Elements or Lower

Wed, 06 Sep 2006

Using Backpack Calendar as a Timesheet

For a long time, I’ve been looking for a system to help me keep track of how long I spend on the work I do for my clients, and I think I may finally have found a solution.

The key issue here has been finding something that doesn’t get in the way of my actual work, allows me to record timesheet entries for days in the past, and supports the fairly loose way I like to divide my time. Generally, I tend to invoice by the day or half-day. If I’ve spent an hour here and a few minutes there on various things for a client, I’ll aggregate this into a half-day when it seems fair to do so. There are clients for whom I do very infrequent jobs, and I’ll always have quoted a specific amount to cover the work needed on any given occasion. And there are some clients that get a different hourly rate from everyone else.

There are a number apps for the Mac that allow you to trigger timers to record actual time spent on different projects, but these operate on far too specific a level for my needs. I tried a couple out for a while, but ultimately found that I’d often have to make up entries when I forgot to trigger the timer. Moreover, the pudding was getting too eggy.

I tried setting up a local MySQL database, but found it too cumbersome to ever record a damn thing, and had neither the time nor the inclination to arrange a proper interface for it.

I tried just appending lines to a text file, but this felt like no structure at all, and made it hard to visualise where I’d left gaps in my record keeping.

I tried printing out monthly planner sheets from iCal, which actually worked quite well for a while. I’d write notes on a day’s jobs in each panel, and this gave me just enough structure to be able to get an overview of the month, without over-complicating the process. But I found that I’d often run out of room in some boxes when trying to note down a range of tasks for a client — and, frankly, if God meant us to use a pen, he wouldn’t have given us keyboards.

My Backpack Calendar

And then 37 Signals added a calendar to Backpack. I’ve used Backpack for some time now as a way of managing technical to-do lists and notes for various projects, largely as an adjunct to the strategic discussions and functional specifications held with clients on the sister site, Basecamp.

The beauty of the Backpack calendar is that adding an event involves merely typing its details into a single text field. I’m quite happy using iCal to keep track of my actual appointments, and had no desire to move all that over to Backpack. But it struck me that I could enter timesheet details into the Backpack calendar without running out of room or making my hand ache. So, at the end of each day, I divert my inevitably-running browser to the calendar, and simply type “half day FISITA (visitor survey) <return> half day WBC (forum archive)” or whatever, and the timesheet for the day is done.

So far, this seems to be easy enough that I’ll be able to sustain using it, structured enough that I can get a fair overview of what I need to invoice, and loose enough to cope with my ramshackle time management habits.