Managing Multiple Freelance Gigs With Mind Maps
If you’ve been freelancing for a while, you probably already know that you often have to juggle several projects at a time. That’s not to say that you necessarily have to multi-task, but simply need to manage overlapping task schedules.
The more successful your freelance career is, the more likely it is that you’ll have to manage multiple tasks simultaneously. They might be part of a single big project or parts of several smaller projects.
While you might consider learning some PM (Project Management) principles, in my experience, those are more suited to managing tasks of large corporate projects. While a PM approach can help freelancers, I’ve recently found a relatively simply way to predict and track my freelance workload, regardless of the number of clients I’m currently working with.
The process uses a mind map to form a work grid, which can be used in tandem with a spreadsheet to track billables. The result is a relatively simple visual way to manage your freelance projects, which beats using just a spreadsheet.
Here are some notes to keep in mind when considering the process in this article:
- The example used in this article uses freelance writing tasks, but the process can be applied to any type of freelance work.
The example uses MindJet MindManager Pro. You can get a free, fully functioning trial for Mac (21 days) or Windows (30 days). The reason I’ve used MindManager is that it has a horizontally-oriented “org chart” mode that makes setting up a task grid a lot simpler.
If you prefer to use something else, you can approach this from a less-visually appealing vertical mode using any other mind mapping software (FreeMind – multi-platform – or the web-based Mindomo, Mindmeister, or Comapping applications). Note that some of the web-based apps have trial periods for advanced features.
- If you do not want to use mind mapping software, you could either draw out your work grid or use a diagramming tool (MS Visio, SmartDraw, Gliffy).
The basic rule of thumb is to use whatever tool you feel most comfortable with.
Work Grid Setup
The general setup process is to produce a grid of days versus tasks. Using MindJet MindManager’s “organization chart” mode, I’ve produced the example mind map above. Here are the basic steps I applied:
- Produce a row of “day” nodes.
- Use node color and shape to distinguish “day” from “task” nodes. I’ve used a hexagon shape and a blue background to mark days. For tasks, I’ve used a “rounded rectangle” but different colors indicate the “value” of the task. Not all mind mapping packages offer this, but most offer a choice of node colors.
- For each day, add a list of tasks that you hope to accomplish. Don’t worry about the order just yet. Make your task nodes distinct by “value. In my example:
- Green is a billable task.
- Orange is a task that leads up to billable work. E.g., scope or plan for a project.
- Salmon pink is research leading to another type of task.
- For any project that cannot be completed in a single day, break it down into related tasks and assign one or more tasks to various days. (I usually mark only the final sub-task as being billable, because that includes delivery to the client.)
- Give each task and project a short code, to keep the grid compact. Codes might repeat across the grid.
- For a task that is actually billable, write the value in brackets. You can see in a zoomed in snapshot further down this article that I’ve only written in values for green task nodes. But for a given project, I might use 2-3 other task colors to indicate scoping, research or editing tasks. These tasks lead to billable activity but are not in themselves billable. How you break this up is entirely up to you. Small projects that can be completed all in one work session do not need to be broken down into multi-day tasks.
- Use a spreadsheet to total up each day’s billables, based on your initial breakdown. MindJet allows insertion of their own spreadsheets or a “window” to an Excel spreadsheet, so that’s what I’ve used in this example (see somewhere below). You could also use Open Office or Google Spreadsheets.
This grid view allows you to easily adjust your schedule so that you’re not slacking one day and sweating the next. Remember to adjust your billables spreadsheet accordingly.
Here is another view, below, of the same work grid, with some of the mind map lines removed, and manually-added relationship lines (dotted) between groups of related tasks. (This makes moving items around much easier to track.)
Work Grid Usage
At the start of your work day, try to estimate how much time it’ll take you to complete scheduled tasks. Even if you don’t think you’ll make them all, leave the tasks where they are.
Assess your work at the end of day:
- Check off completed items. I prefer not to delete older tasks, so I simply hide them under a collapsed “day” node. It’s easier to track work this way, without having clutter.
- Consider your work grid to be organic. If an item was not completed, move it the next appropriate day. If it’s a chain of related tasks, you’ll have to adjust the subsequent ones as necessary.
- Adjust your billables spreadsheet to reflect the actual work you completed today and the estimated work for the future. I usually try to map out no more than 2-3 weeks at a time. As I complete a week and hide the work log nodes, I add another week.
Here is a closeup snapshot of a sample freelance work grid, complete with MindManager native spreadsheet fragment. I’ve used the value of $1 per billable task (in green) for the example.
This is merely a suggested method of managing your freelance projects using mind maps. I find that this mind mapped approach to be far more flexible than my old method of using just a spreadsheet and trying to predict what work I would complete. It was also harder to see what work had to be done on a given day and what work could slide a bit. This mind mapped-grid is far more robust.
This approach also makes it easier to gauge your productivity and progress. Just remember to adjust the task grid and billables spreadsheet as you complete each day. Did you slack off today? Easier to see that you need to work harder, when it’s right there in front of your face that you only earned $20 today.
Photo by Gaetan Lee.
Note: A few times a month we revisit some of our reader’s favorite posts from throughout the history of FreelanceSwitch. This article by Raj Dash was first published October 30th, 2008, yet is just as relevant and full of useful information today.