As we talked about in our series on passive income, time is the most valuable resource you have. You can get more cash, but you’ll never have more seconds left to live than you do right now. Despite our inevitable slow march towards death, as a group, humans seem very willing to waste time, frittering it away doing nothing or completely forgettable and irrelevant tasks. This is never more true than when you've got an impending deadline; as a writer I would know.
Time tracking apps are a great way to deal with the very human urge to procrastinate. If someone is going to spend an hour looking through their ex’s photos on Facebook, they might as well be made to face up to it. You might also want to have a word with them.
Time tracking apps serve other, more professional, purposes though. For freelancers they’re a great way to track how much time different parts of a project take and thus, how much to bill your clients. For solopreneurs and entrepreneurs, they can give you insight into how much time different tasks take you to do, and thus work out what you need to make to turn a profit. For small businesses and teams, a time tracker app helps everyone identify where personnel need to be directed.
Let’s dig a little deeper.
The Advantages of Time Tracking Software
Tracking how you spend your time, both work and personal, has a number of advantages. Let’s cover some of the top ones.
Time tracker apps add accountability to how you or your team spends time. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with browsing Reddit, it’s easy for anyone to get sucked in and spend a few hours diving into weird Subreddits. If you're faced with a counter tracking that activity it at least makes you realise just how long you’ve spent at it. Similarly, it makes you realise how much time you’re actually spending working on different tasks. For some people this number will be low—”How did I only do three hours work!? I was in the office for ages!”—while for others it will be stupidly high—”Oh my god, have I really not left my desk for twelve hours?” Whichever camp you fall into, it makes you at least consider how you’re spending your time.
By making you think about how you use your time, time tracker apps can improve your productivity. Having used one myself, I found I always wanted to beat the previous day's productivity score. I didn’t always succeed, but knowing there was a little app in the background keeping an eye on what I did, made me at least try. Every time I went to check Facebook I would stop and think how it was going to affect my day’s work.
If you charge by the hour, time tracking software makes billing a lot easier. Rather than trying to cobble together a rough estimate of how long things will take ahead of time or look back over your diary and do it after the job is done, with a time tracker app you know exactly how long each part took. This means you can quickly bill clients for what they owe; many time tracker apps include a way to create invoices for this reason.
Time tracking software also offers you a measure of protection from anyone who disputes your bill. If a client takes issue with what you’re charging, you've got a way of showing exactly how time was spent on their project. While it’s not a magic shield, it will go a long way towards covering your ass if there's a dispute.
What Makes a Good Time Tracker App?
First and foremost, time tracking software must offer a way to track time. How it does that isn’t as important. Sometimes trackers are apps that run in the background logging every app that pops up on your screen and in others you've got to manually start a timer when you begin to work and stop it when you finish. As long as the way the app tracks time works for you, it’s a good time tracker app.
Time tracking software also needs some extra features depending on who it’s geared towards. A personal productivity tracker needs to break down how you’re spending your time and offer an easy way for you to see whether you’re using it well or wasting it. A great time tracker app for a freelancer should have a way to turn the results into an invoice. Once again, the specific extras each app has doesn’t matter as much. What matters is that the tool you choose has the right ones for you.
Finally, a good time tracker app must be quick and easy to use. You’re not going to use an app that requires you to click through five submenus and enter a secret code to start tracking your time. It has to be good enough to fit seamlessly into your workflow.
Some Great Time Tracking Apps
RescueTime is one of the biggest names in time tracking. Although they've got a version for organizations, RescueTime is at its best for personal productivity. It tracks everything you do at your computer and automatically characterises it into productive or unproductive.
If you want a simple way to see how you’re spending your time, check out their free plan. Premium, for $9 a month, gives you some extra features and a longer report history.
Toggl is a time tracking app for individuals and teams that’s available on pretty much any platform you care to name. They've got Web, macOS, Windows, Linux, iOS, and Android apps, as well as Chrome and Firefox plugins.
The free plan is great if you just want to track time, while plans starting from $9 a month give you access to reports, insights, integrations, and other special features. It’s a great way to track either your or your teams’ productivity.
By integrating with your calendar, Timely displays your scheduled activity alongside your actual activity. It’s the best of both worlds and makes it super easy to track how well you or your team is doing at meeting deadlines. It’s live update and reports features are also great for keeping clients abreast of how the project is going.
Unlike most of the options on this list, Timely doesn’t have a free plan. Instead there’s a free trial. Plans start at $7 per month for one person and $14 per month per user for teams.
TopTracker is the best option if you just need a simple way to prove to clients how much time you’re spending working on their projects. While it also tracks how you spend your time, its best feature is that it can take and anonymise screenshots as you work. This means you can submit proof to your clients that when you say you spent ten hours working on something, you really did. Even better, it’s totally free.
Harvest is a great option if you’re a project manager who just wants a good looking, easy way to keep tabs on how your team is doing. It doesn’t do anything different or revolutionary, it’s just a great time tracker for teams at a reasonable price.
Single users can track up to two projects for free; after that, it’s $12 per month per user for unlimited projects.
Paymo is a total project management app. It has tools to help you plan, schedule, invoice and, of course, track time. If you’re looking for a single app to manage every facet of your team, Paymo is definitely worth a look. With a simple workflow that lets you plan, assign tasks, track what’s done, and then charge for billable hours, it makes life very easy.
There’s a free trial. After that plans start from $4.45 per month per user and go up to $22.45 per month per user if you want the Professional top tier.
ClickTime is a time tracking app that’s geared more towards project management. It has tools that let you see whether your projects are over budget, how much of your employees’ hours are billable, and whether you need to bring on some extra help. It basically helps the entire management team understand exactly what’s happening in the trenches.
Plans start at $10 per month per user, but it’s only at the $12 per month per user mark that you start to get the really powerful features.
The biggest benefit of any time tracking app is that they make it easy for you to actually track how you spend your time. As Peter Drucker says, “What gets measured, gets managed.” All the time tracking software on this list are great for different needs. The best time tracker app is the one that you will actually use, so pick the one that best fits you and your team’s existing workflow.