Toolbox: Harvest

Necessity, Mother of Exploration

or by 1D110, on Flickr
or by 1D110, on Flickr

When I first started my day job in 2010, I was informed that our department (communications and marketing) should only be spending about 30% of our time doing work for another particular department. I kept that in mind as I learned the ropes, but realized very quickly that my perception of time worked combined with my tendency to work on multiple tasks at once meant that tracking time was very, very difficult.

Several months and a time-consuming project for the department in question later, our department head reminded us again that only 30% of our time was to be used in this way, and that she'd like us to start actually tracking our time. The project manager at the time provided a simple spreadsheet that we could all use to track our hours, but it wasn't enforced and the task was quickly forgotten. Since then, the 30% rule has been floating around in my head.

Enter November 2011, and I became the project manager at my day job—I would now manage a team of two in-house designers, a handful of student workers, and coordinate work for departments across the institution. And, since we're a non-profit, some of our funding is grant-based. With grants come the need to report on how the funds are used, and part of that is the amount of labor spent on a particular project.

I knew that the old spreadsheet model wasn't going to be terribly effective, so I needed to find a tool to help us track our hours, and I knew that the perfect time to implement it would be the roll over of the new year.

Planting the Seeds

furrows by crowdive, on Flickr
furrows by crowdive, on Flickr

The first thing I did was ask my freelance designer friends (and the Twitterverse) how they best tracked time. And with a resounding chorus, I checked out Harvest, a time-tracking web app. From their website:

We believe software should be useful, simple, and fast—so you can work better, get more accomplished, and make smarter decisions for your business.

Harvest not only allows you to track time based on projects, tasks within projects, and clients, it also allows you to invoice clients, set project budgets, track project-related expenses, and view detailed and powerful reports on how you or your team have spent your time. But my first thought was, "We don't need to invoice clients or set budgets for project hours, because our clients are other departments. Is this right for us?"

I asked the Twitterverse again, and was pleased to hear that those parts were most definitely optional, and that other people have used Harvest for in-house environments with much success. "Okay," I thought. "I think I can dig this." I set up a free trial account, added some projects, and started tracking my time.

Now, I'm not going to take you through a feature tour here. I'll leave that to the Harvest website. And if you want to try it out for yourself, there's a 30-day, fully featured free trial that you can dive into.

Cultivating the Habit

la tierra. by matt.hintsa, on Flickr
la tierra. by matt.hintsa, on Flickr

I'll be perfectly honest here—habits are hard to form. If you're not used to tracking your time, chances are you'll need to really focus on training yourself to embrace time management, and I'll be the first to tell you that my time management skills have been seriously lacking over the years. I'd love to blame it on ADD, but I've never been diagnosed, so really I just have to say it: I suck at time management.

With that said, you can imagine that despite how novel and interesting Harvest was, developing the habit was—and still is, to some extent—a difficult process. Luckily, Harvest makes it a little easier, not only in their web interface, but with an iPhone app, Android app, and a Mac desktop app.

But I also knew that if I was going to successfully begin tracking my time, I should adopt it in my personal life as well. Nothing like forming a good habit by attacking the bad one from all fronts, right? And it just so happened that January coincided with renewed commitment to this blog and some other side projects. I was ready to dive in and throw sucky time management skills out the window!

I also brought my design team on board, gave them a rundown of the features, and asked them to try it over the course of the month of January to see if it would be useful for our institution. As if by chance, one of the finance guys came to me a week or so later asking about how we can more accurately provide labor hours for grant reporting. He was pleased to hear I'd already been on top of it and had started using this tool.

Reaping the Benefits

wheat is ready to harvest... by bernat..., on Flickr
wheat is ready to harvest... by bernat..., on Flickr

I've been using Harvest for both my day job and in my moonlighting life for three full months, and at this point I'm not sure how I would have been so productive without it in either arena. Here's a breakdown of my experience both on a large scale as an in-house design department, and on a small scale with personal and freelance projects.


Harvest has allowed our in-house team to set some amazing precedents and learn how much time we're actually spending on the many different projects that come across our plate. One of the most exhilarating aspects of my job is the sheer speed at which we turn projects around, from 192-page artist monographs to fundraising invitations to web banners to advertisements.

We are currently tracking and reporting on 25 separate projects for nine different departments (clients). At the completion of each project, I print off a report accounting for the hours spent on specific tasks and include it in the project's file. For recurring projects or grant reporting purposes, we'll be able to go back to those files and see how much time they took and which staff worked on them. And for our team of four, Harvest costs $34 per month. Well worth it.


Harvest has enabled me to manage my time in larger, focused spans with an overall increase in my productivity. I'm managing six projects for clients (and counting myself as one of them), two of which are paid gigs with budgets. I'm easily generating invoices for those clients and tracking my billable hours against non-billable hours. For my personal use, Harvest costs $12 per month. Well worth it.

But best of all, I'm learning how much time I actually spend doing things. By breaking work into tasks, I understand how much time it takes to format and pull images for a blog article. I know what it takes to send an email campaign, to conduct marketing outreach, to write, and to have meetings. My analytical side is happy to track the numbers, watch the stats, and keep a schedule, and my creative side is given the freedom to do what it does best within the confines it's given.

Harvest by tricky (rick harrison), on Flickr
Harvest by tricky (rick harrison), on Flickr

Combined with other tools, Harvest is enabling me to be successful. I feel confident that I can accomplish tasks. I know that when the clock's ticking, I need to stay focused on the project at hand. I value the time I spend on projects in a way that I never have before. And, when I'm asked to do something, I'm asking the most important question of all: "How much time do you expect this to take?"

Do you use Harvest or another time-tracking service? How has it changed the way you work? Add a comment below.

Toolbox is a series of articles about productivity and business tools that I use to get things done. Each article spotlights a single tool—whether an office supply, a computer app, or a work process—how it's useful to me, and how it might be useful to you. And each article is offered up of my own accord. No sponsorships, no affiliations, no commissions.