Three Steps to Build Better Habits for Logging Billable Hours

It's no secret: entering our billable time can be loathsome. The tedium of tracking everything we do in six-minute increments is enough to drive us nuts.

But as we know, most attorneys need to meet a minimum billable hour requirement to stay in good-standing at their firm or keep them on track to advance--which means practicing accurate timekeeping techniques is a must .

The importance of capturing time consistently can’t be understated. According to practice management consultant Ann Guinn, you fail to capture roughly:

  • 10% of your billable hours if you don’t enter them by the end of the day

  • 25% of those hours if you don’t enter them by the next day

  • 50% of those hours if you don’t enter them by the end of the week

That’s potentially dozens--and maybe even hundreds--of billable hours being left on the table simply by not having accurate timekeeping routines in place.

So if we’re bad at timekeeping, how do we get on track? 

The answer: form a habit.

First, some basics. In his book The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg explains that there are three parts to a habit: a cue, a routine, and a reward.

CUES triggers your brain to automatically take an action and are generally broken into five categories: a location, a time of day, other people, an emotional state, or an immediately preceding action. For example, a cue could be the smell of coffee every morning at 5:30am that gets you out of bed.

The ROUTINE is the behavior that you want to create or reinforce—or stop, if you’re trying to change a bad habit. In our coffee example, the routine would be getting out of bed and pouring yourself a cup of joe while you’re still half asleep.

The REWARD is, of course, the reason your brain performs this habit in the first place–it’s the “enjoyment” aspect of the habit that leaves the sensation of satisfaction and positive reinforcement that incentivizes repetition of the routine. For example, the caffeine rush you get from your first cup of coffee.

This "neurological loop” is at the core of every habit, and each of these parts is integral to the habit-forming process.

How do we apply this concept to timekeeping?

FIRST, identify your timekeeping routine (the routine is Part 2 of the loop, but Duhigg suggests we start here). When you enter your time, how are you going to do it? Some of us enter it directly into our timekeeping software, others jot it down and enter it later, and others write it down or voice record it for staff to enter. Regardless of how you do it, focus on doing it the same way every time, period. Engaging in a consistent routine will help you overcome the inefficient practice of entering times in different ways at different times of the day.

SECOND, figure out the cue (Part 1 of the loop) that tells you it’s time to perform your timekeeping routine. I’ve seen people adopt three helpful cues that increase accuracy:

  1. Immediately after finishing a task. Tracking time after every single task can be clunky at first, but it’s clearly the most accurate and reliable way to capture time.

  2. At set periods throughout the day. You can set a timer, for example, every 2 hours, or at 11:50 before you go to lunch and then again before you leave for the day. This is better than waiting until the end of the day and allows you to capture more of the .2s, .3s, and .4s.

  3. Right before it’s time to go home. Much better than doing it at the end of the week, but not as good as capturing it throughout the day.  

THIRD, identify the reward. Now you're probably thinking: what possible rewards could you connect with entering your time? Here are a few ideas:


Small Rewards. In the moment, it could be allowing yourself to go to lunch, or allowing yourself to go home and stop working for the day. In the past, I used a piece of paper with boxes to check every time I successfully entered my time. If you like checking things off your to-do lists, this could provide a similar sense of accomplishment. 1

Medium-Size Rewards. Identify a weekly hours goal. For example, if your hours goal is 1800 per year, then you need to bill around 40 hours a week (assuming a 46 week work year). Pick a reward for yourself if you hit your goal at the end of the week, or at the end of the day. It can be something small that’s meaningful. Tell your spouse or partner your plans and have that person help keep you accountable.

Big Rewards. When I’m trying to form a habit, I like to be reminded of the BIG goal I’m working toward that the new routine will help me achieve. My goal when I practiced in big law was to exceed an hours requirement that would make me eligible for a bonus. Each year I picked out a BIG thing I wanted to do with that money—a trip, invest, or splurge, and I kept a note or picture of that big thing on my desk. 

Here's the main take-way: If you’re having a problem with timekeeping, invest a few minutes to identify the parts of your habit loop and build a routine that will set you up for success.