A Guide to Simple Project Management
By Leo Babauta. This article has been translated into Spanish by Juan Manuel Lemus from DotPress.
Freelancers are excellent at producing great work if an assignment takes less than a day to complete. But many freelancers (not all) are also notoriously bad at completing projects that take several days or more to complete.
We’re not always great at project management — and part of the problem might be that we don’t have a boss breathing down our necks, pressuring us at every turn and holding us accountable.
Another problem, of course, is that big projects are overwhelming and intimidating, and it’s easier to do a quick one-off job than to plod along at a project that could take a couple of weeks. Yet a third problem: we don’t always have a clear picture of how the project should look when it’s finished — a clearly defined desired outcome.
We’re going to address those problems in this guide to simple project management by modifying some project concepts from David Allen’s Getting Things Done — modified for freelancers. Actually, this method would work for regular employees too, but it’s especially designed for freelancers.
A Simple Project Management Process
1) Clearly defined outcome. Before you even start on the project, you should work with the client to get a clear picture of the desired outcome of the project. Often, the client doesn’t even have a clear picture. But neglecting this step will lead to delays and frustrations down the line. You can communicate through phone, email, or in person, but however you do it, be sure to ask questions to clarify what the client wants, make suggestions, and get a clear picture in your head that shows you how the project will look when it’s done (of course, “look” is a term used loosely here — if the project isn’t visual, you should still have a clear picture in your mind). Once you’ve gone through this process, and have a good idea of the outcome, restate it back to the client to get his or her agreement. Now you have a clear target to shoot at.
2) Set up the process. Once the outcome is clearly defined, talk to the client about the process — how you’ll work with him to manage the project. If it’s a simple project that can be done in a day, this step isn’t necessary — you can just do the project and turn it in, and revise it if the client wants revisions. But a longer-term project will require some kind of timeline and communication process, and you’ll want to be clear about this with the client. The following process is recommended, and it’s at this step that it should be communicated. A detailed timeline, however, isn’t recommended — it can be done if the client insists upon it, but detailed timelines have a tendency to fall apart after a week or two, so it should be clear that it’s a flexible timeline.
3) Focus on the next action. Instead of having a step-by-step process outlined, with deadlines given to each step of the project, tell your client you want to focus on one step at a time. Now, tell the client the next step required to move the project forward (or in this case, the first step), and set a deadline for submitting that to the client. Don’t worry too much about all the other steps needed to finish the project — you’re just going to focus on the next one. That will reduce the intimidating/overwhelming aspect of a large project — just focus on one step at a time. Make sure that’s a step that can be completed in a day or less. One to three hours is ideal. If it can’t be done in less than a day, break it down into smaller steps.
4) Send it to your client. Once you’ve completed that first step, send it to the client within the deadline you set up. This will show the client you’re moving along, and keep you accountable. If you don’t have to turn in a project until it’s completed, there’s no one to know that you’re procrastinating until the very end, when you cram to get it finished on time (and possibly bust deadline). But if you send each step to the client, even if it’s not finished yet, you are holding yourself accountable.
5) Communicate. The other great thing about sending each step of a project to the client is that you can get feedback from the client, and modify the project accordingly. This can actually make the project take longer, but in the end you’ll have a better product and the client will be happier. This continual feedback loop is actually integral to a successful project, and building it into the process makes sense.
6) Focus on the next action. Now that you’ve sent the client the first step, and gotten feedback, focus on the next step. Again, focusing on one step at a time keeps it from being overwhelming. Be sure that you set a deadline, and be sure that the task can be done in 1-3 hours (or a day at the maximum). When it’s done, send it to the client for review and feedback.
7) Repeat until completion. You get the idea. Just keep focusing on one step at a time, setting a deadline for each step as you go along, and sending the completed step to the client. This will keep you on top of things and running smoothly, without the need for a boss.