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Hours Don't Lie: Why Tracking Time = Getting Things Done (and Why to Live Abroad)

[photo: Darren Tunnicliff]

Plenty of us say we’re working on a [screenplay, novel, song, portfolio, website, acting career] while we we’re only [waiting tables, editing copy, being an assistant] to pay the bills. But the truth of the matter is, if we spend 40 hours a week doing [the latter] and we only find a few hours to do [the former], which of these tasks is more important to us?

The truest indicator of what’s important to us is the amount of time we devote to something. Not what we spend money on. No what we say we care about. So for the last 16 months, I’ve tracked my time religiously. What have I found? Hours don’t lie. Once you know where your hours are going, you can start changing your behavior in order to achieve your goals.

As the saying goes, “the first step towards change is awareness.” Are you aware of how many hours you’re spending on various activities in your life? How many hours did you spend at work yesterday? How much time sleeping? Pursuing your own creative goals? What about today? And then, how about all of last week? Hours add up quickly. No mere mortal can keep track of them all in his or her head. The best way to gain awareness — the first step toward change — is to find a source of objective analytics that cut through the powers of human rationalization. Perception and reality are two different things. Track your time, and you’ll get a dose of unfettered truth. Then you’ll find a way to start spending more time on what’s really important to you.

Time tracking services

The first step in tracking time is to find a way to measure hours that isn’t painful. Here’s a list of time-tracking tools (and another). There are plenty of free time-tracking apps out there, and even some fancy automated approaches (both of which I experimented with), but I found myself most comfortable using Freshbooks because I’ve used it in the past (I’ve since switched to Harvest). I can’t recommend either highly enough for freelancers and small business that need to keep track of clients and create invoices, but I’ve found that even post-freelance, I’m still using Freshbooks Harvest every day simply to track my own hours. You’ll want to use a time tracking app that works on multiple platforms (in the case of both Freshbooks and Harvest, there’s a Mac dashboard widget (pictured), an iOS app in the form of MiniBooks, and an Android app in the form of TimeDroid). For those times when you’re not using a computer or mobile app to track your time, you can always use the web interface to guesstimate time after the fact. Just be honest with yourself. Ultimately, use whatever time-tracking method you feel most comfortable with: the best method is the one you actually use long-term, not the one with the most features.

Only track what’s important

You could take it too far and track analytics about absolutely everything in your life, as does Nicholas Felton. He publishes brilliantly illustrated books every year about his life, entitled “Feltron reports,” and they’ve become so popular that people actually buy them (thanks for the heads-up, Raafi). In fact, since I have an appreciation for great infographics, here’s his 2009 location report (click through for the full-size version):

For the rest of us, it’s more about making every hour count than it is about counting every hour. The best time-tracking plan isn’t the most thorough one, however — it’s the one you stick with. Sure, you could track your sleep, track your exercise (which I do when running, actually), and you could probably track your sex life, but I’m more interested in knowing how much work I’m getting done than I am in getting penetrating (ahem) insight into every aspect of my life. For a lot of people, tracking working hours is going to seem like enough of a chore, without tracking everything else; therefore I recommend only tracking how much work — and what kind of work – you do. Leave your leisure time alone. For anyone who’s thinking, “tracking any kind of hours doesn’t sound like fun,” well, no — it’s not supposed to be. If you want to have what other people don’t, you have to be willing to do what other people won’t.

The painful truth

Tracking time is not just about awareness: it’s about change. I’ve been tracking hours for well over a year, so let’s take a look at my total hours from 2010. Note that I’m sharing this graph not because I’m happy with the distribution, but because I’m not happy with it. Once you track hours and analyze them, the truth becomes clear. It might not be the truth you wanted, but that’s exactly the point. Here is the breakdown of 2,097 hours I worked in 2010. For a point of reference, a full-time job in the U.S. is typically 2,000 hours a year.1 This is what I spent my working hours on last year (this is an interactive chart, so you can hover over each slice of the pay for the project and hour total):

As you can see, for me, 2010 was about this web site. I’d done the day job thing at MTV, I’d done the freelance thing on my own, and I decided that neither was going to allow me to get my projects made.2 When re-launching this site in January of last year, I knew that it would be a ton of work and would force me to push back my first feature, but it has absolutely been worth it — and as a reader of this site, I hope you feel the same.3 Thanks to you, the site is not only treading water, but growing.

Affecting change

Once you have several months of time tracked, analyze those hours and see what needs to change. My 2010 chart made crystal clear what my hours were and what I need to change if I am to continue calling myself “a filmmaker first and a blogger second,” as I do on the disclosures page. So now that we’re at the end of Q1 2011, has the practice of tracking my time — and taking an honest look at those hours — affected change? Here’s my chart so far for 2011:

NoFilmSchool’s still taking up a significant portion of my time, but my main concern was not with that side of the pie, given most indie filmmakers have to do something other than work on their own projects to survive. I was mainly concerned with how much time I was (or wasn’t) spending writing my first feature, and now I’ve already spent more time on my feature project in the first three months of 2011 than I did in all of 2010. That’s why tracking time = getting things done: you can’t lie to yourself. It makes you realize what you spend your time on, it makes clear where your priorities lie, and it motivates you to make your hours match your priorities. Track your time for several months, and one way or another you’ll find a way to grow the slice of the pie that is most important to you.

Why live abroad?

You’ll notice the second pie chart had a lot less slices to it. While I successfully reconfigured my working hours, that’s really only part of the story. Think of it this way: there are 8,760 hours in a year. In 2010, I spent 2,097 of them working, and roughly the same number sleeping. Therefore, most of my time (the remaining 4,000 hours) was spent doing other stuff. So to get a jump start on 2011, I decided to eliminate some of that other stuff and live abroad. For the past ten weeks, I’ve been writing my screenplay (and updating this web site) from Costa Rica.

I wrote 200+ pages of screenplay in 2009.4 Of those pages, about 150 of them were actually penned in Costa Rica. Thus I’ve been trying to replicate the creative writing energy of two years ago, in the same place. As Scott Macaulay said in Filmmaker Magazine’s New Year’s Resolutions for Filmmakers this January:

Review your productivity and alter your creative behavior. Conduct a review of your own best practices, the circumstances and behavior that lead to your greatest level of productivity and/or creativity, and more purposefully engineer the creation of those moments. If the best work you’ve ever done was at a mountain retreat when you were unplugged from the world, do that again.

Substitute “beach house” for “mountain retreat,” and that’s exactly what I did. I recommend you do the same, however possible — whatever life circumstances you found to be the most creatively inspiring, try to recreate them.

Other than the great weather and proximity to a beautiful beach (pictured), there’s another reason I’m in Costa Rica: it’s cheaper to live here than NYC. Traveling frugally can require less money than living at home, especially if you can piggyback on existing travel plans. One of my college friends was getting married in Costa Rica in January, and because I had to buy a roundtrip ticket here anyway, extending the stay by three months meant the airfare was essentially free.5 I’m not saying everyone should go to Costa Rica (though it is beautiful) — my point is, if you’re taking a trip somewhere as it is, extending your stay is certainly one way to mitigate the cost (the other way is to sublet your apartment while you’re gone — which I’ve also done).

Did the trip have the desired result? Yes. The day before yesterday I finished the first draft of my screenplay. Today I’m headed back to New York. Now I can only hope that when I open my notebook in NYC, the scribbling makes as much sense as it did in CR…

Writing is a deep-sea dive

Creative writing requires exponentially more focus — and hours — than any other activity I know. As the writer Dave Eggers said:

Writing is a deep-sea dive. You need hours just to get into it: down, down, down. If you’re called back to the surface every couple of minutes by an email, you can’t ever get back down. I have a great friend who became a Twitterer and he says he hasn’t written anything for a year.

Another quote to the same effect, this one from author Philip Roth:

I’m not writing when I’m walking around. I can only really write when I’m alone in a place that’s mine, that I’m accustomed to, and there’s no interruption. I don’t have a phone. I don’t have anything that can distract me. And I spend the hours ruminating. If you spend six or seven hours ruminating on your invention, the next part of it will come to you. When I’m walking the streets, I don’t have that kind of concentration.

“If you spend six or seven hours… it will come to you.” The challenge in our always-on, constantly-connected world is to carve out this uninterrupted block of hours. I found that living abroad helped. But if you can’t pack up and live abroad, take a virtual trip — away from the internet. Eggers recommends an application I’ve mentioned here in the past: a simple Wi-Fi disabler called Freedom, which forces you to disconnect from the great time-suck that is the internet. I love the web as much as the next person — probably more, given I make my living on it — but the world of information at your fingertips can be an irresistible temptress when the blank page looms. Give Freedom a shot — it’s helped me immeasurably.

Getting to 10,000 hours

Malcolm Gladwell argues in his must-read book Outliers: The Story of Success that it takes 10,000 hours of pursuing something to become truly excellent at it. 10,000 hours is a lot of time, right? That’s three hours a day, every day, for ten years. Well, if your chosen pursuit is as important to you as filmmaking is to me, we’re both going to find a way to get to 10,000 hours eventually. If you’re fully committed to your craft — and you want to be confident that you’re putting in the work to succeed — then I recommend tracking hours. If you don’t, time can spiral away, not unlike the illustration at the top of this post.

I believe the single largest obstacle to achieving our dreams is finding the time to pursue them. I also believe tracking time is an effective approach to carving out enough time to achieve those dreams. Hours don’t lie.

  1. Remember in my case these are actual hours spent working (most of them out of a suitcase), not hours spent at a place of work (which might involve a large portion of time surfing the web or otherwise being unproductive). []
  2. Unfortunately, even getting yourself out of your day job is not a guarantee that you’ll get your projects made. Case in point: my transmedia murder mystery 3rd Rail, which will one day see the light of day. One way or another. []
  3. Delving deeper into the NoFilmSchool hours, it’s important to note that the majority of those 1,224 hours were not spent writing content. They were spent designing and building the site, and more than anything, researching how best to run a website, build an audience, and monetize the content in an organic way — without sacrificing content/design/credibility. Today I spend more time writing and far less time researching. []
  4. Despite forty something meetings, none of those pages made it to the screen. Yet. []
  5. I also shared the house with two friends, one of whom was fellow filmmaker Zack Lieberman (who’s also working on a script of his own), so the rent (split three ways) was significantly less than my apartment in Brooklyn. []


We’re all here for the same reason: to better ourselves as writers, directors, cinematographers, producers, photographers... whatever our creative pursuit. Criticism is valuable as long as it is constructive, but personal attacks are grounds for deletion; you don't have to agree with us to learn something. We’re all here to help each other, so thank you for adding to the conversation!

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  • I wonder how you calculated freelance directing?
    I am using Rescue Time and not very happy with it. Since my Firefox is always open, it calculates it as ‘distracting time’. And of course, the work I am not doing on my computer is not quantified, so when I’m on set or on prep, it doesn’t reflect.

  • Chad Hugghins on 03.31.11 @ 3:20PM

    I love these kind of posts! I always feel more energized and inspired when I am somewhere else. I feel like I’ve been challenged to try and rearrange things to make sure I am staying productive. Not always easy to do, but definitely worth it in the end.

  • Vincent Galiano on 03.31.11 @ 4:58PM

    Interesting! I actually travel a lot, but was thinking about living for a couple of months in Berlin, just for the energy and the creativity. Well, not before a couple of years though (travelling, travelling, travelling, working).

  • I use Anuko Time Tracker ( It free to use on the web or install on your own server. It make the pretty pie charts, does other reporting and billing. It’s really helpful to see where your REALLY goes.

  • I imagine the move to Costa Rico must have been good for both your focus and mood. I should give Freedom a try. Ideally your editing computer would not get Internet. I’m going to try a different approach by joining the 100 pages in 30 days script challenge on Script Frenzy. I have a couple of scripts languishing on the vine. I’m hoping the social element will get me back to that part of the filmmaking process.

    • That’s a good idea, Mike — good timing with the suggestion, too! I’ll blog SF tomorrow.

    • 100 pages in 30 days should be pretty easy. I’m a feast or famine writer. I either write 25 pages in a sitting or I struggle to get one or two pages down. The minute I get that inspiration moment I’m off to the races. The quickest I’ve written a first draft, which was 108 pages was four days and it received a Consider from Script Shark. Haven’t really done much with it since.

      To me it’s all about the idea. If I clearly see it, then I just start writing and let my characters take me through the journey.

  • If someone would pay off my f*cking student loans for me, I’d be more than happy to give traveling abroad a whirl. As it is, I absolutely can’t not be bringing in money.

  • If you’re using Chrome there is a great extension called Stay Focused. It shuts down your connection and it’s free.

  • Koo, I didn’t realize you spent THAT much time on this great website.
    NoFilmSchool’s free booklet gave me a good understanding on DSLR videography. Thank you.
    It also reinforced the idea that nothing stops us from making big screen quality shorts/movies, with such advancement in cameras that are affordable for Joe Blows.

    • It’s a lot of time, but as I say in the footnote, many of those first-year hours — especially over the first few months — were spent on “startup” activities like research, not actual writing.

  • Great post and thanks for the New Year’s Resolution post shout-out.

    I use Freedom too, and I should give a shout-out to its sister application, Anti-Social. Anti-Social just shuts you out of social networking and forum sites (it’s customizable so you can add and subtract what you want it to block). As a writer who usually needs the internet open to write, Anti-Social can sometimes be more useful than Freedom.

    • Thanks Scott, I meant to mention Anti-Social but forgot — it looks very helpful, especially for those times when I find myself having to close a number of windows and rebooting simply because of the need to quickly research something. For anyone interested, here it is:

  • MARK GEORGEFF on 04.2.11 @ 1:12AM

    Time is indeed the currency we indies have. It really is all we got until the money appears.
    And then, when under deadlines, contractual or otherwise,
    And that, for myself, is only done through doing the work.
    I learned a long time ago…I can write anywhere.
    Now, that doesn’t mean everything I write anywhere is gold.
    A lot of times it just crap…but crap that has to be jettisoned out of my system so
    the real stuff that needs to be told gets release.

    It’s always like big pieces of coal. And for me that’s the way it should be.
    Rewrites are what makes, hopefully, something resembling a diamond out of the coal.
    Whether people buy that diamond or not is a different story.

    When I started writing fiction in college; i always carried a notebook and pen with me in a bookbag.
    No matter where I went the bookbag was always with me. I’d do rough notes, dialogue, scene constructions, etc. I’d spend a few hours at night after studying to do the actual writing; and then rewrite notes in the morning.
    Long Saturdays were nothing but writing; and then hours on Sunday after part time work. School was full time.
    In graduate film school…we were required to write one full script a quarter. Outline to first draft stage.
    6 weeks tops. I wrote additional feature scripts on top of these writing assignments as well as taking film editing classes and studying movies in producer classes with myself being the only writer. Why?
    Because we broke movies and scripts down in a whole different light than just writing them.
    Let alone talking about…ideas.

    Time management is essential on whether I’m writing a new script; just as is storyboarding and locale scouting and test and shot and edit tests for a project trailer which I’m working on now. Because there’s only so much cash for actually shooting the trailer. Since I didn’t have money during the starving film school days I realized time was my cash. It’s the same way now with 3 rewrites and a new script and doing this trailer for investors
    who want to do one of my scripts as an inter net series and the basis for an indie feature franchise.
    Why am I doing all this on spec on top of my full time job and being as broke as shit? Thanks to those student loans for film school?

    Because I still have time on my side and the biggest profit in my otherwise empty bank account.
    And this ends a lot of promising writers once they get into the system.
    Because they just don’t know how to do the work in a certain time period.
    And against so much insider competition, etc., it hurts them even more.

    Time…and the work ethic…is my foundation, so after one of these projects gets the greenlight…the inevitable question rises: “What else have you got?” And then I can do the pause…look outside the window and then look back with the utmost of confidence. And be ready to freak the shit out of them.
    And freak them out even more when I meet their deadlines or come in sooner than they expected.

    It simply comes down to how bad you want this…and the work and sacrifices you’re willing to make.

  • Excellent post, Koo.

    For those interested in living abroad while pursuing creative projects, it’s worth considering English teaching as a source of part-time income. I currently teach in Spain on a grant from the Spanish govt. I have a visa, get a monthly living stipend, and I only have to work 12 hours/week which leaves me lots of time to teach myself filmmaking and produce a web series. It’s a great option if you want to work in Europe and have extra time for your screenplay, film, etc. Plus, if you apply early it’s practically a guaranteed job. I answered a bunch of FAQs about the teaching program for anyone who is interested:

  • Wow, you have really put together my feelings on the topic of time tracking into a very concise form. When you get serious about doing what you do you absolutely must know where your time is going. And then you find you have more time pursuing what you love :) Thanks for this post!

  • Awesome post, you’re doing great, you’re time developing this site in 2010 was well spent.

  • Inspiring post. As an artist and designer, I have recently started using Harvest. ( for invoicing, but also time tracking. It’s definitely eye-opening to have instant — and sometimes embarrassing — weekly, monthly, yearly reporting available on click. I think you’re dead on about the feedback. It certainly prevents me from having vague illusions of having a ‘productive studio week’ if I’ve only logged, say, 8 hours.

    The 10,000 hours theory is interesting. I think I’m at about 9,000. Give or take.

  • Interesting read! I am using Replicon Time tracking software( from a long time without any difficulty. Take a look and am sure that you would love it too.

  • Wow, your posts are so inspirational. So honest, and so amazing that you are talking about issues people are dealing with in silence. You bring these cases to real life.

  • Hey Ryan,
    Another good book that talks a lot about your deep sea diving thought is War of Art, by Steven Pressfield. I’m sure you’ve undoubtedly heard of it. All about fighting the resistance of distractions, fear and procrastination to sit down and get your work done. Great read.

  • Very nice article, Ryan. I really like this phrase you mentioned about The Painful Truth “Tracking time is not just about awareness: it’s about change.” I can relate to the time tracking software I’m currently using which is, it really changed the way I am working to my tasks right now. I am more focused on achieving my goals set for the week and would perhaps extend more time to surpass my quota. I have not been experiencing problems using TimeDoctor that’s why “Trust” is always a factor in changing yourself towards your work. In my case, I have trust with my time tracking software that’s why I’m changed.

  • I recently installed timecase ( in my company because it’s very easy to use and my employees like it. It has user roles built-in as well as very good reporting system. I am also using this app for tracking my own time.

  • I’ve found a great work time tracking app, if you got an Android phone:

    It handles everything, from hourly rates (overtime), expenses and mileage.

  • I would recommend you Timeneye ( Give it a try!

  • I would recommend Replicon timesheet software –

  • Yaware is a powerful time tracking app. It tracks lateness, working hours, overtimes, level of productivity, breaks. The app also shows how company has grown for a certain period