Automatic time tracking represents a radical new approach to one of the business world’s most essential but hated administrative tasks. At its simplest, it's about getting a tool to tell you what you worked on, instead of you having to start timers and plug in notes. The technology holds some serious benefits—helping businesses reduce timesheet admin by 75% and recover hidden billable time, as well as organize resources and price work more fairly. Here's how automatic time tracking works in practice and what makes it such a step up from mainstream digital solutions.
Knowledge work is messy and chaotic. A typical day can see us jumping between devices and locations, and working across several different tasks and clients. Our digital toolkit is also expansive—the average worker using 36 different cloud services in one day—and we use our tools fluidly, with 68% of us switching apps 10 times an hour.
This digital blur makes it practically impossible to accurately capture everything we work on using manual timers. Research shows that even when logged daily, timesheets that rely on manual input are only ever 67% accurate. Manual time tracking can also be disruptive and intrusive, since remembering to manage timers and taking notes as we move between tasks requires us to split our attention between work and the clock.
These are the essential problems that automatic time tracking tries to solve. Here are main differences between automatic and manual methods in a nutshell:
For modern workforces operating across suites of digital tools, automatic time tracking is a no-brainer. It lets people focus fully on their work while enjoying full time tracking compliance—minimizing human error and distraction in the process. As the lowest-effort time tracking technology available, it also frees up more time for productive work.
Automatic time tracking sounds complicated, but is actually remarkably straightforward. You just need to download an automatic time tracking app on your computer to get started. There are essentially two main parts to automatic tracking: remembering what you work on and logging your timesheet. Using the example of Timely, here’s how automatic trackers are able to do that:
Timely looks at the time you actively spend on web and desktop apps (capturing page titles and timestamps only) and records all your daily activities to a private timeline that only you can access:
Every second of your work day is captured in the background for you—from project work and communication, to email, meetings and travel—creating a flawless time record.
You can then just drag and drop the activities you want to log to your public timesheet—reducing a task that takes up to two hours a week using manual time tracking down to ten minutes. To reduce the admin burden even further, Timely even offers the option to get AI to draft your timesheet for you.
Tracking understandably makes people nervous, which is why you should only use automatic time tracking apps that openly protect your team's privacy. That means all automatically captured activity stays private to each individual, they are able to control what they share with their team, and can delete any of that personal data at any point. Privacy-first automatic time tracking tools will advertise their stance on this, so look out for privacy promises and statements on how they protect data and privacy.
It's worth mentioning that many manual time tracking solutions on the market are capable of invading employee privacy too—watch out for apps that support screenshots, keystroke monitoring, webcam access and other creepy monitoring tactics. We've put together this guide to explain the differences between time tracking software.
We've put together a whole separate article on exactly how automatic time tracking benefits people across your organization, but the biggest highlights include:
“Automation” has become somewhat of a buzzword in recent years, being liberally interpreted by marketers to sell technology which doesn’t actually qualify to use the term. Sadly, this puts greater pressure on consumers to self-educate and understand exactly what they’re getting from a new technology.
To avoid being mis-sold automatic time tracking, watch out for apps that still require you to:
Offering "automated reminders" to log your hours alone doesn't make time tracking software automatic. Neither does supporting "automatic screenshots", which is a whole other can of worms in itself.
Remember, a tool promising to save you time doesn't necessarily use automation. Many time tracking tools that claim to be automated actually just simplify certain manual tasks. Don't be fooled – a nicely-designed start button doesn't make manual timers any more efficient or easy to manage.