What You Do When You Do What You Do (Guest Post)

by Peter Bowerman on April 19, 2013

PB Note: Great guest post from freelance medical writer and author Laurie Lewis. I must confess, I have been less than rigorous in always keeping track of my time. But, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that getting a handle on exactly how your time gets split up between different project-related tasks could give you some extremely valuable insights. And she shares where those insights can lead (i.e., to higher fees, in some cases). Thanks Laurie! Enjoy.

When I began freelancing a lifetime ago, I used the most basic time-tracking method, simply noting when I began work for the day and when I ended. The best I could say about this practice was that it resulted in a logbook I could show the IRS, if I ever was (gasp!) audited. But to manage my fledgling business better, I wanted a different kind of record: a log that showed how I filled my day. So I started to log by task. More than two decades and many gray hairs later, I continue to keep task-based logs because they are so useful.

Suppose I’m beginning a new assignment. After discussing it with the client, I surf the web for a while and find a couple of good background resources. I spend an hour reading them and make a few notes. Break time! After a trip to the gym and a healthy lunch (not really, but I did say suppose), I get back to work.

More Googling, a few false leads. As I read the good material I’ve found, I realize I might want to take the assignment in a slightly different direction. I call the client to run the idea by him, but he’s not in so I leave a message and follow it up with an email. While waiting to hear back, I start to organize the paper. I see several gaps in my research, and I spend more time surfing and reading until I quit for the day.

My logbook shows that I worked from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. with a two-hour break. But my project log shows that I spent 2½ hours surfing, 2 hours doing background reading, 1 hour organizing my thoughts, and a half-hour communicating with the client. Four distinct tasks in a single day!

When you keep records like this every day for every project, you have a wealth of information about “what you do when you do what you do”—information you can use to manage your business better and earn more money. Here are a few personal anecdotes.

The client is always right, except when he isn’t
A client asked me to do a two-day job. I thought he was off base on the time it would take, as well as an appropriate fee. I checked old task logs for similar projects and confirmed that he hadn’t sized up the job accurately. I presented my case, listing all the tasks I’d have to do besides writing (research, develop tables, get quotes from experts, prepare a reference list—you know them as well as I do). Impressed, the client gave me a week to do the job and doubled the fee.

Why the 45-minute interview takes 3 hours
I might spend the whole day on interviews and talk to just two people. I often clock more time trying to reach interview subjects than I spend actually talking to them, and my log sheet notes the time-sapping activity with the entry “attempt to schedule interviews.” Post-interview tasks include going over notes, reviewing tapes, maybe transcribing. Logging these tasks separately gives me a good idea of where interview time goes.

Pace yourself
From my task logs, I know to allow slightly more than an hour to transcribe a half-hour interview. I have to plan on as much time to edit my own work as to prepare the initial draft, more if I haven’t done all the research before I begin writing. Knowing my working pace has helped me juggle multiple clients. If I have a looming deadline and I’ve only finished the first draft when another client calls, I’ll ask for a distant due-date for the new work or reluctantly turn it down if a close deadline is set in stone.

The secret to successful project rates
I saved the best for last. When I calculate a project rate, I rely on logs from completed jobs. They remind me of the tasks I may have to do and the time each task might take. With many years of logs, I have enough information to anticipate three scenarios: the cream-puff job, the typical one (as if there were such a thing!), and the job from hell.

What kinds of work logs do you keep?

How do you use the information in your logs?

Do you prefer to log on paper or by computer?

If you use a computer, what software do you like?

Do you keep track of your hours when you work for a flat fee?

Laurie Lewis is medical writer for hire. She also is the author of the multiple-award-winning book, What to Charge: Pricing Strategies for Freelancers and Consultants , along with her ebook, Freelance Fee Setting: Quick Guide for When a Client Demands a Price NOW.

Want to be a guest blogger on TWFW Blog? I welcome your contribution to the Well-Fed writing community! Check out the guidelines here.

{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

Cathy Miller April 19, 2013 at 2:25 pm

Great post, Laurie. You are far more disciplined than I am. ;-) Last year I did a retainer contract for the first time with a long-time client. I bill by project fees, rather than hourly. Because this was a different type of arrangement for me, I decided to track my time for the projects.

I have an ingrained dislike of tracking hours. Can you spell control issue? :-) Too much like punching a clock. I ended up using the online tracking tool, Toggl. There’s a million out there, but this one worked well for me. You name your project, click on it when you start, and it tracks your time, complete with reports.

Let me tell you, it was an eye-opener. I adjusted fees because of what I discovered. You provided great examples of the little tasks that end up being not so little. This particular client is notorious for being late (and often extremely late) to calls. The ensuing back and forth, and at times, rescheduling, was something I didn’t take into account.

Even if you do not track your time all the time, I highly recommend doing it periodically.

William Reynolds April 19, 2013 at 10:54 pm

I first began keeping a handwritten journal way back in grad school, some 20 years ago. (That’s a LOT of spiral notebooks!) Today I keep my trusty Journler app open at all times and jot random notes and thoughts in it throughout the working day. While I never meant to use it as a means of keeping myself accountable, that’s part of the benefit. I tend to comment on which projects I completed that day, which ones got put off (either by the client or by me), who owes me money and who needs to be invoiced ASAP, etc. This pays off for me in a couple of ways. Not only does it keep me aware of how I’m spending my productive time from day to day, but it gives me an archive to look back on and compare to my current systems, obstacles and achievements.

Laurie Lewis April 20, 2013 at 12:24 pm

You’re so right, Cathy. Logging by task is a real eye-opener. I recommend everyone, even those averse to time tracking, try it for a month or two and see how much they learn about their work.

William, you brought up another interesting point. Noting what fills your day is a way to keep yourself, as well as your clients, accountable.

Jenn Mattern April 22, 2013 at 6:34 am

Great post Laurie!

It’s amazing how much work goes into even a seemingly simple project. And often clients don’t realize what goes on in the background. Being able to explain why project A will take significantly longer than project B, whether or not it involves longer copy, is the key to getting paid what our time is worth.

I don’t do this as often as I probably should anymore, but that’s mostly because I stick with a few key project types and I know my routine for them pretty well. But this is a great reminder that I should “check in” with myself more often to see if anything has changed. More importantly, I should probably start doing this for my own projects so I can get a better feel for their returns.

Thanks for the food for thought. :)

Laurie Lewis April 22, 2013 at 10:23 am

Jenn, you’re right about the importance of checking in with yourself to see if anything has changed. When I began freelancing, in the pre-computer age, it nearly always took me half as long to edit the first draft as to write it. Then suddenly the long-established pattern changed, and it took as long to edit as to draft. At first I thought it was the computer learning curve. But as the pattern persisted, I started to look more closely at what I was doing during the edit stage. I realized I was doing research I would have completed earlier without a library at my fingertips. I also was experimenting with formating because it was so much easier with a word processor than a typewriter. I had expected the computer to shave off hours, but it didn’t because I was spending more time doing things that I might not have without a computer.

Sometimes I log time for my personal projects, sometimes I don’t. I think the reason is the shock when I realize how much time I’m wasting (I mean, devoting) to personal pursuits.

Melzetta "Mele" Williams April 22, 2013 at 11:39 am

Great post and great idea! I’m going to start today!

I have a feeling if I followed this process with my work, I’d feel less guilty. You see, my specialty — branded web series script writing — is all about creative concepting, which means I’m always brainstorming. While, I understand that my ideas turn into something of value — and that people are actually willing to pay for them — admittedly I feel guilty, like I’m only thinking, and not really working (especially since I enjoy it so much).

When I get like that, my subconcious mind starts looking for “real work” and I let myself get side-tracked with projects that FEEL more like work, but aren’t.

In following your example, my log would look something like this:

1) Created backstory for Character A — 1 hour
2) Developed ten ideas for integrating product into storyline — 3 hours

and on, and on. Mmmm … I think my guilt-ridden days are over!

Donna Batchelor April 22, 2013 at 9:43 pm

Great post, Laurie! I’m just getting started, so I appreciate the insight!

William, the Journler app you mentioned — I didn’t find that in iTunes. Through which interface do you use that?

Thanks!
-Donna

Star April 26, 2013 at 1:03 pm

This is why I only work by project price. If I waste time, I eat it. This is certainly accurate on the subject of reaching sources–going to university websites, maybe profnet, then emailing, then answering and setting a time, then calling and maybe or maybe not getting the person, then asking a followup or something the editor wants to know, chasing art (very in right now at magazines), the time scrolls by endlessly. I could never be a lawyer and account for 10-min blocks. I still haven’t figured out what the cloud is, but I am in my own version.

Michael Scully April 26, 2013 at 10:44 pm

Star,

The point of pricing by flat project fee is for the freelancer to profit from the increased efficiency that comes from practice and experience.

James Yee April 28, 2013 at 4:32 pm

Honestly I hadn’t even thought of doing this! This is a good idea as I move forward. Thanks for the advice!

Laurie Lewis April 29, 2013 at 10:00 am

Sorry I’ve been off the radar screen for a while. I was preparing for and attending a conference, and I let other things, like following up on your comments, slip by the wayside.

My success with project rates comes from experience logging by task. Whenever I’m about to set a project rate, I look at past log sheets for similar projects. That reminds me of all those tasks that don’t feel productive but take time away from other things I could be doing. I get a realistic idea of how much time I could be wasting doing what needs to be done to finish the project, and I account for that time when I determine the project fee.

I always keep task logs, even when I’m being paid a flat fee. Or maybe I should say especially when I’m being paid a flat fee. Sometimes I come up with creative task descriptions, such as “chasing down blind leads from websites that aren’t up-to-date” and “listening to client rant about computer problems.” These notations account for decreases in productivity that have nothing to do with how well I work but do decrease my effective hourly rate.

Laurie Schmidt May 6, 2013 at 4:23 pm

Such a useful post, Laurie! This is one of those topics where I always know what I *should* be doing, but whether or not it happens is another story. After reading your post, I am reminded that neglect is costing me $$! A fair amount of my work is writing feature articles, and for those I almost always keep a time log – and I do use those logs to quote fees for future articles. Where I get lax is remembering to record all of the incidental time…15 minutes to respond to emails, 10 minutes trying to reach a source, 20 minutes reading some related material, etc. And yes – it all adds up. So, thanks for this great reminder to be more vigilant!

And Jenn, you are absolutely right about clients not realizing what goes on in the background. For every half-hour interview I do, I probably spend 3 hours researching the topic, scheduling the interview, formulating questions, and transcribing.

Laurie Lewis May 9, 2013 at 1:18 pm

That “incidental time,” as you call it, Laurie, really adds up. That’s one reason I prefer to keep paper rather than electronic logs. Much of the incidental time is spent offline: calling clients, reading resources, organizing the reams of paper that can stack up on a big assignment (I’m old-school; I want to read and mark things on paper). Because I always log on paper, I don’t forget to record these tasks that might be overlooked if depending on an electronic log system.

I just had an incident where my task logs have saved me a lot of time and effort. I’ve already spent more than an hour downloading material for an assignment. Today I asked my client to send me some more references. He asked if I wanted him to email me the articles as he gets them or put them all together to deliver physical copies. I opted for the latter. I may have the articles a few hours later than if they came electronically, but I can be doing productive work during the lull rather than frittering away time managing downloads.

D Kendra Francesco May 15, 2013 at 7:31 pm

It’s a great idea! (One of those “Why didn’t I think of that?” kind of ideas.) When I used to make jewelry, I made up a form that accounted for my time when creating a piece (so I knew how much to charge for it). I can modify that form for the writing projects. Woo hoo!

Lori June 4, 2013 at 8:19 am

Super way to use that info, Laurie! Love it.

I use a simple project timer app called Project Timer. You can create a new log for each client. It helps me see where my time is going (and where it isn’t that it should be). I prefer paper, but I keep these logs in the app — saves a lot of digging.

I usually “guesstimate” my rate, but I can see where this would be much more useful.

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