Six Reasons to Move On From Tracking Time with Spreadsheets

John Reeve | October 17th, 2023 | ,

A building facade with cubic motifs, resembling a spreadsheet
It’s been close to two decades since we launched our time tracking software, Intervals. In that time, we’ve onboarded countless consultants and companies who had started out tracking their time with spreadsheets.

Spreadsheets, such as Excel or Google Sheets, are a great way to get started tracking your time. However, they do have drawbacks. At some point you’re going reach a place in your journey where spreadsheets will no longer scale to meet your needs. Here are six reasons to move on from tracking time with spreadsheets.

Time consuming

Tracking your time shouldn’t take too much of your time. In fact, it should be as seamless a process as possible. Working with spreadsheets, however, is an almost entirely manual process. Recording hours on a spreadsheet will feel like it’s taking longer than it should, and only gets more cumbersome as you add more people to your team. It’s not uncommon for a small team to spend a few hours a week getting their time tracking spreadsheets up to date.

Basic reporting

Sure, most spreadsheets can turn your data into basic graphs and charts, but it’s still basic. Because a spreadsheet is just plots of data on two axes, all it can really do is display simple reports. If you’re going to extract any intelligence from your data you’ll need to plug in third party software or build a custom solution. Bars and charts might look great, but if they lack intelligence they also lack value.

Complex automation

While it is possible to automate some aspects of a spreadsheet it does require more advanced knowledge of the software. Tools, such as macros, can be used to create automations that will help with your time tracking efforts. However, they are a complex solution to a simple problem and generally not worth the time. It might be fun for that one Excel power user at your office who loves tinkering with macros, but, what happens when they no longer work there?

Prone to mistakes

Spreadsheets are indifferent to your data — they simply hold and display your data however you’ve configured them to do so. A small error in a calculation, such as a sum of column values, can have big repercussions. It doesn’t take much to make a small, but costly, mistake that will compound over time. You don’t want to find out weeks from now that your billable hours are off because you left a few cells out of a calculation.

Data bloating

As years go by and your team grows you’ll amass more and more data. The size and complexity of your spreadsheets will increase, and with it the likelihood of hidden mistakes. Going back into your data archives to analyze past performance and harvest any meaningful intelligence will be like searching for a needle in a haystack.  Historical time tracking data should always be at your fingertips. As the great philosopher, Mater, once said, “don’t need to know where I’m going, just need to know where I’ve been.”

Loose permissions

If everyone on your team is tracking their own time on the same spreadsheet, what’s keeping them from accidentally (or, intentionally) overwriting one another’s hours? Trying to keep everyone from stepping on each other’s toes is difficult when you are working with shared documents. You could create a separate spreadsheet for each person, but then you also need to find a way to aggregate all that data into one place. And that is going to take time — time that you could, and should, be devoting to billable work.

Where to go next?

Once you’ve realized you need to move on from tracking time with spreadsheets, the challenge becomes selecting which time tracking software to deploy. There are many to choose from — perhaps, too many. What matters is that you identify a few that seem like a good fit, and then try each one out to be sure. Not sure? Talk to someone from each software vendor and ask them the questions that matter most to you. The qualities of the time tracking software you choose to put your trust in is just as important as the team behind it.

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A collection of useful tips, tales and opinions based on decades of collective experience designing and developing web sites and web-based applications.

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Intervals is online time, task and project management software built by and for web designers, developers and creatives.
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John Reeve
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John Reeve

John is a co-founder, web designer and developer at Pelago. His blog posts are inspired by everyday encounters with designers, developers, creatives and small businesses in general. John is an avid reader and road cyclist.
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Jennifer Payne
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Jennifer Payne

Jennifer is the Director of Quality and Efficiency at Pelago. Her blog posts are based largely on her experience working with teams to improve harmony and productivity. Jennifer is a cat person.
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Michael Payne
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Michael Payne

Michael is a co-founder and product architect at Pelago. His contributions stem from experiences managing the development process behind web sites and web-based applications such as Intervals. Michael drives a 1990 Volkswagen Carat with a rebuilt 2.4 liter engine from GoWesty.
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