Time Tracking Template for Instructional Design

As an instructional designer, I often need to estimate the time it will take to complete a project. One tool I use for determining my estimates is records of how long past projects have taken. Having everything together in a spreadsheet also simplifies my invoicing to clients. In addition, I track non-billable time. That’s primarily for my own interest; I want to see how long I spend on administrative tasks like invoicing as well as networking and marketing tasks.

I use a Google spreadsheet for this. You can view and save the template yourself. If you’re logged in with a Google account, choose File > Make a Copy to add the template to your Google Drive. You can also download the template for Excel.

Columns in the time tracking template

Additional columns in the time tracking template


  • I use Ctrl+; to add the current date quickly.
  • Time Spent will automatically calculate once you add your Start Time and End Time.
  • Leave the Invoiced column blank until you have actually sent the invoice. This lets you filter for work you haven’t invoiced yet by filtering for “blank.”
  • By default, the template is set up with ADDIE phases plus administrative, project management, and business development tasks. You can edit this list of Phases on the Named ranges tab. If you do change it, you may also need to adjust the data validation in the Phases column. (The numbers in front of the ADDIE phases make them sort properly in the pivot table.)

Pivot Table

I use a pivot table to analyze how I spend my time. The template is set up to group data by quarter and month for invoicing purposes. (Quarter and Month are calculated in hidden columns B & C of the Tracking tab.)

Pivot Table organized by Quarter and MonthYou can adjust the pivot table to group by phases instead of quarter and month. This is especially useful when you’re estimating time for future projects. You can see how long each phase took for similar past projects and use that as the basis for your estimate.

Time Tracking Pivot Table organized by ADDIE phases

You can also filter the pivot table by whether tasks or billable or not, client, phase, etc.

Feel free to use this template yourself. Edit it to make it compatible with your workflow and needs. If you have questions or suggestions for improvement, ask them below in the comments. Read more about how I determine my time estimates for designing and developing e-learning.

Instructional Design Hourly Rates and Salary

Money 2What is your hourly rate as an instructional designer? What do you make if you’re a full-time salaried employee? People frequently ask me these questions, and I always refer people to the same resources. These are all just benchmarks to use as a starting point, so you need to adjust for your experience, education, skills, industry, whether you’re a full-time employee or freelance consultant, etc.

Hourly Rate

Harold Jarche’s “So You Want To Be an ELearning Consultant?” article is several years old, but the rates for different activities aren’t too far off. Click the table at the bottom to expand it and see the details. Design tasks are $50-100 on his chart; development tasks are $30-60. Technological and business analytical tasks can earn you up to $200.

Writing Assistance Inc lists rates from $65-90+, with an average of $80. I believe those rates are what companies pay to them, rather than what the ID actually makes, so assume there’s a fee taken off the top.

Don Clark has collected highlights from several sources on how to estimate instructional design cost and time. He lists the rate for an e-learning designer as $37/hour, based on a salary of $78,000. That’s clearly a full-time employee salary and not a consultant rate.


The eLearning Guild Salary Calculator is one of the best tools for comparing the variables that affect salary. Enter your location, education, experience, job focus, etc. and get a benchmark salary to compare. The 2014 calculator puts the average salary for instructional designers in the US at $72,854. With 0-4 years of experience, it’s $58,489; 20 or more years of experience brings it up to $92,429.

Other Resources

Jeffrey Rhodes’ presentation on how to price consulting work explains how to determine your hourly rate as a consultant and how to estimate and price services.

Bryan Chapman includes some cost estimates with his benchmarks for how long it takes to create learning. In his survey, one hour of level 2 e-learning cost an average of $18,583. At the 184:1 ratio for that level of learning, that’s about a $100/hour rate, but that includes everyone on the team (IDs, project managers, SMEs, developers, etc.).

Although it isn’t specific to instructional design or e-learning, Flying Solo’s Hourly Rate Calculator is a useful tool to determine your hourly rate as a freelancer based on your expenses.

Image Credit: Money 2 by Daniel Borman

You may be interested in my other posts on instructional design careers.

Need an instructional designer? Visit my Syniad Learning website to hire me.

Questions about Instructional Design Careers

Last month, a reader named Jackie asked me a number of thoughtful questions about transitioning from teaching K-12 public school to instructional design. She graciously agreed to let me publish some of her questions and my answers here, since I thought others might be in similar positions and share these questions. I have altered a few details to make this more applicable to a general audience, although some questions and answers specifically mention the transition from teaching to ID.


Question mark made of puzzle pieces

Question mark made of puzzle pieces by Horia Varlan, on Flickr. CC-By

Q: Creativity is important to me, both professional and personally.  So though I know it’s impossible to generalize, are you able to speak to what kind of value there is placed on creativity as a designer, both in higher education, and in working with companies or organizations?  After rich collaboration with SMEs and other stakeholders, how much leeway do IDs have?  Are there jobs I should lean toward to which are more open than others?

A: Some jobs certainly offer more creativity than others. I don’t find developing software simulations to be particularly rewarding, for example, because there often isn’t a ton of creativity. When I work with faculty in higher ed, most of the time they are pretty open to creative approaches. I work with a lot of faculty who have no experience with online learning, so they generally are open to my expertise as far as how to use the technology creatively. There are exceptions; some faculty really just want to record lectures, have discussions, and give tests.

With companies, it varies quite a bit. I’ve found companies and organizations that are really interested in doing innovative things with training. For example, one course I wrote last year includes branching video scenarios, where learners watch a video and then make decisions as a “choose your own adventure.” The choices they make affect how people respond and what videos they see next. It was a lot of creative writing and storytelling to put learners in a real context. In general, more conservative industries like banking and insurance tend to value creativity less, and more innovative industries like technology tend to value creativity more.

Workplace Climate and Culture

Q: On a similar note, workplace climate is important to me.  I know that every employer has its own culture, but I am wondering if you have suggestions for finding ID jobs which embrace open, forward-thinking, animated atmospheres. It is admittedly going to be a challenge to go from the warmth of a K-12 environment to something completely corporate, so I am imagining that my inkling to stick to college and university work would probably best meet this need, initially, but I don’t want to assume.

A: Some corporate cultures are actually quite open and welcoming. I’ve found some higher ed environments to be so political as to be strangling. I think with corporate cultures, the size of the company matters quite a bit. A small company can feel like everyone’s family. With a large company, what matters most is your individual manager. I generally find that if my relationship with my direct manager is good, the rest falls into place for me, so I focus on that. A good manager will protect you in a larger organization. You’ll have to think about how to ask questions about organizational culture when you interview to get a feel for whether it’s a fit for you.

Work/Life Balance

Q: As a public school teacher, with the position that I hold, that has become a 24/7 responsibility, and there is zero work-life balance. Having the ability to take care of my health and prioritize the rest of my life is  a critical for me, so I want to make sure that as I explore ID, I am steering myself toward work which will allow me to dig in deep and grow my employer’s students, but which also honors my health and free time. Are there some fields within ID which are known as better or worse than others for offering that balance?

A: I feel like ID in general has better work/life balance than teaching, so just moving to ID already helps. Hourly or contract positions tend to be fairly limited in how many hours you work since companies generally don’t want to pay overtime. Personally, the most out of balance I’ve been was when I was a salaried manager in an organization that rewarded people with no balance in their lives. Emailing at 3 AM was a badge of honor in that organization. It’s one of the reasons I left that and went back to being an individual contributor as an ID. I have had times where for a few months we’re pushing for a project and therefore I’m putting long hours in, but that’s the exception rather than the norm. You certainly can choose to push yourself and get out of balance, but I find the balance much easier with ID than teaching.


Q: To what degree of accountability are designers held regarding whether students learn and perform better?  How are efficacy and performance measured for a designer?

A: I wish I could tell you that there’s a really strong expectation for proving our worth, but it isn’t the case. The reality is that in both higher ed and corporate learning, the most common evaluation is “smile sheets.” If the surveys are good and the feedback from instructors is good, we’re viewed as doing our job well. Managers who are familiar with ID will also review courses and provide feedback.

There is, however, increasing pressure in the corporate world to show ROI. If you start from a business problem, you should be able to show the results of training—increased sales, fewer errors, etc.  Some organizations do evaluate at all four of Kirkpatrick’s levels, and the Success Case Method is another good strategy for evaluating training effectiveness. Those tools are generally underutilized though.

New Trends

Q: With ID growing as a field, are there new nuances or developments you anticipate coming down the pike that are good for me to preemptively know so I am not spinning my wheels, or going in the best direction the fastest?

A: I wouldn’t learn Flash right now. The learning curve is too steep, and within a few years I think most work will be in HTML5. Most Flash e-learning now is done with rapid tools anyway. Usually if the Flash work requires a programmer, there’s a separate team for that.

Mobile learning is certainly a good trend to keep an eye on. I haven’t been asked to do any mobile learning other than very peripheral support, but I think within 5 years I will be doing some. I think mobile learning works best as performance support rather than courses on a tiny screen. Chad Udell’s Learning Everywhere is a good book on this topic, and there’s lots of blogs you can read for free. Check out my review of Udell’s book for more information.

Gamification is a hot trend right now; I’m not sure if it’s going to last. A lot of what passes for “gamification” is really superficial and not very effective, so this trend might fizzle out. That’s a shame, because there’s actually a lot of good that can be done with well-designed games, but I worry that the low-quality work will give the whole field a bad reputation.


Q: I will obviously need to create a portfolio, and I know that it will need to begin with volunteer opportunities.  What is the depth and/or scope of a typical person’s portfolio?  How does one, as an entry level ID, maximize potential for a portfolio that will leverage the best job?

A: If you have 3-4 examples as an entry-level ID, I think that’s fine as a place to start. Show off some of those creative activities you’ve developed. I’d focus on training for adults, such as professional development for other teachers, if possible, unless you’re targeting something like K-12 Inc or another online K-12 provider.

A variety of examples is beneficial, especially when you only have a few. You don’t have to show a full course, just a screenshot or two and an explanation of what problem was solved with your training and how you did it. If you want a job in e-learning, at least one of your examples should be of that type of learning.

Your graduate program should help you build a portfolio, including giving you an opportunity to create realistic examples. If they don’t, you’re wasting your time and money and should pick a different school.

Learning Technology

Q: I learn technology easily, but I have no experience creating with Captivate, Camtasia, Articulate, Flash or any of the authoring tools I have read are most valued in new hires.  What should I be focusing on to learn soonest?  Are online tutorials and websites, in addition to experimentation, the best way to learn these programs, or is it worth paying a heap for courses?

A: You know yourself and your learning style. I’ve mostly learned everything on my own, with the exception of Flash (I had to take a course for that). I’d focus on Captivate and Articulate Storyline first. Captivate has a bigger market share now, but Storyline is growing in demand. Both are fairly easy to learn, and there’s lots of free tutorials and community support. Planning a sample project for your portfolio and building it to get some practice is probably the best route unless you know you personally learn best with formal training.

Salary: Corporate vs. Higher Ed

Q: From what I have seen online, it appears that companies pay more than higher education.  Would you say this is true?

A: You’re right that companies generally pay more than higher ed. University ID jobs are probably more at the $50-60K level than the $60-80K range. Small companies generally pay a little less than big companies, but the culture at a small to mid-sized company might be a better fit for some people. I’ve never had any problem switching between corporate and higher ed culture, and most of the time I do both. I know other people find that one or the other environment works best for them, but I feel like both areas have advantages and drawbacks. I think I’m a better ID because I can work in both and take the best of both when I’m designing.

The eLearning Guild’s salary calculator is a great place to compare baseline numbers across industries.

Getting Contract Work

Q: How difficult is it to get short term contract positions to make extra money?

A: I had lots of trouble getting my very first ID job. It took me a year and 200 applications. However, once I’ve got that first job, I’ve never had much trouble looking for work when I wanted it. I’ve only done extra side projects on top of my full-time job twice in my career. In both cases, they were people who contacted me because of my blog, and not something I was seeking out.

Now that I’m doing freelance, I basically am not doing any marketing other than my blog and being active in groups on LinkedIn. I don’t spend time seeking out clients because I’ve got so many projects that I’m turning work away. I know that isn’t everyone’s experience, but I’m generally finding it harder to keep from getting overbooked and avoid getting my life out of balance than to not find more work when I want it.

Transition from Teaching, Job Searching

Q: Can you shed any light on what you learned the most in your transition from teaching?  What do you know now that you wish you knew then?  What would you do differently?  What is the most important thing that grew you?

A: One practical matter: when you apply for jobs out of state, make sure you say clearly in your cover letter that you’re willing to relocate at your own expense. I didn’t do that, and I know that’s part of why it took me 200 applications before I got my first ID job. People assumed I was looking for a remote position instead of being willing to move.

A lot of what I would do differently is specific to how I did that initial job search—customizing my cover letters more to each company, gearing my resume towards that audience more, etc. I would have created a portfolio earlier than I did: I didn’t actually create one until 2009.

Maybe going back I might have done a master’s degree or certificate early in my career. At this point, it’s debatable whether I’d earn enough more to compensate for what I’d spend in tuition. Only once or twice has my lack of a master’s been a hindrance to me, even working in higher ed. My experience is more important to employers now than the degree. I think I would have learned in a degree program though.

I’ve learned a lot of technology and how to use it to help people learn. I’ve also learned a lot more of actual research on how people learn and how to design learning than I actually saw as a teacher.

What has helped me grow the most has been my blog and interacting with other IDs. Twitter might be more your style; #lrnchat and similar chats are really energizing and good ways to connect with others in the field.  I think using social media and contributing to the conversation (not just lurking) is really valuable.

Your Questions

Do you have other questions about instructional design careers? Ask away in the comments. Do you disagree with any of my answers? I’d love to hear your perspective.

You may also be interested in my other posts about instructional design careers.

Freelance Instructional Design: More Tips from the Trenches

I’ve gotten some great tips from others working as independent consultants or freelance instructional designers in comments on my Getting Started as a Freelance Instructional Designer and Tips for Starting to Freelance posts. I love having so many brilliant and generous people in my network who freely share the wealth of their knowledge.


David Harris shared his experience with networking:

My approach is to network with local organizations and groups that benefit me socially with like minded people, and gives me a sense of organizations needs and the niche I can fit into to help them meet their learning objectives.

I’m really only networking online right now, but reviewing the comments from last summer reminds me that I should be working on some face-to-face connections too.

Rebecca notes that networking is an ongoing process:

I think the biggest thing to success in consulting is to cultivate your networks and keep them going. I make a point of regularly (at least one a year if not twice a year) to try and book a lunch with key contacts – these are people that are working full time for companies that I might want to contract with, or people that know people who might be looking for a contractor. I also use social network sites like LinkedIn to let my network know that I’m looking.


Several people here in comments and in LinkedIn groups mentioned the importance of a portfolio, including  Judith Christian-Carter:

[U]se your portfolio because most discerning clients are looking for people with a good track record and ‘put yourself around a bit’.

Diverse Clients

Michele Martin adds more information on diversity of clients:

One other thing I’d say about having a diversity of clients is to try to draw from different industries, areas of the country, etc. One thing I’ve discovered is that the more diversity in my client base, the better. You’d be surprised how many of the same financial and other issues impact companies in the same industry at the same time. It’s something we don’t always think about.


Gwynne Monahan reminded me to not forget about retirement:

In addition to an accountant, meet with a financial planner as well. One thing #freelancers tend to forget is that thing called retirement. It’s easy to get caught up in the day-to-day, finding new clients/business and focusing on just getting up and running. Planning for the future, for retirement, should also be in the mix. Like liability insurance, it’s easily missed until it’s too late.

Contracts & Cash Flow

Joanne M. Lozar Glenn shares a great tip about smoothing out the bumps in cash flow:

[S]et up your agreements/contracts with clients to include a deposit that must be received before you start on the project. Helps with the income gaps, especially with new clients.


Simon Weller shared this resource:

Hello, I made the move about four months ago…and while it’s been difficult on many levels, it’s been a fantastic experience on the whole. A great book for me was Flying Solo (http://www.flyingsolo.com.au/). It focuses on the idea of being a freelancer (in any profession or industry) and offers strategies for soloists to make it work, to connect with others and awareness of the pitfalls. It was an easy, but eye-opening read. Good luck!

Taruna Goel shared her story of moving to freelance: From An Employee to a Consultant – A Story of Embracing Change. She is back to being a full-time employee now (along with moving from one continent to another–nothing like big changes!), but I appreciated her reflections on the changes.

I’m in a number of groups on LinkedIn, but lately I’m paying more attention to the Freelance in Instructional Design and E-Learning Industry group, a sub-group of the Instructional Design & E-Learning Professionals’ Group. (I’m not positive the link to the group will work. If it doesn’t, either search for the group name or look for the group at the bottom of my LinkedIn profile.) This isn’t the most active group, but it’s a good place for asking questions specific to freelance instructional design work.


Thanks to everyone who has shared their experiences. Seeing others who have made this transition successfully makes me more confident that I can do it too. I know I’m not alone, and I have this whole network of people out there who I can turn to when I need advice.

Tips for Starting to Freelance

In August, I quit my job as a long-term contractor at Cisco to officially make the leap to freelancing. I did some side projects earlier in the year, but not enough to replace my full-time income. I want to share my experiences and tips from these first three months as an independent contractor for anyone else thinking about making this change.

Man leaping between two rocks

Get a Project First

If you’re currently working, don’t quit until you have a project lined up. Obviously, not everyone has this luxury, but if you do, stay put until you’ve signed an agreement with a new client. In my case, I had been talking with a potential client for several months before a project finally came up that was big enough to justify quitting my job.

Put Money in Savings

This is hardly unique advice from me, as I received it from several people myself, but save up money before you start. You need a cushion in the bank to cover expenses when you’re getting started. Many clients have a 30-60 day lag before you get paid, so even if you have billable hours from day 1, it may still be two months before you get a check.

As with the previous tip, I know not everyone is in as fortunate a position as I was. If you are working currently though, and are thinking about moving to freelance, start saving now. I’d been considering this switch for over a year, so we had 6+ months of living expenses saved before I left Cisco. That has significantly reduced my stress levels.

Be Ready for Delays

I’ve experienced a lot of “hurry up and wait” with clients. I finally get a PO signed, but then the SME isn’t available. The design document is approved, but the rest of the project is held up

When I quit my full time job, I had a big project lined up, one that would easily cover my expenses and keep me working pretty much full time for two months. I figured I didn’t need to work too much at getting other clients right away since I’d be too busy with this big project to do anything else anyway. Then most of the work got pushed back from August to October, and I was caught off guard. Fortunately, as noted above, my husband and I had money in savings to cover some slow weeks, but I wasn’t expecting the amount of delays I’ve had. In hindsight, I wish I’d gotten other clients lined up sooner. On the other hand, I took the slow time to build my business website, set up an LLC, meet with a CPA, etc., and it was nice to have the down time to address those details.

Multiple Income Streams

One independent contractor I know has talked about never wanting to be “owned” by a single company again after a less-than-wonderful experience as a salaried employee. Michele Martin made this great observation a few weeks ago: “Would you rely on a single company’s stock for your retirement fund? Why, then, do you rely on a single organization for your salary? … Strength and security is found in diversity, not homogeneity.”

Part of my mistake with not being ready for delays was still relying on one particular client for my work, then scrambling to find something else to fill the time when the project was postponed. Now I know there will be delays and slow periods, so I’m building up clients so I’m not so beholden to one organization or another. I’m not quite where I want to be yet, but I’m getting there.

Professional Liability Insurance

One thing I didn’t initially realize I needed is professional liability and errors and omissions (E&O) insurance. A few clients have asked about it though, so I’m getting prices now and plan to have it soon. Other people I’d talked to about freelancing had mentioned setting up an LLC, getting a privilege license for the town where I live, and so on, but nobody talked about the insurance. I’m not sure if many people don’t get it, or if everyone I talked to just assumed I already knew about it.

Build a Network with Social Media

Most of the clients and potential clients I’m working with are people I connected with through social media. In a single two-week period in October, 10 different people contacted me about potential instructional design contracts, and 6 of those found me through either my blog or LinkedIn. The typical path people take is searching for a phrase like “instructional designer” on Google, finding a post like What Does an Instructional Designer Do?, and then visiting my business site or portfolio. It’s too soon for me to know what else I may have to do for marketing in the future, but so far, my blog is definitely working as a marketing and networking tool.

Your Tips?

I got some good tips and resources from several people when I asked previously about getting started as a freelance instructional designer. Those of you who have made this leap yourself, or are thinking about it, what other tips do you have?

Image credit: Leap by tricky ™