How to Manage Projects as a Freelancer
Does it feel like freelancing has taken over every second of your life? You didn’t get into freelancing to work 90 hours a week, never take a vacation, and miss out on true work/life balance.
As I talk about in How to generate leads as a freelancer , you got into freelancing to have some control over when, how, and where you work.
But (you may be thinking) starting and running your own freelance business requires a lot of work!
That’s true, so in order not to work 90 hours a week, you have to understand how to maximize your productivity.
Ask yourself, what is the ultimate goal of productivity?
Is it simply to work faster and faster until your keyboard is smoking?
Effective productivity and project management isn’t about getting as much done as possible.
In this article, we’ll talk about how to manage projects as a freelancer and maximize your productivity so that you are able to run a successful freelance business that doesn’t take over your entire life!
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When working within an organization or business, you usually don’t have a lot of input about how you work or what programs and systems you use.
You are forced to work within the systems and programs that the company has chosen, even if you don’t like them.
Not so with a freelancer. Now, the choice is yours!
If you come from a larger company, you might be used to formalized work management systems like Agile or Six Sigma that may not apply to your new work.
Or, you may be used to working with proprietary software that you won’t have access to once you start your freelance business.
However, you don’t need to be a Six Sigma black belt or an Agile master to be good at project management.
In fact, it’s far more important to understand how YOU work best.
So, ask yourself:
- Do you do certain tasks better in the morning or afternoon?
- Do you work better in particular places? Or within specific environments?
- Do fixed routines help you get in the mindset to work?
- Are there productivity systems that could help you get a grip on everything you need to do?
- Should you read a highly rated productivity book to learn a few skills you can employ?
It’s about how to master YOUR productivity and workflow so you can work efficiently and effectively, delivering results for your clients.
Everyone wants to do things their way, but once you really can call the shots, do you know what you need to do to manage projects effectively and deliver them on time?
Getting and staying organized is essential to your success. There are a million different productivity systems, software programs, project management programs, and more tools that claim to help.
And they can, but once you have to manage more than one project, your success (or failure) is determined by your organization.
Your organization will determine:
- Whether you deliver projects on time
- If you stay connected to your clients effectively.
- If you are responsive to their changing needs
- How much work you can take on (and how much money you can make)
And much more.
Maybe you are a naturally organized person. You thrive on schedules and to-do lists. You already have an organizational system in place that works best for you!
If so, following my suggestions will make sure your organizational game is top-notch!
But, if you’re the type of person who has always followed someone else’s system or if you just struggle with being organized, here are a few tips to help you.
There are a million project management tools out there (cloud-based tools, subscription tools, etc.) with enough options to fit any budget (from expensive ones to free ones).
Earlier this month, I shared many of these tools to use to manage your freelance business .
Finding one that works for you is essential, but don’t limit yourself to expensive or complicated project management tools.
Often, a freelancer doesn’t need overly complicated tools, and the most effective way to manage projects is to use a pen and paper to track progress.
There are also many different “systems” that are agnostic of platforms, one of the most popular ones being Getting Things Done .
But how do you know a system is right for you?
There are a lot of factors to consider, but there are two basic questions you need to ask when considering whether a program or system is right for you:
- Is it intuitive to use?
- Is it enjoyable to use?
If you answer yes to both of these questions, it is probably going to work just fine.
But, remember, if it doesn’t serve you well, change to something that does.
Once you find a system that is both intuitive and enjoyable for you, stick with it!
It will take time to get used to it, work out the kinks, and learn how to integrate it seamlessly into your day-to-day work. But, if you stick with it, over time, you’ll work far faster than you ever thought possible.
Every freelancer has made the mistake of not giving themselves enough time to deliver a project.
The client needs something done within a certain time period, and privately you know it’s a little tight … but you agree anyway.
Then, things don’t go as planned, and you lose several night’s sleep just to deliver on time.
If you are lucky, you’ll only make this mistake a few times.
Projects always take longer than you think. They never go like you hope they will, and there are always problems you don’t account for.
Especially when you are running short on time.
So, how much extra time do you need to give yourself?
Here’s a simple rule of thumb: figure out how much time you think you need, then add 50%. That’s the deadline you set for the client.
However, set internal deadlines for yourself ahead of client deadlines.
For example, if you have a project due on the 15th of the month, set an internal deadline for the 10th. Then, if things go crazy, you have time to fix them before the “real” deadline.
You can always deliver early if you get done early. It’s always better to surprise a client by surpassing their expectations than by not delivering what you’ve promised.
As I emphasize in How to get better at sales , clients will feel comfortable partnering with you and want to continue working with you when they see results that bring value to their business.
Meeting deadlines and delivering valuable results is essential to building a successful freelance business.
Also, if you can avoid it, never set deadlines for multiple projects at the same time.
The last thing you want is finding you must split your time between two deadlines for different projects and then having to scramble to finish both on time.
Look and plan ahead, spreading your deadlines out, so everything doesn’t finish at the same time.
Of course, this means you will have to have deadlines somewhere outside your head, like on a calendar or in a project management system.
No matter what you use, get into the habit of reviewing your calendar several weeks into the future regularly, so those all-important deadlines don’t sneak up on you.
David Allen proposes a “weekly review” in Getting Things Done that you can implement no matter what system or organizational principle you use to stay on top of things as a freelancer.
One of the primary neurological reasons we waste time and avoid work is that we don’t actually know how much time we will need to devote to a given task.
We either underestimate the task or overestimate our ability to complete it.
Sometimes, we haven’t really thought through the steps we will have to complete along the way.
For example, “build a client website” is a huge undefined amount of work, and it’s intimidating to get started.
When you’re faced with an overwhelming task or an undefined amount of work, try breaking a project down into smaller pieces.
That all depends.
First, create a clear picture of what the final project will look like. Then, start listing each component you will need to complete to get to that final picture.
Going back to “build a client website,” you might list:
- Upload graphics and images
- Integrate inventory software with online ordering system
- Create wireframes for each page
- Test links
- Send website copy revisions back to the copywriter
- Update website database
Again, if you are having trouble getting started or deciding what to do, one of the easiest ways to create momentum is to break a task into smaller, manageable chunks, so you feel accomplished.
Often, simply creating the list will get you inspired to start checking things off the list because you feel like you are already getting things done simply by making a list.
As a programmer, it’s tempting to do everything on a computer.
But maybe, that isn’t your best option.
Working with a physical notepad (or Apple pencil on an iPad) breaks the monotony of using a keyboard and mouse.
The physical writing process is also proven to help you remember and understand things more clearly.
Some freelancers find that their productivity increases when they use cool gear like nice notebooks, fountain pens, and other tools that make working intrinsically pleasing.
Also, changing your physical location can sometimes help you to refresh, refocus, and restart your productivity.
Maybe it’s a new coffee shop around the corner, or a quiet bench at a local park, a change of scenery can be just the key to jumpstarting your creativity.
So, if you find yourself staring out your window (or at your computer screen) and not making much progress, use physical tools or locations to shift into a more productive mode of work.
What is the ultimate goal of productivity?
It’s about having calm, relaxed mastery over your work so that you don’t HAVE to sit at your desk every moment of the day.
It’s about having the freedom to go to the museum with your kids on a Wednesday, taking a nap when you don’t feel great, or leaving for a weekend trip with your friend or partner.
When you understand project management in a holistic way, you gain the ability to go and do these things without stressing about the fact that there’s always work to be done at your desk.
Project management is as much about relaxing when you aren’t working as it is about getting things done when you are working.
It’s about understanding yourself, how you work best, and using the tools you need to manage your projects as a successful freelancer.
Thanks for reading!
Juan Cruz Martinez
Juan has made it his mission to help aspiring developers unlock their full potential. With over two decades of hands-on programming experience, he understands the challenges and rewards of learning to code. By providing accessible and engaging educational content, Juan has cultivated a community of learners who share their passion for coding. Leveraging his expertise and empathetic teaching approach, Juan has successfully guided countless students on their journey to becoming skilled developers, transforming lives through the power of technology.