Lost in Time

[originally published on Law.com, October 1, 2009]

The old challenge to “work smarter, not harder” can be hard when you are on a treadmill of activity. How do you slow down enough to make necessary changes?

Unlike stopwatch programs that have been around lawyers’ offices for decades, automatic time tracking takes time management in a different direction. It focuses on eliminating incremental lost (billable) time that occurs as you move between different programs on your computer, or between your computer and other activities.

Let’s look at three tools: Chrometa 2 (www.chrometa.com); Nestersoft’s Worktime 4.2 (www.nestersoft.com/worktime); and Black Hill Software’s TimeSprite 2.1 (www.timesprite.com).

All are designed for individuals, whether a solo or a firm lawyer. Worktime can be networked and operates offline when the network isn’t available. They all install and remain running in the background on your computer at all times.

As you open a program, they record which program is open and for how long. Open a Microsoft Word document? Switch to a web browser? Open a second web browser tab? Not a problem. Each activity is logged, and as you toggle between websites and your document or other software, time is accrued to the correct program.

Here’s the tricky part. Once you have captured all that time, how do you use it? The data overload can appear overwhelming at first. This is where the nuances of each software come into play.

One great advantage is the ability to block the programs you do not want to track. These might include PDA Hotsync or Truecrypt encryption, which you may use but are not billable. This can cut down on some of the time entries you sift. Chrometa employs a right-mouse click to block any application and stop future tracking. Worktime has a list that you can customize by plugging in the executable program name.

The programs also support away time: lunch, a meeting, a phone call. Obviously, we know when we are in or out of the office, and many of our phones already track call duration.

What about someone sticking their head in your door to ask a “quick” question? Each program will pause after a certain number of minutes, which assumes you are away from the computer.

Chrometa has a nice feature where it will prompt you, when you start to use the computer again, to tell it what you were doing. Neither Worktime nor TimeSprite are that proactive, but both allow you to add specific, manual time entries.

At the end of your day, you turn to your time tracking software and see what it has captured. You might be surprised. You might also be overwhelmed. Now it all has to be assigned to the clients and matters that you worked on.

TimeSprite is intriguing because it does some automatic categorizing as it tracks time. For example, if you use your web browser and spend a period of time at a given website, returning throughout the day, it will aggregate those visits. You can also drop time entries into groups, created in advance or on the fly. Unlike Chrometa and Worktime, you cannot create subgroups.

Worktime feels dated, as it has been around for nearly a decade, and less intuitive. You create your groups and subgroups in advance and then toggle to each new group as you move to a new project. It is very similar to stopwatches in this way, which is a drawback. It means that everything is categorized by the end of the day, but you will have to relabel some entries unless you have been diligent in changing groups.

Chrometa is most clearly born of the “web 2.0” world. Categories and subcategories can be created on the fly; entries are labeled by dragging them to the appropriate category. It is very much a tagging feel. It also groups activities by the software you were using.

These tools collapse your time into day, week, or month views. Chrometa calls its realtime view Timestamps, where you can see a chronological view of your work. TimeSprite calls this the Journal but also has a real-time pie graph showing how the groups and programs break down.

Worktime uses a reporting tool to display its real-time activity, and has filters so that you can create custom reports. Both it and TimeSprite export to a data file so you can bring up your time entries in a spreadsheet. Chrometa does not have any export functionality, and you use the information from within the program.

Automatic time tracking software can have a significant impact on your office whether or not you bill by the hour. You can rely on these tools to help you identify what you do, and when you do it, removing the unreliable variable—you!

You may not realize that e-mail has become a three-hour morning sinkhole, or that you racked up an hour in unbillable YouTube visits in a week.

In some cases, you may find that you’ve done more work applicable to a particular client than your time sheets reflect. Just as helpful, you may notice weekly trends where you are getting more work product completed each Thursday, or get more phone calls on Monday. This sort of information can give you insights to make you more productive, which can help your practice as well as finding those lost minutes of billable time.

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