time tracking: what are the numbers telling you

Last week I wrote about the importance of keeping track of all the time you spend on a project: billable and not billable, productive and spinning-your-wheels, brilliantly executed and fatally flawed. This week I want to show you the next step in my process: categorizing and analyzing the time.

I used to have much finer divisions of tasks, but over time I have consolidated some at a higher level. My goal is a system that works with a variety of projects, while separating out key activities that I want to track across projects.

I have 20+ tags [in freckles parlance] that can be grouped into three general areas:

1. Project scope includes activities involved in every book production project I do and are the primary building blocks of the overall project fee. These tags, in the sequence they normally occur in a project are: design, cover, manuscript, photos, additional graphics, layout, review, revisions, tweaks, print coordination, file management, and project management. I’m not going to elaborate on each of these, as I think they are fairly self-explanatory, but a couple of notes might be helpful:

  • While the book “cover” involves multiple steps—design, layout, review, revision, etc.—because it’s a discreet item and is something I often prefer to subcontract, I like to see all the associated time under one tag. Also, a book cover takes the same amount of time regardless of the total number of pages held between it, so there’s little efficiency of scale to be gained here.
  • “Photos” includes all the activities related to processing the photos provided by the client. I used to track a number of separate activities—scanning, enhancing, restoration, file management, etc—but now I make this distinction in the tag notes. Because I have a hard count of the total number of photos involved in a project, I can develop and track a metric for photos.
  • “Additional graphics” includes anything besides the photos a client provides. This might involve online research for additional historic or stock photos, creation of a family tree or illustration. This is another activity that will have a hard count associated with it and it is also one I often subcontract. If I do, the time I spend coordinating with the subcontractor is recorded with this tag and noted as such.
  • “Review” is the time I need to spend on the phone or face to face with a client going over a review copy of the book. My very strong preference is for the client to mark up a hardcopy and return it to me, thus eliminating this time. Most don’t want to do it that way, so I track this time and either build it into my initial proposal or use it to provide a “beyond scope” estimate of the additional time that will be billed after my suggestion of a marked up hardcopy is politely declined.
  • “Print coordination”, “file management”, and “project management” are invisible but very necessary activities in a project. I track them to remind myself of just how much time needs to be accounted for in both the project fee and the timeline.

2. Client controlled activities are just that: decisions made by the client. Currently I track just two: beyond scope and overtime. Additional review and revision cycles are tracked with the appropriate project scope tag and marked billable or non-billable.

3. Overhead includes tasks that add to project time and cost without contributing any real value. The tasks I track in this area are: proposal, project planning, administration, client communication, training time, lost time and tech issues.

  • “Lost time” and “tech issues” are completely on me and my goal is to keep time spent on this as low as possible.
  • “Administration” includes invoicing, filing, setting up and closing out a project, running to the post office or FedEx. I track this because it is an easy thing to delegate.
  • Preparing a “proposal” is a sales cost and my goal is to streamline this process as much as possible. Since I am not awarded every project for which I submit a proposal [I know, shocking, isn’t it?] I track “proposal” time independent of a particular project.
  • “Project planning” is setting up the framework of milestones, tasks, and deadlines within which “project management” will operate. I hypothesize that more time spent on this up front will reduce time spent in low-value project scope tasks.

Once these activities are entered into a time tracking program [ check out freckle, freshbooks, or tsheets] I can refine the metrics I use for estimating projects. I’ll elaborate on these metrics in a future post, but for now I’ll give you a hint: hrs and $$ per finished page, hrs and $$ per photo, hrs and % breakdown by tag, % billable to unbillable. My ongoing quest is to have a few good metrics that I track consistently and that become more refined over time, resulting in more accurate proposed fees and, ultimately, more profitability. And isn’t that what we are all aiming for?

Meanwhile, you might be interested in these related posts:

time tracking: are you doin’ it?

what is workflow? and who cares anyway?

You might also find my upcoming webinars on money matters and  workflow helpful.

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