When I cook to Soft Ball Stage, I don't cook to a particular time, I cook to a specific temperature. Off the top of my head, I think Soft Ball Stage is 240 degrees. I always use a thermometer, although I know about the water drop method, too. It's so easy to miss the critical temperature. By using a thermometer, I get consistent results with every batch.
I use both thermometer and water test. I agree with Geri (for caramels anyway) Don't be in too big a hurry to pull pan off heat at 245. Caramels will be slightly soft if you do. Good luck! And keep trying even if you fail--it seems you can sometimes have flops even if you do it exactly right.
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