“Get your time sheets in!” is possibly the phrase that is most loathed by employees. It conjures up thoughts of micromanagement, hyper-accountability, Big Brother, the system, and the Man bringing you down. Let us not forget the dreaded rejected time sheet, the adult equivalent of a bad report card, which spirals into a seemingly neverending back-and-forth with your manager to justify your existence. No wonder time tracking has a negative connotation!
As a business owner, I get it. I am Big Brother, the system, and the Man all in one. I, too, ask my staff for time sheets every week. I put this burden on staff for all the completely valid accounting, HR, and financial reasons that make time sheets necessary. Simply put, they tell me how much work is getting done by staff and how much money we can make so staff can get paid.
But here’s the catch: I’m not exempt. I submit a time sheet too. I have been submitting time sheets since my first tech job in college. And I have always dreaded it, mostly because I was a Terrible Time Tracker.
Fortunately there are great tools out there that handle the nuts-and-bolts act of collecting time. (We use an excellent online time tracking software called Harvest, which comes with a great desktop app for punching project timers on and off all day long). But having a tool is just one side of the equation. Changing your frame of thinking about time tracking is the more important factor.
And so, as a recovering Terrible Time Tracker, I offer the following points, which have not only helped me manage my time sheets better, but have also helped me better manage my workday and longer-term planning too.
Time Tracking is Evidence of Good Work Being Done
You spend your days solving hard problems. Solving problems takes time. Don’t belittle your half-day’s worth of effort solving a hard problem with a pithy task description like “Dev Work.” Explain what you did. Explain why it was hard and why it took half a day to finish. Turn your time entries from after-the-fact necessities to at-the-moment accomplishments.
In the consulting world, our time entries can break down to the 15-minute interval (or less). As a consultant, the ability to switch quickly between tasks is a sought-after skill. Clients want to pay for help that is swift and decisively applied. Your time sheet can reflect this much better with twenty 15-minute entries with solid descriptions than one 5-hour blob with something vague. Again, tell people what you did. Make it read like a journal, not a shopping list.
Whether you operate in consulting/project mode each day or not, everyone can make those day-long odyssey time entries more valuable by including more information. Demonstrate your attention to detail. Show that you are in control of your day and not letting work “wash over you.”
You Will Forget
For me, few things induce a cold-sweat panic as quickly as a time sheet that’s been blank for a week (or, gasp!, a month). At the pace we all work, it is nearly impossible to remember what you did before lunch, let alone 3 weeks ago. Reconstructing old time entries is a fool’s errand. You will not remember the hours invested, let alone the details of the work. You will play games like “Law of Averages” (I know I do X about 2 hours every day), or “Spread the Mayonnaise” (I had 40 hours for this project, so let’s just say 10 hours per week), or “Nonbiller Filler” (I made it to 32 hours, let’s just call the rest “admin time”). What’s worse than the cajoling of your time sheet is the feeling it creates: dread. Having to reconstruct a time sheet will either kill your weekend (because you waited until the last minute to submit) and/or kill your productivity on Monday when it’s due. It feels like you had to roll a boulder all the way to the office, uphill.
Break hourly. Reflect daily.
Every hour. Every 25 minutes. At whatever interval works for you, take moments throughout the day to put down what you’re working on and check in with your time sheet. When you start this habit, you’ll likely first discover that you have no idea what you’re working on, and you can quickly correct before you lose half the day of work.
The result is that you will keep your time sheet current every day. Not only will this thrill your boss and fellow project managers, but it will also give you a purpose to stop working at the end of each day (and prevent the aforementioned cold sweats). Use the last 15 minutes of the day to review everything you’ve collected in your time sheet with the points above and read it again. Of course, fix spelling errors and adjust hours on tasks where needed. But more importantly, take a moment to observe exactly what you accomplished that day. You literally have the result of your workday in front of you. How do you feel about what you see? “Wow, I touched a LOT of projects today,” “Yahoo! That thing is DONE,” or “What the heck happened today?!!” are all typical and completely acceptable responses. In particular, don’t let the seeming lack of a “productive” day be disconcerting (as the last response implies). Unless you truly were screwing around all day, a time sheet that leaves you with a lack of satisfaction is more often a sign that you were desperately trying to keep it together that day and multiple conflicts or left-field requests kept you from reaching your goals. This is an excellent time sheet. You survived the onslaught and lived to document it. Reflect on that.
Treat your time sheet like a journal. It is the most dense, distilled, and consolidated reflection of your work every single day. Don’t loathe it. Take control of it, and be proud of your work every day.
Finally, I’d like to apologize to every manager who’s ever had to remind me to “get your time sheets in!” I think I (finally) get it now.
(For the record, this blog post was tracked as “Internal > Blog” work in Harvest. I spent 1.35 hours “Brainstorming and writing ‘Why We Track Time’ post. Packing it up to submit to marketing and editor for posting.”)