Lessons learned in time-tracking with Basecamp

BasecampWhen you run a consulting business, time is money. The system you utilize to keep track of time spent on work (especially those pesky billable hours) is critical to your company’s fiscal foundation, and needs to be reliable, easy to use, and efficient. At PICnet, we’ve gone through our lessons learned in time-tracking, and we’ve realized that unless you want 10% of your productivity spent tracking-time, finding the right tool for your team is critical to your efficiency.

To start, we rely heavily on our Basecamp, which provides us a very nice communication collaboration platform. Basecamp has included in it a time-tracking tool that allows one to track time ad-hoc as well as by todo item, which is useful to very easily track time to a particular task.

What’s interesting, but not necessarily most surprising, is that the tool and the manner in which the time is tracked is critical to seeing high levels of time tracked per week. In short, if your time-tracking tool is cumbersome or hard to use, no one’s going to track time well.

We’ve gone through three phases of time-tracking tools:

  1. Directly into Basecamp. This provides you the direct interface with the Basecamp system, but can be cumbersome when you’re switching between multiple projects. Why Basecamp doesn’t have a solid, cross-project time-tracker is still a head scratcher for me.
  2. Via a summary page made with the API. We had our developers whip up a basic PHP script that would load all the projects for a given PICnetter, and then essentially present a big form, with updated times tracked for that project, and boxes to enter new time. The problem here is that loading the data via the Basecamp API can be slow, hence tracking minute tasks could become 45 second time sinks.
  3. Via an API-based time-tracker. We simply cut the fat in #2, and made a simpler, PHP-based API time-tracker that had a dropdown of the projects, a basic timer, and the ability to enter in a comment. This loads the timer faster, and is slim, so it can fit in a sidebar for Firefox.

Even though we’re getting the technological advantage, the biggest determinate of good time-tracking is practice. One needs to find their own rhythm that is reliable and becomes part of their flow. For instance, I tend to insert my information before I start working on a new task. Then, when I’m done with that task, I can just hit the Send button, and move on.

It’s not easy to find the flow, but once you do, and you have the right tool, time-tracking can really provide your business valuable data.

We’re in a Ubuntu, Mac, and Windows environment at PICnet, so a Web based tool that everyone can use in a common browser was important. If you have any time-tracking tools that you like, please share them, we’re always looking to learn more!

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This entry was posted on Tuesday, September 16th, 2008 at 8:58 am and is filed under API, Basecamp. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

5 Responses to “Lessons learned in time-tracking with Basecamp”

  1. antonz says:

    An interesting thing you’ve mentioned, Ryan: finding one’s own method on tracking time. One of the serious pitfalls I see in entering task information before you start working on the task is the case when you’ve get interrupted or have to switch to some other urgent task.

    In this case, you have to return to your time tracking tool, stop tracking the previous task and enter the next task. Only at this moment you can actually start working on new task – that doesn’t make a lot of sense.

    Personally I prefer my time tracking process to be more automated. That is, I just want my tracking tool to sit somewhere at the background, capturing info about my activities in some form (e.g. screenshots). That allows me to open it twice a day, easily remember and write down all accomplished tasks, while their durations are calculated automatically.

    A good tool which supports this method is algTime (www.algtime.com).

  2. Ryan Ozimek
    says:

    Hi Anotnz,

    Thanks for the heads-up on your tool. Does your tool work across different platforms and compatible with Basecamp?

  3. antonz says:

    Ryan,

    Currently it’s Windows-only and doesn’t directly support Basecamp. So if this two features are the decision criteria for you, I guess your PHP tool is unbeatable solution )

    Thanks for pointing to Basecamp integration feature – I’ll consider it in the future releases.

  4. Time Tracker says:

    hi Ryan –

    Nice writeup! Coming from TSheets.com, obviously I’m using our product to stay on top of all my time tracking. I use a combo of features in tracking my time spend on various tasks. If I’m stationary and have my mac in front of me, a click mouse button map allows me to bring up the desktop widget and then clock in/out or switch job codes from a dropdown menu. If I’m mobile, I use our iPhone app that syncs with my main web based account.

    Cross platform functionality is certainly an issue for busy consultancy firms, so our web based method is mac/win/lin compatible.

    Find out more at http://www.tsheets.com

  5. neta says:

    Hi Ryan,

    I think logging time on each individual task is the most effective way. With automatic tools you do tend to forget to switch tasks or stop the timer. Personally I use happytodos.com, it allows me to log in time as part of collaboration on task, so each time I have new information to add to task, or note it completed, I can report time at the same stroke. So no overhead is created for reporting worked hours.

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