Editor’s Note: This post was written by Tom Braley, who worked as an advertising creative for nearly 20 years before making the switch to the technology sector. He now writes copy, blogs and marketing material for Thrive Software, creators of Solo, a beautifully designed project management tool for creative freelancers. You can follow him on Twitter: @Tom_ThriveSolo.
The business benefits of tracking your time are well documented. It can help you stay organised, cost projects, set rates, bill clients more accurately and even increase your hourly-rate. However, what isn’t so well known is how time-tracking can be used as a creative tool.
I’ll be straight with you. I work for a company called Thrive, and Thrive make Solo – a stunningly beautiful project management and time-tracking app for creative freelancers. At first, I didn’t really get time-tracking but the more I tracked my time the more I saw ways it aided creativity.
Now I want to pass some of that knowledge onto you. So let’s take a look a seven ways I’ve found that keeping track of your hours can impact the fun side of your job, make you a better designer and help make you and your work more creative. Here goes.
1) It keeps your mind focused.
Firstly, what I noticed was tracking your time focusses the mind. There’s something about sitting down and clicking start on a timer that means you’re less likely to be distracted by face-plants on YouTube or shiny new gadgets on Amazon.
A timer running in the background while you work makes you more aware of your time ticking away and you feel accountable for it. It turns the working day into a challenge that feels a bit like a Bond film; kind of like there’s a bomb ticking away and if you don’t get the job done within a time-limit – you’ve failed.
Time-tracking gives you a little bit of self-imposed pressure, which is something I like. It reminds me of the last minute deadlines I used to get when I worked in advertising. First they’d send you into a panic, then they’d help you produce your best work.
Tracking your time is like having 100s of mini-deadlines, only, you don’t get fired for missing them. You just give yourself a kick up the butt, focus and work a little harder. Personally, I’ve found a little self-imposed pressure from a time-tracking tool helps bring out the best in you.
2) It creates more time to get creative.
How many times have you heard the expression ‘there just aren’t enough hours in the day’? Heck, how many times have you said it yourself? Well, believe it or not, time-tracking solves that little problem by helping create more time for you to get creative. Here’s how…
Time-tracking is brutally honest about what you do with your day. It’ll highlight what tasks are eating away at your hours and wasting your time. For instance, it’s a known fact we spend upwards of 30% of our time answering emails; then there’s social-media, invoices, phone calls, meetings and a bunch of other business-related stuff that all distract us from our main creative roles.
Tracking your time is a real eye-opener and will allow you to see exactly where your time is going. And I think you’ll be shocked. The good news is, once you know which tasks you’re spending too much time on you can redirect it into more creative tasks, meaning you have more hours to work on the fun stuff.
3) It can prevent creative fatigue.
The brain, like a muscle, can suffer from fatigue if over used. Sometimes, if you work too long on something you start to make poor choices and bad design decisions. Tracking your time and limiting the number of hours you spend on a project is another way tools like Solo can help the creative process.
There’s an incredible electronic group in the UK, called Orbital. They sprung up in the Rave scene of the early 90s and have been making groundbreaking music ever since. I remember reading an interview with them years ago that’s stuck with me. In it, they said they only had one rule when making music – and that was never spend more than 8 hours in the studio at a time.
They were religious about it. They’d only work a set number of hours no matter how well production was going. No matter how big a hit they thought it might be or how close to finishing a tune they were – after 8 hours of studio-time they’d down tools and go home for the day.
Why? To give their brains a break. They believed it prevented them making poor choices and I’m inclined to agree.
Sometimes, if you’ve been bashing away at a project for too long you can’t see the wood for the trees. Using time-tracking as a way to limit the hours you spend on creative tasks before you take a break (or stop work for the day altogether) will keep your brain and ideas fresh. It also limits time wasted on bad ideas too.
4) It helps fine tune your work-methods.
When you log your time you also log your workflow; a record which gives you detailed insight into the creative process, allowing you to identify working structures.
Armed with this info you can discover your most productive ways of working and – if needs be – find a basic ABC formula you can use to speed up the whole creative process. And once you’re aware of your working structures you can start experimenting with them.
Tracking your time allows you to identify new patterns and new ways of working. It’ll help you discover best practices and approaches to projects that result in brilliant outcomes – as well as avoid those which lead you down the wrong creative path.
5) It helps you find your creative sweet spot.
Hemingway liked to get up early and to write while Picasso like to paint late into the night. We all have a certain time of day when we’re at our most productive; a window of opportunity when we’re primed to create great work. Time-tracking lets you find out exactly when that is.
There are other parameters (besides time of day) involved too. You might get the bulk of your work done in the morning but your eureka-moments might come after, say, exercise. A detailed record of your most productive moments correlated through time-tracking shines a light on when you are at your most creative.
And you don’t just take my word for it. Here’s a really thorough blow by blow account about how one guy logged his time and found out when he was at his most creative. Take a look and you too can use time-tracking to find your creative sweet spot.
6) It can sync your day to your circadian rhythms.
Creativity chooses to visit all of us at different times and in different ways. We all have our own unique patterns and workflows. However, most of us go through a creative cycle every two hours or so, and with time-tracking you can use the two hour rule to make progress on your creative projects.
Even in the ideal creative environment, the most artistic people can normally only sustain bursts of creative energy for around 4 to 6 hours, while most of us can only manage about two. After that we get distracted and our creativity starts to diminish.
Using a time-tracking tool you can figure out what your cycle is and how long it takes you before you start to lose interest in a task. Then you can use this info to carve up your day into chunks of time that best suit your creative circadian rhythms.
7) It locks-in creative time.
Finally, if you’re a designer it stands to reason you should spend the bulk of your time creating beautiful images or new logos with creative custom lettering; yet everyday, we neglect the most important aspect of our work, sacrificing our creative time for peripheral tasks.
There are only so many hours in a day and if you want to spend, say, at least six of them in front of your Mac working on new concepts, time-tracking lets you do so by setting boundaries and ensuring you get your six hours of quality design time in.
So turn off your phone, switch off your alerts, hit the start button and fully immerse yourself in a project uninterrupted. Start timing yourself at work so you can really “get into it” and make sure you get a good chunk of creative time in each day.