Where does all that time go?

There’s an old management adage – “You can’t manage what you can’t measure”.

This can be overstated (and make things way too complicated sometimes), but in general it’s hard to make improvements, in fact it’s even hard to know how you’re doing if you’re not measuring some key things.

As an example, one of the points that came up in discussion in a peer group advisory board meeting this morning was an issue that several people were having about not knowing how they were spending their time or how much time a lot of their activities were taking.

Can you handle adding more customers into your pipeline?  How much time do you spend getting them sold?  How much time do you spend actually providing your product or service?  Are you using your time productively?  Could you prioritize your time and increase your productivity?

If you’re like a lot of people, the answer to the above questions is…”I don’t know…!”

Time to start tracking…time

You are really busy.

The last thing you need is another hassle – something like keeping track of your every minute.

However, if you don’t start dealing with facts you’re never going to be able to improve things.  Depending on your business, it may be most important to know what the breakdown of your time is in big basic chunks…delivery, marketing, sales and admin or messing around as an example.

Or you may need to identify key repeatable activities that are part of your process and start measuring those.  Examples would be:  Time spent doing proposals, time training new clients to use your service, time spent creating on-boarding materials.

Anyway you slice it, it would be extremely compelling to know how much time you (or your staff) spends on certain tasks and how that trends.

Enter the time tracking tools

This isn’t a comprehensive list, but more of a suggestion list of some places to start.  The key criteria is something that’s inexpensive / free, easy to use, intuitively organized and ideally capable of generating some meaningful reports.

Option 1:  Go Old School with a spreadsheet!

This could either be Microsoft Excel or Google Docs (Google might get the edge here because you and your staff could access it online from anywhere and share a single sheet easily).  Unfortunately even though the price is right with this option (free), it’s going to be clunky and getting the information back out in a meaningful will either take a lot of up front work or may not be practical.

Option 2:  Stand alone web based Time Tracking tools

There are lots of options in this space – in fact here’s a pretty comprehensive list: The Best Time-Tracking Software in 2021.  Beyond that, here are a few that I found to be interesting.

The first one is Paymo TimeTracker, which offers a free plan that supports up to 3 users.  I haven’t used this, but I think I may need to give it a whirl.  The look and feel and the functionality look great – very clean, easy to use and even if you upgrade to the commercial version, the price is right.

The other option that I found that looks worthwhile is Harvest.  It also looks intuitive and although they don’t have a free option, they do have a free trial.  The cost after the trial is higher than I would expect, but it still may be worth checking out.

Note – late edit.  Based on the comments (the power of web 2.0 in action), I would also suggest checking out TSheets – there’s a lot of functionality there, including some great integration with mobile devices and invoicing software.  They have a free version (without reporting) and free trials with paid versions so you can check it out.

Option 3:  Time Tracking as part of Project Management tools!

Finally, you could choose to track your time as part of a bigger initiative to actively manage projects / customers.  I’m considering using this model as a way to track activities and ‘homework’ to do items with clients.  It can also be really effective if you have a larger project that might span more than one provider (i.e. creating a website and complimenting marketing materials from different vendors).

There are also many vendors that share this space, here are 2 that I’ve heard good things about:

The first one is Basecamp from 37Signals.  They describe this as their ‘flagship’ product and it really does have a lot of great functionality.  The only real drawback for the purposes of this discussion is that you have to get the Plus level plan if you want to get the time tracking module, which is expensive for a smaller business.  Especially if you’re not actively running a lot of ‘client’ projects.

The other option I would recommend is Zoho Projects.  Zoho hasn’t been around quite as long as 37Signals, but they seem to do a lot of things well.  It looks like a very good solution, you can try it out on 1 project totally for free and even the expanded version with 10 projects is only $12/month, quite a bit cheaper than Basecamp.

Start Tracking that time

Whatever option appeals to you, make it a point to start tracking your time starting in 2009.  Use it as input to decide where to focus your systemization and automation efforts and also use it to figure out what your really cost effective, high value activities are.

Do you have any experience with tracking time as a small business owner?  Share your thoughts here, I’d love to hear them.

Shawn Kinkade  Kansas City Business Coaching

11 thoughts on “Where does all that time go?”

  1. Raju Vegesna says:


    Zoho/AdventNet has been around for 12 years 🙂


  2. Jared says:

    I totally agree on the benefits of understanding how you track your time. Reminds me of a quote, something like “Operating without goals is like running up and down the field, but never crossing the finish line.” Without understanding how you use your time, a lot of it ends up wasted.

    Using our software, I even actually tracked how much time I slept at night so I could discover patterns, etc., and work on becoming an early riser. See article here, if intst’d: http://blog.tsheets.com/2008/just-for-fun/waking-up-is-hard-to-do.html.

    TSheets has a free version of its time tracker, but it doesn’t provide detailed reporting. However, you can put whatever you want in the notes. The full version is very nice, if I do say so myself, and if you combine it with an iPhone, you have a very easy way to track your time and can check out the reports later at your leisure.

  3. Raju,

    My apologies – my visibility to Zoho came around after I had seen a lot of stuff from 37Signals, so I assumed the wrong timeframe.

    Thanks for the correction.


  4. Dan Taylor says:

    Great article Shawn! I just wanted to toss our hat into the ring, and mention that another great time tracking solution is available from TSheets.com.

    We’ve recently integrated with FreshBooks, thereby marrying the world’s best invoicing app with the worlds best time tracking solution. Come have a visit!

  5. Danny Wen says:

    Thanks for the Harvest mention, Shawn! Just a FYI, we do have a FREE option (allows for 1 user to track time for 2 projects).

    Great post and round-up!

  6. Danny – thanks for the comment and the update, that’s great to know.


  7. Jared and Dan (TSheets),

    Thanks for the comments – I added you into the main article as well, it looks like a great solution.


  8. John says:

    You many also want to check out Intervals which is unique in that it combines time tracking and project management (similar to basecamp but more powerful).

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