Overseer for freelancer: choose a system of accounting for working hours
A little over a hundred years ago, engineer Frederick Taylor stood behind the factory workers with a stopwatch and began to measure how much time they spend on routine operations. It soon became clear that they could be “optimized” —increasing productivity through a system of scientific labor organization. It was from it that modern mass production grew. But could the then workers imagine that their great-grandchildren would begin to measure their productivity not on the orders of the capitalist, but on their own initiative? Modern mental workers have to plan their activities on their own, and Taylor's stopwatch is replaced by special programs for time tracking - time trackers.
As a rule, when launching an application for the first time, we know what to expect from it. For example, text editors and mailers are all somewhat similar. But time trackers have almost nothing in common. Their interfaces, oddities and weaknesses differ radically.
Nevertheless, the basis of most time tracking tools is the same: almost every time tracker has a built-in timer. And in especially severe cases, a timer is the only thing it is equipped with. The time tracker we will start with belongs to this category.
Simple Time Track is an extension for Chrome. After installation, it adds its icon at the right edge of the browser toolbar. Clicking on it brings up the time tracker interface: on top there are buttons for creating, exporting and deleting tasks, below is a list of tasks created earlier.
To start time tracking, you need to add a new task and start the timer. The countdown will go until the timer is stopped. In the future, you can return to any of the stopped tasks and start the timer again. Extra time will be added to what was previously calculated. This may be necessary if the task cannot be completed in one sitting and you have to interrupt to do something else.
More advanced time trackers allow you to study the history of tasks, build complex reports with time limits and other criteria, and even generate invoices for sending to customers. Simple Time Track can only count time. You can view the results in the same list or export them to a CVS file to transfer, for example, to a spreadsheet. This will satisfy the simplest needs, but if you need something more (and this is most likely so), then it is better to find an alternative more serious.
The reason for the dissimilarity of the means for accounting for working time, apparently, is that in this market there has never been an absolute winner who could serve as a guide. As a result, developers study customer needs and come up with completely different answers.
The creators of the German open source timeEdition time tracker, apparently, knew exactly what their users needed. This program is adapted to a strictly defined workflow, which fits into a strictly defined framework, and within this framework is probably convenient. The people for whom it is designed, apparently, have to deal with several customers. Moreover, the projects that they implement for them are of the same type and consist of the same stages. If at least one of these conditions is not met, the use of timeEdition starts to resemble running on an obstacle course.
The main window interface timeEdition is extremely stingy. It consists of a large button that starts and stops the timer, the timer itself and three menus for selecting the customer, project and tasks to which this timer belongs. The main difficulty is connected with these menus. Just starting the timer and getting started won't work. First you need to fill in these menus by adding to the program information about the customer, about the project, as well as about all the possible tasks that are supposed to be worked on. Only after all this is done can the countdown begin. The matter is complicated by the fact that the tasks are, in fact, common to all projects.
Unlike Simple Time Track, timeEdition records not only the total time spent on work. The application remembers the beginning and end of each period of time during which the user worked on the task. This allows you to calculate the duration of the work done during the day, week or month. To obtain this information, use a separate dialog box. In addition, they can be imported into Excel.
An interesting feature of timeEdition: the application can be instructed on the fly to transfer information about the time taken into account in an electronic calendar - for example, in Outlook or in Google Calendar. This is another alternative method for viewing the information accumulated in timeEdition.
Romanian cross-platform time tracker Fanurio is written in Java and is designed for freelancers with a bureaucratic vein. Having drawn into its use, it is easy to feel that you are either a character in the film Brazil, or an accountant from a song of the Combination group, and it is good if not both. The developers do not want to blame it. A freelancer who has to juggle at the same time a significant number of projects and the same number of customers will really find it difficult without the level of organization at which Fanurio insists. Another thing is that there are not very many freelancers with such a specific problem.
In this program, starting a timer is only the final stage of long work. Before taking time into account, Fanurio requires cataloging customers, their related projects and their intended tasks. The form for creating each of these entities seems to have more fields than the 3-NDFL tax return. This, if you think about it, turns Fanurio into a kind of CRM system - simplified, of course, to madness, but for an ordinary freelancer this level is often too much. But if you are not an ordinary freelancer, you will appreciate that, in addition to the listed opportunities, Fanurio has funds for recording expenses, business trips and payments, as well as a tool for invoicing customers.
The application has been developing since 2006, and this is noticeable. The venerable age is given out by its somewhat old-fashioned appearance, and the price, which recalls the half-forgotten times of shareware. Fanurio costs $ 59, but you can try it for free. For this, a fully functional trial version is provided, which lasts for fifteen days.
Toggl is much more liberal than timeEdition, and does not try to drive the user into a well-known, but rather narrow for many framework. In this sense, it is closer to Simple Time Track, only without too much primitivism. Toggl, like all decent time trackers, maintains a kind of log of user activity and is able to compile reports with a selection of tasks according to specified criteria. This is not the most functional, not the most convenient and not the most pleasant means of recording working hours, but it has a reasonable minimum of possibilities and provides them for free. This is rare: you have to pay for serious time trackers.
Toggl itself is a web service, but it comes with an optional application for all popular platforms. The web service is responsible for accounting, reporting and settings. The application also simplifies the creation of new tasks, as well as starting and stopping timers. In addition, it adds several features that cannot be implemented on the web. In particular, it notices when the user has been idle for too long, and suggests stopping the timer.
For each of the tasks, you can specify the customer and the project (however, if you do not need it, you can choose not to). This can be used when generating reports. Web service allows you to filter records by date, customer and project.
Thus, it is possible to find out how much time was spent during the month on the project, or the proportion of working time that the orders of a particular customer ate during the week. The paid version of Toggl (it will cost $ 5 per month) adds support for the collaboration of several users and the ability to set the hourly rate (this is necessary in order to calculate how much money the hours worked will bring).
The simplicity of creating new tasks makes Toggl look like a scheduler, on the contrary: you can start a separate timer for each step and get detailed records of the work done as a result. But this resemblance was hardly deliberate. With the Norwegian web service Timely, everything is different: its authors deliberately made a hybrid of an electronic calendar and a time tracker. “Instead of asking what you did this week, I ask what you plan to do this week,” explains Timely creator Matthias Mikkelsen on the company's website. It is assumed that the user will first plan tasks, and then monitor their implementation.
The basis of Timely is a fully functional web calendar in the spirit of Google Calendar, and quite good. It is noticeably more convenient and, no matter how stupid it sounds, more beautiful than Google. The amazing smoothness of work, rare for web applications, also goes to his advantage. Timely could well replace both Google Calendar, and Apple Calendar, and Outlook for many users. However, those who are used to another calendar and do not need a new one have a chance to do without painful migration. Timely can automatically download events from any calendar that supports the iCal format (and more or less everyone supports it). In this case, planning can be continued in another application, and Timely can be used only for time tracking.
It’s hardly worth describing how to use the calendar, so we’ll focus on the differences. Each task added to the calendar has a built-in timer that can be started by clicking on it. In addition, for each task, even at the planning stage, you can set an estimated execution time. The total estimated time to complete all tasks related to the project and the actual time worked are displayed above the calendar. In addition to the calendar, Timely has pages that allow you to view the history of work on each project and the history of each user individually.
The ability to collaborate with multiple users is an important feature of Timely. This service may well become a convenient tool for a manager managing a whole team, especially if some of the project participants work remotely. With Timely, it’s easy to find out who is doing what right now and what it takes time and money. Another of the possibilities aimed precisely at such an application is the so-called “budget”. For each project, you can specify the maximum lead time or the maximum amount that can be spent on hourly wages for employees. Timely will monitor the exhaustion of the "budget" and warn about approaching the finish line.
The free version of the service allows one user to conduct no more than three projects. The freelance version costs $ 14 per month and removes restrictions on the number of projects. In addition, there are several tariff plans that are designed for companies and offer various combinations of the maximum size of the working group and the maximum number of projects. They will cost in the amount of from 49 to 199 dollars a month.
This is the only time tracker in this article that does not allow time tracking by starting and stopping the timer manually. Instead, he uses the approach that RescueTime service popularized several years ago: a special program installed on the user's computer monitors active applications and documents that open, and then summarizes the collected statistics into reports that help to understand what time was spent on. The difference is that RescueTime was designed for people who want to increase their own productivity. He divided websites and applications into useful and useless ones and showed where valuable time wasted. Chrometa divides them according to a different principle: using the rules defined by the user, this service distributes tasks among various projects, and then calculates the time spent on them and, if necessary, Generates invoices for customers. Contrary to expectations, this is not particularly convenient. Still, you can’t do without manual sorting of records by project. Rules only reduce the time needed for this. As a result, there is almost more trouble with Chrometa than with more traditional time trackers, and zero pleasure.
Harvest web service is halfway from timeEdition to Fanurio. With the latter, businesslikeness, which, however, does not overdose on the bureaucracy, makes him alike. Like Fanurio, Harvest is able to take into account expenses, as well as generate bills, and in this part of its capacity is perhaps even wider than that of a Romanian counterpart. In Harvest, for example, you can assign a different payment for different artists (like Timely, Harvest allows you to monitor the work of an entire team). Since tasks cannot be created as needed, they are used in Harvest to indicate the type of work being performed rather than indicate its purpose.
As a result, it seems that the target audience is managers who want to oversaw the work of subordinates from a bird's eye view and are not particularly keen on details. The pricing policy of the developers is pushing for such an idea. A free version of Harvest exists, but is extremely limited. For the single-user version you need to pay $ 12 per month. Team versions cost $ 49 and $ 99 and are designed for a different number of users (9 and 99 people, respectively).
Severe programmers and system administrators, of course, are not up to mice and multi-colored windows, so there is no reason to be surprised at the abundance of console time trackers on GitHub. The simplest time tracker can be created by entering in bash a single line like this:
alias tt="python -c 'import sys,time;open (\"tt.csv\",\"a+\").write(time.ctime()+\",\"+\" \".join(sys.argv1: ()+\"\n\")'"
After that, it is enough to write the command “tt task description” to add a new record to the tt.csv file indicating the exact time to start the next task. By importing this file into Excel or by processing it in another way, you can calculate how much time and what exactly was spent.
You can evaluate what more serious console time trackers look like by using the TimeTrap program. It is written in Ruby and is installed in a typical way for this language: using the gem install timetrap command (of course, it will work only if Ruby itself is available, the RubyGems package manager and, ideally, a UNIX compatible operating system).
The commands that are used to call the installed time tracker are easy to remember, especially with knowledge of the English language. To start the timer, enter “t in task description”. The t out command stops the countdown. You can resume it using the “t resume” command. “T display” displays a table with information about the last time periods taken into account. The output format can be switched to CSV (t display -f csv), as well as to iCal, JSON and IDS. Further information exported in this way can be processed by other means.
TimeTrap serves as an analogue of dividing tasks by projects and clients in TimeTrap. Using the “t sheet timeshare name” command, you can switch between them (if a timeshield with the desired name does not exist, it will be created). All of the above commands only affect the current timeshare. The possibilities of TimeTrap are not limited to this - details can be found on the project page.
Freckle is perhaps the best time tracker outlined in this article. In terms of variety of features, convenience and thoughtfulness, it is comparable to Timely. True, Freckle does not have a built-in calendar planner, but in return this web service offers the richest reports and the “accounting” functionality that is missing in Timely.
The ease of creating new tasks and time tracking brings Freckle closer to Toggl. Indeed, this service can be used for equally detailed accounting of completed tasks. However, another approach is no less accessible - taking into account areas of activity instead of individual tasks. To do this, it’s enough to enter not descriptions of specific tasks, but hashtags that indicate exactly what you are doing. Freckle will then introduce them himself into the statistics collected. Another feature related to Freckle with Toggl is the ability to install an application for OS X that allows you to switch timers without opening the web service itself.
In order to get an idea of how the work is going on, Freckle does not need to go to the reports page. Information on hours worked is presented directly on the main page in the form of a table with a pie chart for each day. The diagrams show how the working hours were distributed among various projects. Reports, in turn, effectively bring together information from various sources on one page.
The billing tools built into Freckle demonstrate how to avoid the complexity of the interface, which brings other serious time trackers to the bottom. Instead of forcing the user to enter all the necessary information in advance and fill out endless forms, the service requests the missing ones as needed.
In sum, all these qualities explain the popularity of Freckle. None of its competitors can boast of so many famous users.
The main drawback of Freckle is the price. The service does not have a free version - even as truncated as Harvest. You can use it for free for two weeks, and then you will have to pay at least $ 19 per month (this is a single-user tariff plan). More expensive tariff plans ($ 49 and $ 199 per month) differ only in the increased number of users and increased attention to technical support.
First published in the Hacker magazine from 02/2015.
Author: Oleg Paramonov
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