Project and project management time tracking: 101 guide

Elements of time tracking software centered around a pink clock on a blue background

Believe it or not, 53% of projects are run by non-certified project managers. But if you think all that’s standing between you and delivering successful projects is a piece of paper—think again. 

The more likely blocker? The age old mystery of time.

Project time tracking and project management time tracking are effective ways of closing that gap between your impeccable project plan and the (less impeccable) reality of executing said project plan. Particularly when it comes to resource forecasting, resource management, and scheduling with realistic deadlines.

So if you’re a project manager struggling to find the balance between project timelines, tasks, and time, then this guide is for you.

Our 101 guide breaks down the key terminology around both project and project management time tracking, the importance of time tracking in project management, and the best way to track time spent on projects.

Let’s dive in.

Defining time tracking in the world of project management

Project management and time tracking are two different practices.

Time tracking is the process of monitoring and recording the amount of time that is spent on specific tasks, activities, projects, or resources. Project management is the practice of planning, executing, and monitoring a project, so it can be as successful as possible in line with your predefined goals.

When you combine these two areas, you get project management time tracking (also referred to as time tracking in project management). This is where project managers (and other relevant team members) have an overview of the amount of time multiple individuals spend on various tasks and activities within a project. It can be used for:

A purple Venn diagram showing how project management and time tracking crossover each other

Another term used is project time tracking, which has a slightly different focus. This is where individual project team members track their personal progress of their projects, by using time spent as their primary metric of progress. This project time tracking data can help facilitate project management time tracking.

Project time tracking tracks the time spent on a project at a higher level. Project task time tracking is a more granular approach to project time tracking, where you track specific tasks against a project.

A diagram demonstrating how project task time tracking breaks up project time tracking into its component tasks

In addition to time spent, there are other areas of project tracking, including tracking milestones, resources, budgets, or timelines to keep an eye on a project’s trajectory.

A purple flowchart showing how project management is an umbrella term that encompasses project tracking and project time tracking.

The best way to conduct project management time tracking is by using project timesheet software.

Timesheets are a way of organizing project time tracking data into an easy-to-read format,  particularly when looking at how multiple people in a team spend their time.

Further reading for project managers:

The importance of time tracking in project management

Time tracking for project management is important because it makes the intangible aspects of project management tangible at every stage of a project’s life cycle.

Let’s take a closer at what that means.👇

Tracking time on projects helps you initiate those projects more effectively

If you’re in the initiation phase of a new project, then we’re afraid to say setting project goals without reflecting on previous work is like flying blind. Historic project time tracking data highlights where your assumptions have been wrong in the past. This will help you to better predict your project timelines and set more realistic objectives.

These insights will also help you with planning when it comes to:

  • Managing client expectations on project timelines
  • Prioritizing tasks more effectively
  • Identifying opportunities for increased efficiency, particularly if you’re working in an agency model and need to improve your agency’s efficiency 

Forecast resources using insights from project time tracking 

When it comes to time tracking for project management, resource management also gets a boost. This is because your planning process becomes time-centric rather than task-centric. 

Now, why is that a good thing?

Trying to squeeze an infinite number of project tasks into a finite amount of time is, as you might have already realized—impossible. Using time tracking in project management forces you to think about how you spend your resources’ time as though it were a budget. 

This means you know if you need to “buy” more time in the form of freelance support, a new hire, or negotiating a longer project timeframe with your clients.

This deeper understanding will help you avoid resource management nightmares that can stop a project in its tracks like:

Nytisha Vinson, Senior Producer at Code and Theory, stresses the importance of figuring out your team’s “true capacity” if you suddenly find yourself in a time crunch. 

When situations like that happen, you immediately need to bring the team together and figure out their true capacity. Not the numbers you see in your tools, but actually understanding how busy your team members are. So, for example, if someone thinks that something can’t be done for another four weeks, they need to put their hand up and say that.

Because as the PM, I need to take that to the client in order to have an informed conversation. It’s about cultivating trust and open communication with your team from the very start. That way they know when I ask these questions, they just need to be straight with me because we’ll figure it out. But I need to know the facts.

In the end, if we’re honest and transparent with both our teams and clients, we’ll build trust from end-to-end. Ultimately, that’s what leads to profitable projects and lasting client relationships.”

 

Time tracking agile projects is easier with real time project tracking

Certain methods of time tracking in project management will improve your visibility on a project during its execution phase.

If you’re working on high-stakes projects with tight turnarounds and lots of moving parts (particularly if you work in an agile workflow), this kind of real-time understanding is crucial. 

It allows you to:

  • Prioritize the most time-sensitive tasks
  • Move project tasks around resources when needed
  • Keep clients in the loop when plans change

Strengthen client relationships and increase billable hours

We all know that consistently communicating project updates improves client relationships, which is particularly important if you’re managing an agency client relationship.

But communicating with project time tracking reports further:

  • Creates transparency
  • Improves invoicing accuracy
  • Increases client visibility

Not to mention how tracking project time often increases billable hours as well. Better client relationships and profit margins? Yes, please.

Improve your project time tracking reporting

Remember how we started this section by saying that reflecting on historic time tracking data stops you from planning in the dark? This is the part where you collect, analyze, and share that data.

You can use this data not only for project planning but also for:

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How to track time spent on projects

Your method of time tracking in project management, or project time tracking, will affect the benefits you experience. For example, if you’re tracking time with pen and paper then running a report is going to be a lot more hassle than if you’re using dedicated software.

With that in mind, here are three questions to think about when choosing how to keep track of time worked on projects.

1. Can it help you track time automatically?

If you’re someone who’s used time tracking in the past you’ll know that tracking time manually can be rather time-consuming. Especially if you end up searching through emails, and old tickets in your project scheduling tool last thing on a Friday.

If you’re a project manager then you’ll know a key part of project management is to ensure your project processes don’t get in the way of project progress. 

So how much time a project time tracking tool takes up in itself is an important consideration. Some methods of project time tracking include automation aspects, from screen recording to integrating time data from your Microsoft or Google calendar, so that you and your team aren’t starting with a black screen.

2. Does it protect user privacy?

On the other hand, making sure you and your team feel empowered by time tracking, rather than micromanaged, is paramount to successful time tracking in project management. Finding the right balance between automation and invasiveness will depend on:

  • The nature of your team
  • Your relationship with them
  • Exactly how the time tracking method works

For example, some time tracking software only shows automatically tracked time data to the individual it pertains to. That individual can then edit and update this data before sharing it with their wider team. 

3. Does it support resource management and capacity planning?

Resource allocation planning is the foundation of any kind of project management. Because ultimately, projects rely on resources—not the other way around.

So when you’re choosing your time tracking method, you’ll want to make sure it supports you in resource capacity planning as well.

Resource Guru is purpose-built resource capacity planning software that helps project managers forecast and track team time more effectively. This leads to more realistic project management, rather than trying to squeeze the most out of your team to hit unrealistic project timelines.

👉 Try Resource Guru for free with our 30-day trial

 

5 project time tracking best practices

As we mentioned earlier, how you’re tracking time for projects is just as important as whether you track time in the first place.

But there are other considerations that will impact how successful your time tracking for projects is, such as how you introduce it to your team.

Here are our five ways to achieve project time tracking best practice: 

1. Prioritize the outcomes you need from project time tracking 

Ask yourself why you’ve decided to start time tracking in project management, to help decide how to track project time. Are there any specific problems you need to address?
You might want to frame these outcomes into specific user stories for you and your team. 

These kinds of statements often sound like: 

  • As a project manager, I want to plan projects more accurately and stop moving deadlines around
  • As an individual contributor, I want a way for clients to see my progress easily, so I don’t have to keep responding to emails
  • As a project manager, I need a better understanding of my resource’s capacity so I keep on top of resource utilization, and make sure my resources aren’t overutilized
  • As a project manager, I want to have a better understanding of the hours spent on a project so I can deliver within budget
  • As an individual contributor, I want to see how long I spent on certain tasks to show I’ve improved productivity in my performance review 
  • As a project manager, I want to be able to bill my clients as accurately as possible so I’m not losing money to scope creep

2. Get buy-in from your team 

Make sure you share, or even discover, your why with your team before you start employee project time tracking. Bringing your team on board at this point means it is all of you against the problem you’ve outlined, rather than them against you and the task of time tracking.

Think carefully about how you introduce the idea of time tracking, as some people might have negative connotations.

Crowdsource or run an anonymous survey to get ideas for methods, software, and solutions from your team. This not only creates positive associations with time tracking, but also gives you genuinely useful insight into how to implement project time tracking effectively based on the wisdom of the crowd. 

3. Choose the best way to track time spent on projects

Now you’ve identified why you need to track project time, consider carefully which method works best for how you track project time business needs based on the insights of your team.

For example, If you’re a large multi-functional team who are extremely busy, then spreadsheets may be time-consuming and messy for that amount of people, and you may immediately need software as a solution.

4. Embrace the adoption curve 

Give yourself and your team the time and grace to make a few mistakes when implementing your new project management with a time tracking solution. Plan extra time in your schedule to onboard everyone with your new time tracking methods and processes. Then give everyone a grace period to get to grips with new systems and ways of working.

Remember, no one is efficient the first time they do something. What may feel initially like a clunky, end-of-week exercise, will become a victory lap once everyone’s familiar with the routine of project time tracking. Make sure you’re demonstrating that you’re also tracking your own time to help overcome any initial resistance. Leading by example is the way forward.

If you’re a project manager who wants to make sure your team’s morale is high then we have some tools for you:

5. Analyze and share how project time tracking has improved project performance

As soon as you have data coming in from project time tracking make sure you’re using it to run project time tracking reports. With this data at hand, you can make more informed decisions around resource allocation.

If you let time tracking become a box-ticking exercise, then that’s all it’ll be. So make sure you share the results with your team to make them aware of the impact on both a project level and a team level. 

How to run a project time tracking report

How exactly you run a project time tracking report depends on the particular method you’re using to track time on projects. But with any kind of time tracking report, you’ll follow these basic steps:

    1. Collect the project based time tracking data, by viewing in, or exporting from, your online project time tracking software or collecting it from spreadsheets
    2. Compile the data into a suitable format, this might look like inputting it into another software or creating another spreadsheet
    3. Analyze the data by asking yourself questions like what was the most time-consuming part of the project? What was the quickest? Which team member put in the most hours? Which project task required the most hours?
    4. Outline your key takeaways, based on your team project time tracking data do you have any major worries? Was anyone over-relied upon? Now is a good time to ask your team if they have any concerns based on their experience as well.
    5. Share your takeaways! This can be as fancy as a presentation deck or as casual as a Slack update. The important part is you’re consistently sharing the insights from your project management time tracking, and using them to inform your next project planning cycle.

Make your time tracking in project management effortless with Resource Guru

Resource Guru is project scheduling and timesheets software rooted in reality. We help you focus on your resource’s capacity, and plan a project with a realistic amount of time and tasks for each team member. 

Our easy project time tracking solution lets you compare your forecast against the actual project time tracking data from your team. So you can improve your resource forecast every time, and have your projects running like clockwork. ⏱

Simplify scheduling and time tracking with Resource Guru

Try the #1 resource management tool trusted by top-performing project teams around the world.

Start your free trial