Software Review: OfficeTime for Tracking Consulting Time

Having evaluated literally dozens of different project time tracking applications, I’m convinced that for my purposes as an individual practitioner and consultant, OfficeTime is exactly the right one for me.

Simplicity, Not the (Expensive) Kitchen Sink

Until very recently, I’ve always been averse to the idea of charging directly for my time — in large part, because I’ve dreaded the idea of some timer ticking away on my screen, distracting my attention from the real work at hand with what I’ve imagined to be tedious and testy setup requirements. In fact, it was partly my own aversion to ticking timers that led me to develop word count-based methods for online consultations (see my separate online counselling site) and to stick with full day rates for nearly all of my business consulting.

So when some projects recently developed in my business in such a way that I really would have to start tracking my time explicitly, I can honestly say I did not in any way, shape or form look forward to testing out the possible software solutions. I reluctantly set out to evaluate several dozen, with the following simple requirements in mind:

  • Quick and easy: I wanted something I could quickly start, stop and pause, without wrestling with a needlessly complex interface. If it could provide me with a small time display and control buttons in my system-wide menu bar — just the bare necessities, nothing more, nothing less — so much the better.
  • Transparent reporting: I wanted the capability to identify at a glance just how much total time had been spent on a given project in a given month, without having to set up a whole reporting run.
  • No intrusive feature bloat: I wanted my simple requirements met for ease of timing and transparent reporting specifically without having to manoeuvre around a bunch of extra accoutrements for accounting or invoicing that I never intended to use.

The idea here is that I wanted to be able to open an email from a consulting client, decide to attend to it, start my timer, do the job, stop the timer, and include a footnote in my email indicating total time for that job together with total time spent during that month on the same client’s project — and I wanted that sequence of tasks to be as similar as possible to doing the same job but without the timer. In other words, I wanted all the appropriate functionality, but I didn’t want to have spend any of my time messing about with software in order to get that functionality. You could say I wanted it all done for me, with little or no investment of effort on my part.

And what did I find to do that for me?

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Uh, nothing — at least not initially.

Everything I tried — and again, I tried dozens of different software packages — either put a huge ugly ticking stopwatch on my screen, required me to set up and run a whole report just to find out I’d spent half an hour this month working with a given client, stuck unnecessary invoicing features right smack dab in the middle of the user interface, required bizarrely long sequences of clicks and selections and dialog boxes just to start or stop or pause a timer, sold for a very high price more appropriate to full-fledged accounting software, or some combination of the above.

Then I found OfficeTime. Whew! Thank goodness.

Saved by OfficeTime

OfficeTime: it’s quick, it’s easy, and it meets all my requirements described above. It gives me a discreet button in my menu bar to control a timer or choose between different projects, and when a timer is running, it displays the total — in minutes, not with seconds ticking away, and not with giant neon digits occupying several inches of screen real estate and several neural groups of brain power.

OfficeTime interface

Main OfficeTime Interface

It even alerts me if it detects I’ve left my machine idle for too long without pausing a project timer, letting me know just how much time might be incorrectly logged to the project and offering to subtract the time from the total or assign it to a different project. Switch directly to the running application, and I can tell at a glance how much time I’ve spent on which project over the last month.

Invoicing? Sure, it does it, but I don’t have to use it — and, much more importantly, I don’t have to see or interact with the invoicing features in any way.

More complex reporting? Yes, it does that, too — but here again, while I do use the capability roughly once a month, the rest of the time it stays out of the way and lets me get on with my work.

My point is that there is a long list of things which the software does not make me do in order to achieve my simple goals — and it is a long list of things which dozens of OfficeTime’s competitors do make me do in order to achieve the same things.

And when I do decide to interact in more detail with the software, I’ve found it quick and easy to modify project names, categories of activities, hourly rates associated with activities, the rounding of time up or down in specified increments, and more.

Available for both Macs and Windows machines, on the Mac OfficeTime also provides nice (and optional) integration with both Address Book and iCal — so, for example, if you were away from your Mac while working on a project, you might enter the details into your calendar via your iPod Touch or iPhone, and it would automatically get synched back into OfficeTime via iCal when you next synched the device. Granted, that might not be as straightforward as logging with a dedicated iPod or iPhone client, but nonetheless I find it reassuring to know that project data are fully exposed to the system’s built-in calendaring functions and can be accessed and modified that way should I need or want to do so.

Overall Assessment

Everyone’s needs and preferences for project tracking are different, but if yours are anything at all like mine, I can recommend this software without hesitation. I’d like to see the graphical interface spiffed up a bit, but in terms of functionality and ease of use — and not getting in the way — I literally don’t know of anything that compares.

Availability and Pricing

OfficeTime is available for Mac OS X and for Windows and costs $47, with an almost unheard of 120-day money back guarantee. A fully functional demo is also available, which expires after 21 days. The current version as of this writing (December 2008) is 1.3.3.

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