Depending on whether you’re an hourly employee/contractor, a salaried full time employee, or paid on a project basis, there’s a world of difference with regards to how you approach the hours of the day.
Hourly employees and contractors are paid for their time. In theory this translates into billable hours in a day, but in practice it doesn’t, really. An oft-cited study ten years ago found that the average office worker only had three productive workdays out of five (60%) (http://news.microsoft.com/2005/03/15/survey-finds-workers-average-only-three-productive-days-per-week/). Other similar studies since have estimated that number even lower — as low as 37.5% in some regions and sectors. Too often you hear office workers complain about feeling like cogs or drones, paid to keep their seat warm for eight hours a day and deriving little satisfaction from the job.
Now, as digital nomads, that’s not our narrative, and in fact many of us chose this life because we wanted to escape or avoid that reality. However, for the vast majority of office workers, including the people we often work with, report to, and get paid by, that’s their life. So the challenge is ensuring that they believe that working with us is a productive, valuable, integral use of their company’s resources despite the fact that they themselves often waste them.
For those of us working on a project basis, or in a Results-Only Work Environment (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ROWE), it’s pretty simple — you need to deliver consistent quality on time. That’s it. Nothing else matters. It’d be the same whether you go into the office every day, work from home a few miles away a few days a week, or work from another timezone all the time.
For those of us paid by the hour, it’s a lot more challenging — not so much because of the time tracking itself, but because of how critical it is for us to manage the perception of what we do with our time. Depending on the expectations of your employer or client, you may need to keep the kinds of logs attorneys keep — obscenely detailed journals that break time down into quarter-hour increments, and log what filled that time, whether it’s spent performing research (searching for libraries, digesting technical manuals, reading relevant blog posts and articles), operations management (fielding emails, phone meetings) or actual production (writing code, documentation, articles, designing graphics, or whatever it is that you do). And again, depending on the expectations of whoever signs your checks, you may want to do this even if you’re on salary, to document the fact that you actually work and combat the perception of you being on a permanent vacation.
If you’re a line coder, production artist, specification writer or something similarly “output-centric,” where the thrust of your work is geared toward production in a fairly well-defined environment, it’s pretty straightforward — production artists’ billable time is divided between sourcing typefaces and graphic materials, researching visual language, manipulating assets and pushing pixels, line coders are paid to intake task backlogs, research patterns, read framework and API documentation, write code, run unit tests and update buglists.
However, the more generative/inspirational/creative your work is, the more difficult it can be to explain where your billable time went. I don’t mean “creative” as in “designers, artists and writers only” — every high-level software architect will tell you that many of the best ideas for their software designs come to them when they’re away from the keyboard, and software architecture is a highly generstive/inspirstional/creative field. So, yes, those thirty minutes you stepped away from the computer to wash dishes and think about how to optimize the speed of that tricky recursive function — that’s billable time. Track it as such. The word “conceptualizing” appears on my time log pretty frequently.
As far as tracking itself, I don’t log as-I-go, but rather at the end of each workday, but that’s just how I roll. I think back and ask myself “What did I do today? Well, I spent about an hour updating the user flow diagram, an hour conceptualizing the interaction model, three and a half hours drawing wireframes, an hour writing annotations, an hour on a conference call, and half an hour managing email. So that’s eight hours of billable time.” Yeah, I may have spread those eight hours of work across twelve hours of the day, but that isn’t relevant. My output in a given workday typically far exceeds the average office workers’ output, my clients see that, consider it a great value, and keep paying me to do it.