I asked 100 Freelancers how they manage their time

Earlier in the year I talked at WordCamp Bristol about building products. I talked about some of the basic mistakes we all make in our businesses.

One of the key things we often do as people is to talk too much and not listen. A good product needs a good listener. There’s no point building a product if only you will use it.

For the last few months I have been using a tool I built to manage my time as a freelancer. I thought other freelancers would like it use it too, but I wanted to check if other freelancers worked the same as me.

It turns out they don’t.

I ran a survey among freelancers and got a fantastic response. I’m going to go through the questions, responses and what we can learn from the results. This is really interesting for me as a freelancer and as a product builder. I’m sure you will find it interesting too.

So, we had just under 100 responses (as of 23rd June). I will update this if more responses are received. Have a look at the questions below and my conclusions from each question. There are 6 questions in total.

What do you think? Do you think I missed an important insight? Let me know in the comments and if you want to fill in the questionnaire, then you can do so here.

 

Question 1 – How do you track your time? ⏰

Before I built simplehours.com I tracked my time in a text document. I knew others used a pad of paper or spreadsheet. I found the other time tracking tools too reliant on very specific micro-tracking. The type of tracking that lets you press start and stop and tracks each second. I knew a lot of people used this too.

This first questions aimed to get an insight into how people were managing time (and if they even did!).

 

 

Conclusion

I have 3 groups I think are very similar that make a big part of the pie: Manual, Paper and Spreadsheet. The manual group contained a variety of methods like writing down the days worked no a text file. All in the same spirit as on paper or spreadsheet. They make up 23%.

Then there are the “don’t knows!” Which I think translates into (I don’t really!). A whopping 17.5%.

There are a few apps and services and in particular FreeAgent, Toggl and Harvest do well at 10% each.

There are more apps and methods in the Other (23%) which I have included in a list below.

The main thing that interests me in this list is that 40% are using quite simple or no systems at all to schedule their time effectively.

Considering a freelancer is selling their time I can conclude two things:

  1. Freelancers are missing an opportunity by not being smarter with their time tracking.
  2. The existing tools are not meeting the needs of a big segment of freelancers

 

Here are a selection of the other items mentioned

  • Apple Calendar
  • Billing a Mac App by Market Circle
  • Billings Pro
  • Crunch and sometimes client tools
  • FreshBooks
  • Harvest, https://github.com/projecthamster/hamster
  • I charge by the project, not time or wordcount so I don’t need to account for hours/minutes worked (I’m a writer) But I do keep a note of my time in a diary/notebook
  • I don’t, I use a customised online timesheet/budget tracker for one agency I work with.
  • iCal
  • IFTTT applet on phone which triggers spreadsheet entry but can’t be project specific :/ suppose I could build new applet for each project but bleurgh
  • In house database app
  • OfficeTime
  • Redmine, when I remember
  • Simple Time Track – Chrome extenstion
  • Timekeeper
  • Timely
  • Trello
  • Trello non-critical JIRA for critical (I have a free JIRA for open source work)
  • ZEI

 

Q2: How flexible are you on your booked work days? 🤞

I asked this question to determine how important time tracking actually is for some freelancers. I know from experience that some people work very loosly. Others are very precise. I work the precise day I say to a client. If I say I’m working on the 6th, 7th and 8th then I’m working then.

That can create a problem with some clients and doesn’t always work with the working style of freelancers. I didn’t want to assume everyone worked like me so I had these answers to choose from:

 

  • I loosely specify the time period I work.
  • I don’t specify when I do the work.
  • I have project deadlines, but not fixed work times.
  • I specify when I will do the work, but in reality I do it whenever I can.
  • I specify the precise days I will work for a client and work them.
  • I work to deadlines. As long as I meet the deadline, my clients don’t need to know what time period I work. If they ask, I give them a loose idea of days, but not hours.
  • We agree on a deadline, and as long as I meet that, it isn’t important to my clients WHEN I am working
  • I usually communicate by email (sometimes in person), generally I do say when I am working on something and when I’m available to work on things.

Conclusion

 

 

The main take-away here are these two items:

39% I loosely specify the time period

35% I don’t specify when I do the work

 

So, 74% are not being precise with their time management. That can mean three things:

a) They don’t feel they need to

b) They don’t know the benefits they can get from better time management

c) They don’t have the tools or processes to help them manage their time.

 

I think that time management is a big win and easy way for freelancers to improve their business. I also think the tools are not quite there and that the processes are something that takes time to learn.

I may be indulging myself in a bit of confirmation bias, but these results bolstered by original assumptions about a tool like simplehours.com being useful for the freelance community.

 

Q3. What’s the smallest amount of time you bill for? 🤑

There is so much conflicting opinion about this question.

I know there are so-called thought leaders and freelance advisors who are big advocates for value-based pricing. That’s when you price for a project in it’s entirety. I’ve found that this puts the risk all onto the freelancer and can back-fire. Anyone who’s experienced scope-creep knows this.

So I charge in increments by half day. I wanted to know if I was alone. I certainly knew from other freelancers that they all had their own unique ways.

 

Conclusion

I was really surprised by the diversity of pricing methods freelancers have.

 

By day or half day is 35%

By hour is 26%

The remaining 39% are an assortment of everything from per minute to per £50min charge. We even had someone charge in 6-minute blocks. I asked about that one and learnt it’s because it’s divisible easily by 10 blocks in the 60 minute hour. That freelancer must surely be a developer!

What can we learn? Well, I realised that most don’t charge in blocks of half a day like I did. I did originally build simplehours.com to work only in blocks of 1 day or half a day. I changed it to work in hours. In the future, I will change it to work with custom time units (minutes!).

I think that many freelancers undersell them services my counting per minute and such like. Often times this means you work on bitty projects and it ignores the accumulated time associated with starting a project. All the admin and correspondence that is required to start and complete projects.

 

Q4. Do you feel like you have good control over your time? 😬

I found that I was struggling with my paper and pen message. I also know other freelancers who love using paper and don’t want to change it for the world. Was I solving a problem that didn’t really exist (except for me!).

This question helped me see if others thought their time management could be improved.

 

Conclusion

A majority of 62% say they want to improve their time management. There are about 10% who also find their time management needs much more improvement with 7.8% choosing my gloriously named “I put the Hap in haphazard” (many thanks to [Paul Silver[(http://twitter.com/paulsilver) for that!).

Then there was a sizeable 23.4% who are fine with their time management.

Overall, this confirms my assumption that this is an area for improvement and something freelancers need help with.

 

Q5. Do you feel you’re productive in your work time? 😎

A very subjective question this one. Everyone who works behind a computer knows the lure of messing about on the internet. When we have work to do it’s easy to play about and distract ourselves. Procrastination is real!

How do freelancers, often computer-based in their work, find this dilemma I wondered?

I know that since implementing a new scheduling system based on simplehours.com my own procrastination has decreased. When I had a looser time schedule I tricked myself into putting work off. Often this caused a lot of stress when deadlines suddenly approached!

I wondered how other freelancers were faring. Ultimately if everyone was fine then there wasn’t really a problem and my product would not be of much use, so I was very curious to find the results of this question.

 

Conclusion

 

 

39% “Happy (lot’s done)” – Yay! These freelancers are doing it right!

13% said “Even if I don’t have much on it stretches to fill all my time”, which for me represented a failure of time management. This was a classic symptom of being sucked into the computer or office work. Room for improvement here.

31% said “I get stuff done, but procrastinate too much and work in the evenings a lot ” – This was something I expected and have experienced with myself and other freelancers. It’s a classic symptom of inefficient time management and procrastination. Also, because we are less productive when we are at the end of the day the evenings can sometimes drag on without much work being done. Definitely space for improvement here.

The remaining items were procrastination items of various levels. So room for improvement there. I even received this response which I thing was likely the case for most people and very honest

“It honestly varies from day to day. Some days I’m totally focused and highly productive. Other days I’m being scrambled for emergency support work here and there and all the context switching makes me horribly unproductive.”

 

Q6. Which accounting / invoicing tool do you use? 💰

First off, when I first described what I was building I got a lot of rolled eyes.

Didn’t I know that thousands of time tracking tools already exists! Isn’t this the classic product a developer always makes!

Well, I think the first thing to say is and a really important lesson from the questionnaire is that most people are thinking about time tracking when we are talking about time management. They are thinking about the real-time click-clock start-stop recording of what they are working on.

I’m not talking about that with simplehours.com

I’m talking about scheduling and organising the days worked so you can be productive and transparent with clients. I’ll need to be clear about this difference in my communication.

This question was aimed to see if and what tools were being used. Turns out there are all sorts of tools out there!

 

Conclusion

Lots of tools are being used. Here are my main takeaways.

The majority of the tools used are the existing accountancy packages like FreeAgent (23.6%), Xero (16.7%) and even Brighton’s own Crunch (5.6%). That’s over 45% just those three and there were more in the smaller segments. I’ve tried these accountancy tools and find their use too broad.

I think there is an opportunity to for simplehours.com to offer a leaner solution that can work along these options and not as a competitor. Perhaps even integration with these accountancy solutions is required further down the road. That would make scheduling fit directly into an invoicing tool.

I also noticed that 22% chose DIY (Do it Yourself). This means they are writing invoices and tracking everything without any tools. This is how I was managing my time prior to simplehours.com and this will be a large focus of who simplehours.com markets to.

 

Final Thoughts

This has been a really useful exercise for me to step into the shoes of other freelancers. There are other questions I would have liked to have asked in hindsight and there are ways I would have phrased what simplehours.com is about. I’m grateful however that I have this insight from the questionnaire. In particular to distinguish simplehours.com from the time tracking tools that are already out there and present it as a calendar and scheduling tool.

My main surprise from the questionnaire was the range of units that other freelancers quantify their time in. I think many freelancers would benefit from relooking this.

What do you think from the result and from my analysis? I’m really curious and think it’s important for freelancers to review these questions as a group so we can all improve.

 

2 thoughts on “I asked 100 Freelancers how they manage their time

  1. “So, 74% are not being precise with their time management. That can mean three things:”

    …or a fourth thing: that we can’t give precise time slots because we have to be flexible, e.g. because of children or other commitments, and perhaps that’s the entire reason we became freelance in the first place.

    Just a thought 😉

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