Track billable hours by using Outlook

By Jim Boyce

Consultants, service professionals, attorneys, and other professionals often need to keep track of billable time spent working on a project for a specific client. Keeping accurate track of your billable time is important for two reasons.

First, billable time is most likely the lifeblood of your business. It's what pays the bills, pays your salary, pays your employees — without it there would ultimately be no business.

Second, and just as important, keeping accurate billing records is critical to maintaining good client relationships. If you're consistently haphazard in your billing or frequently make billing errors, your clients will eventually look elsewhere, regardless of the quality of your work.

You can use Microsoft Office Outlook 2003 to keep track of billable time in several ways.

ShowTrack time by using Tasks

When you create tasks, just add information that tracks the time you spend on each task. The Details tab in the Task dialog box includes fields that you can use for just that purpose.

Details tab of Task form

You can use the Total work field to estimate the amount of time needed for the task and the Actual work field to track actual time spent on the task. You can use the Mileage field to track billable mileage and the Billing information field to track related information such as billing rate and discounts.

ShowContacts and categories: Add method to the madness

A key to successfully tracking billable time in Outlook is its capability to associate properties such as contacts and categories with items such as tasks. Associating these two properties with Outlook items helps you easily locate and manage the items associated with specific projects or clients for billing reports.

For example, assume that you're a consultant who uses Tasks in Outlook to keep track of pending projects. How can you associate a task with a specific client? One method is to add the client's contact information to your Contacts folder and then associate that contact with each task that you perform for that client. You can then use a filtered view in Outlook to view all tasks associated with that contact.

Likewise, you can use categories in place of or in conjunction with contacts to organize tasks. For example, assume that you have three projects in progress for a particular client and that you want to keep track of each project separately. If you associated Taskswith a specific contact, as explained in the preceding example, each task would be associated with the same client. However, if you also create a category for each project and associate that project category with the appropriate task, you can then separate tasks by project within client.

Associating contacts and categories with Outlook task items is easy. First, create sample categories.

To create a category, do the following:

  1. Click any task item, and then on the Edit menu, click Categories.
  2. Click Master Category List.
  3. In the New Category text box, type a name for the category, and then click Add. For this example, add the category Anderson: New File Server.

Master Category List

  1. Repeat step 3 to add other project categories as needed, and then click OK. (Or click Cancel to close the dialog box without adding any categories.)

Before you create your own categories, think about how you'll use them. Here are some tips for creating categories:

  • Whenever possible, create common categories that you can use for multiple clients to reduce the number of categories overall.
  • Wherever needed, create project-specific categories for specific customers. Preface the category name with the client's name to easily identify the categories (for example, Anderson: New File Server would refer to a project to add a new file server for the client Anderson).

Next, associate a contact and a category with sample tasks by doing the following:

  1. In the Contacts folder, create a new contact named Anderson Manufacturing.
  2. In the Tasks folder, create a sample task with the subject Build File Server.
  3. On the Task tab, click Contacts.
  4. Click the contact Anderson Manufacturing, and then click OK.
  5. On the Task tab, click Categories.
  6. Click the category Anderson: New File Server, and then click OK.
  7. Click Save and Close.

ShowFind billable time with custom views of tasks

During one workday, you most likely work on many tasks for multiple clients. Custom views can help you organize your billable time by project, client, and other fields.

For example, assume that you're ready to bill clients and that you want to view a list of completed but unbilled tasks that are organized first by client and then by project. Here's how to create that custom view:

  1. In Outlook, open the Tasks folder.
  2. On the View menu, point to Arrange By, point to Current View, and then click Define Views.

Custom View Organizer

  1. Click New.
  2. In the Name of new view text box, type Billable Projects by Client, and then click OK.
  3. In the Customize View dialog box, click Fields. Add and remove fields to create the following list in this order: Icon, Priority, Complete, Subject, Due Date, Actual Work, Billing Information, Categories, and Contacts.

Show Fields dialog box

  1. Click OK.
  2. In the Customize View dialog box, click Group By.
  3. In the Group items by list, click Contacts.
  4. In the Then by list, click Categories, and then click OK.
  5. In the Customize View dialog box, click Filter.
  6. In the Status list, click Completed, click OK twice, and then click Apply View.

 Note    This custom view shows only completed tasks, assuming that you won't bill for a task until it's completed. So it's important not only to mark tasks as completed when you finish them — so that they'll appear in your Billable Projects by Client view — but also to define your tasks in such a way that you can complete them in a reasonable time frame. In other words, break up major projects into discrete billable tasks as needed.

ShowCreate a billing report

Before you create a billing report, you can do something that will improve its appearance: Remove the strikethrough font, which is used because all tasks shown in the view are completed.

  1. On the View menu, point to Arrange By and then to Current View, and then click Customize Current View.
  2. Click Automatic Formatting.
  3. Clear the Completed and Unread Tasks and Completed and Read Tasks check boxes, and then click OK three times.

To create a billing report, do the following:

  1. In the Tasks folder, point to Arrange By on the View menu, point to Current View, and then click Billable Projects by Client.
  2. On the View menu, point to Expand/Collapse Groups, and then click Expand All Groups.
  3. On the File menu, click Print.

After you print the report, move the tasks listed on it out of the Tasks folder so that they don't appear in the next billing report. You could just delete the tasks, but it's better to keep them for awhile in case questions arise. Create a new Tasks folder named Billed Tasks. After you print the billing report, drag the tasks from the Billable Projects by Client view to the Billed Tasks folder. Any uncompleted tasks in the Tasks folder will remain there because the Billable Projects by Client view only shows completed tasks.

About the author     Jim Boyce has written more than 50 books about computers and technology, many of them about the Microsoft Office System. He regularly contributes to several online sites and publications. His latest book is Microsoft Office Outlook 2003 Inside Out, which is available from Microsoft Learning.

Applies to:
Outlook 2003