system to system, so a web-based solution is probably your best bet. The tool should also be extendable to your other devices. For example, Harvest is a web-based application that connects with Zendesk for support ticket time tracking (on a side note, I’ve always highly recommended both Harvest and Zendesk).

There are several layers to consider in the realm of project logistics and time tracking:

  • The Client: Any client you are actively completing work for should be in the system.
  • The Project: The next layer is the specific project. Some clients may have more than one project happening, so for organizational purposes, it’s wise to keep them separate.
  • The Tasks: Within each of the projects should be a cookie-cutter list of tasks, such as client communications, meetings, web design, web development, and so forth. The list should be generalized to the point that it can be applied to most projects, making it simple to setup and monitor projects.
  • The Team: The final layer, and this doesn’t really fall in any particular order, is the people working on the project. Each project should be assignable to one or more team member, and ideally, roles should be defined (such as project manager, web designer, web developer).

With a system this granular and flexible in place, resource and time tracking is not complicated, and there’s a built-in measure of accountability.

When implementing time tracking with a workforce, one possible bad perception is that you’ll be seen as a micro-manager. That’s obviously not the case (I hope). If time tracking is a new concept to a team, it’ll take an honest explanation of why the system is being used as well as the promise that you won’t be looking over shoulders every five minutes. Time tracking should be seen as a benefit to the team and as a way for everyone to improve without the threat of Big Brother watching every move. Of course, slackers will need to be rooted out, but that should entail a gradual process, which isn’t the scope of this article.

Using Time Tracking in Your Web Projects

Time tracking is more than an accountability tool—it’s a way to become a better web designer, web developer, and project manager. Here are some ideas on integrating time tracking into the web project management process.

Track project failures

Projects have problems. Sometimes they flounder. Sometimes they go belly-up and fail. Anyone who has been in the technology field understands this. But what many don’t understand is why these projects fail or encounter issues.

A history of the time dedicated to a project is a great diagnostic tool that can help lead you to some of these why answers. Why did the project fail? Perhaps not enough time was allocated for development, or maybe the lag between client follow-ups was too long. Why did it take the development team twenty extra hours to complete their piece? Maybe the project was mis-quoted.

Finding the answers may not be easy, or even possible, but a solid data trail will put you on the right path.

More precise project estimates

Cost estimating and project quotes seem to be a big headache among designers. They wonder if they should raise their rates or project fees, which begs the question as to whether or not they even have any data to backup their concerns. How does one know when they need to raise their rates?

For instance, have projects been taking longer than the price you’ve quoted (without too much scope creep)? If so, your quotes are too low. Or, are you able to finish tasks quicker because your skills have improved? Raise your hourly rates.

Time tracking provides all of the data necessary to figure these questions out.

More accurate billings

If you’ve ever retained a lawyer, then you’re probably aware of their great ability to track time Their bills are flush with line item details of the activities and time spent on your particular case, and it’s usually so spot on that it’s hard to argue with—even if it’s a big bill.

Treat your invoicing with the same rigor and accuracy. When invoicing a client for hourly work, give them detailed descriptions of time spent on tasks as well as a break down of the hours used.

Solid, detailed data that is evidence-based is often hard to refute. Your clients will also see you more as a professional.

Track inefficiencies

I want to reiterate (again) the importance of time. It’s our most valuable possession. So when it comes to projects, there should be a constant hunt for inefficiencies—tasks that needlessly extend or otherwise delay project milestones.

If your task categories are setup with a suitable layer of granularity, you should be able to quickly spot wasted time. Too much effort spent on administrative tasks is waste. Or, too much time spent in meetings could be waste.

Ideally, you want to focus your efforts on tasks that involve project work, growing your business, making new sales, or enhancing your career and skills. Anything else during the business day is a luxury.

A Word of Caution: Don’t Let Time Consume You

The purpose of this article is not to encourage you to constantly monitor your time and thus eliminate any kind of fun in life. No—the purpose here is to encourage you to achieve maximum efficiency during the eight or so working hours you put in for the day. When you strive for that efficiency, you can rest easy during off hours with the knowledge that you accomplished a solid day of productive work.

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