The Swiss Cheese Method of Project Scheduling
One of the things that comes along with the freelance life, especially early in the game, is a “feast or famine” cycle, both in terms of revenue, and in terms of time. Sometimes you are scrambling to keep up with your work, pulling all-nighters to keep several projects on track. Two weeks later you have little to keep you busy.
Can a “Swiss Cheese” method of scheduling your project scheduling can help you manage your time and get you off the feast and famine roller coster?
The Danger Is Not Where You Think
Strange as it may seem if you are new to freelancing, the former condition — the “feast” stage of the cycle – is the one to watch out for. Two of the major problems that arise out of those busy times, lucrative as they may be, are:
- It is hard to maintain the quality of service you want to be known for when you are overworked. Typos creep into your writing, broken links slip into your design. Whatever it is you do for your clients, you cannot do it at a high level, indefinitely, on overload. And when your quality slips, your reputation takes a hit, your referrals drop, and your repeat business falters.
- It is easy to avoid the marketing work you should be doing every week, if not every day, when your day is packed with billable work for clients. But that’s precisely what leaves you staring at the walls a few weeks later. Because you are not doing anything to line up those next projects, to fill the pipeline, as they say, when your current projects wrap up, you don’t have any more waiting for you. You have to start marketing practically from scratch, and you have to wait through the sales cycle to get started on your next billable project.
Leave a Few Holes in Your Schedule
Let’s suppose that you land a project that will take three days of work to complete (we’ll call this Project #1). Do you schedule yourself to labor on it Monday through Wednesday of next week? Or do you schedule yourself for Monday, Wednesday, and Friday? (I’m using days to make the accounting simple, but it could be hours, weeks, or months.)
While it seems efficient to complete that first project in three days, promise to deliver it in five days anyway. There’s a strong temptation to take the first approach, but project schedules that look a little more like Swiss cheese offer distinct advantages:
- You can be more responsive to new opportunities. If later that day, Project #2 appears, you can start on it Tuesday, not Thursday. If a prospect hasn’t worked with you before, why make them wait longer than they should? Get them into a project while they are still interested in you, before they find someone else with a more flexible schedule.
- Other clients are not held hostage by the first one in the queue. If you string your projects together like beads on a string — complete Project #1 in one lump of time, then Project #2 in the next block, and so on — what happens when #1 runs long? If you have your projects interwoven, you can continue to make progress for other clients even if the first one is stalled.
- Your work will improve. If you have a day between creating something and reviewing it, you will see where and how to polish your work much more easily. Writers, in particular, know that they do a better job of editing when they put the content aside for a day or so, and the same principle applies to most creative work.
- If the “holes” in the cheese (“mouse cheese”, as my kids always called it) are not filled by paying work, you can use the time to work for yourself. Enhance your web site, write a new white paper to give away, develop a new product or service, do your marketing, build your business.
Naturally, some freelancers worry that they won’t be able to fill those gaps with billable work. But there is no logical reason to be more confident that you can fill the last two days of the week with new work, than that you can fill two days in the middle of the week. You have to find additional business, no matter where you slot it.
And, believe me, few client projects really have to be done in the shortest possible period of time. Those clients who want their work done so quickly that you can’t leave any time for anything else, who are in such a rush that they won’t allow some time between draft versions and final polished work, should be paying more than your average rate for the speedy service. Don’t let them keep you up all night just because they can. Most of the time there really is some room in their schedule for a more measured approach.
When you are new at freelancing, it is hard to hold open blocks of time when you don’t have work already scheduled to fill them. But with experience and success over the long haul, you learn that the Swiss cheese approach allows you to reduce the swings in your business cycle, respond to clients more quickly, and produce the quality of work that will continue to win you additional work in the future.