For those of you who remain unconvinced of the merits of tracking your time, I offer the following benefits.
In my first decade of freelancing, I was pretty opposed to anything to do with time tracking.
My reasoning was that writers and journalists can’t reasonably be expected to track every minute of every hour of our working lives, because our whole lives are working lives. I could be on a long walk or playing Tetris on my computer and actually composing a headline for my latest story. How on earth are we to track that?
Further, I found that the more I tracked what I was doing, the less productive I became. I like the flexibility of freelancing and anything that makes me feel like an employee (even if I’m the only one who sees the time sheets) just turns me off massively.
To be clear, I still don’t track every minute of every day. Even if I were to find it useful (which I don’t), I couldn’t possibly be expected to remember to do it. Moreover, I’m pretty efficient and have finally figured out how not to get distracted by shiny things like Facebook and Twitter.
But I do track how much time I spend on each individual project and assignment. And sometimes, it’s been a real eye-opener.
So, for those of you like me who remain unconvinced of the merits of tracking your time, I offer the following benefits.
1. It keeps you focused
As soon as I press the button on my time tracking app, I know I can’t be doing anything else because I’m tracking how many hours I’m spending on a particular project and I don’t want to ruin the data. This really helps me stay focused on the task at hand and resist the urge to check Facebook quickly or reply to the email that just arrived. As a bonus, I’m now writing a lot faster.
2. It shows you what you’re making per hour on each assignment
Unless you’re writing for corporates, you’re unlikely to be billing your editors by the hour. In fact, I recommend you agree to a fixed sum before you even start the assignment. Then it’s up to you how efficiently you can do it. As I’ve said previously, sometimes a low-paying assignment turns out to be quite profitable and, of course, the opposite can happen, too. Tracking your time helps you to note these pluses and minuses right away and not half a dozen assignments down the line.
3. Tracking your time provides history and context
Do you know which of your clients is the most profitable for you in terms of your hourly rate? Or the biggest time suck? I didn’t, until I started tracking my time. It was quite a shock, really.
So the next time one of your clients asks for a little extra, it’s easy enough to go back into your records and see, on average, how much you make working for this client and how that extra bit of work will reflect in your hourly rate. This is especially helpful if you’re a mid-career writer who frequently replaces low-paying clients with higher-paying ones. When you need to replace your lowest-payer, it becomes easier to determine which is the one to go.
4. It helps you measure your own efficiency
I recently finished an assignment that took me nine hours and I know, if I’m being honest with myself, that I could have easily done it in seven, five if I’d pushed harder. But I’d just returned from holiday, my mind was still demanding rest, and I wasn’t as efficient as I could have been. Just looking at that number, though, keeps me on task, and motivated to increase my efficiency with the next job I do for this client.
5. It shows you where to place your focus
You don’t become a successful freelancer without putting in some good, old-fashioned hard work. I’ve been making a comfortable living from my freelancing for a while and the last two years following the birth of my son have given me renewed purpose.
This year, with all the health and money problems we’ve had, has been an eye-opener in terms of the choices I’ve made. And what I need to do better to ensure that work doesn’t dry up when I’m not working 18 hours a day.
Tracking time helps me to see, in black and white, which activities and assignments are profitable for me, and which ones aren’t. I may still choose to continue doing some of the work I love and that isn’t high-paying, but that’s then an educated decision and not my default mode of operation.
6. It’s great motivation to work quickly and without distraction
If I want to make more, I need to increase my hourly rate. If I want to increase my hourly rate, I need to do the same amount of work in less time.
Let me be clear: I never skimp on quality. That’s my brand out there and cutting corners on your work isn’t the way to go if you’re in this for the long haul. But most of us are probably about 50% as efficient as we could be. We over-research, we write 2,000 words for a 500-word assignment (and then spend three hours scaling back), and we often waste time being distracted by random shiny objects.
When I’m tracking my time, it’s almost a game to me—how quickly can I get this done while keeping my quality levels the same? This mindset helps me cut down the distractions and when I take a break, I actually get up and walk away from the assignment. This is a great way to do short period of focused work and be more productive.
7. Tracking your time can help you set your base income level
Let’s say I’m averaging $100 per hour on my current assignments. Now when an editor emails me with an assignment that will realistically take 5 hours but pays $300, I have three options: walk away, negotiate a higher fee, or take it at a pay cut.
Now, see, this is the thing. Even a year ago, I wouldn’t have thought of a 1,000-word assignment at $300 as a pay cut. Sure, I’d have thought it was a low rate and I might have turned it down anyway, but what I wouldn’t have known is how much potential income I was losing by taking on the work. At $300 for 5 hours, I’m making $60 an hour, a $40 an hour or $200 loss. For one assignment, that’s fine. But if I kept taking assignments such as these over the course of the year (which I have done), it eats into my time and my profit.
I wondered why my income wasn’t increasing last year and it’s because I was going below my base price without even realizing it.
8. It can help you plan
Your percentages will obviously be different, but currently, only 50% of my time is spent on billable work. I spend the rest of the time on marketing to find new clients, my niche website, other projects that haven’t yet paid off, pitching, admin, speaking with clients, networking, etc. None of these other projects or admin tasks pay in actual dollars, and so what tracking time and sticking to my hourly rate does for me is that it enables me to see how much I take on, and therefore, how much I can make in a week.
For example, if I’m working 40 hours a week on average, I know that I’m spending at least 20 of those hours on non-billable work. So, at $50 an hour, I can only make $1,000 a week. Depending on your situation, this may or may not be enough. For me, it isn’t. So I have three options:
- Increase my working hours.
- Spend less time on non-billable activities.
I do a mix of all three and the third one is, of course, a moving target for us all. But the important thing is that I wouldn’t have these numbers to work with if I weren’t tracking my time.
Since I am, not only do I know how much billable work I need to bring in each week, but also how much time it will take, and how that plays into my overall goals for the year.
Natasha Khullar Relph
Founder and Editor, The Wordling
Natasha Khullar Relph is an award-winning journalist and author with bylines in The New York Times, TIME CNN, BBC, ABC News, Ms. Marie Claire, Vogue, and more. She is the founder of The Wordling, a weekly business newsletter for journalists, authors, and content creators. Natasha has mentored over 1,000 writers, helping them break into dream publications and build six-figure careers. She is the author of Shut Up and Write: The No-Nonsense, No B.S. Guide to Getting Words on the Page and several other books.
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