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The Freelancer's Guide to Managing Projects

written by: Ronda Bowen • edited by: Michele McDonough • updated: 6/9/2011

If you're a freelancer, chances are that you have to manage a variety of projects from marketing to client work. Find out how to effectively manage your freelance projects in this article.

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    What is a Project?

    Projects are objectives that require multiple tasks to be completed. For example, a marketing campaign is a project. You have to draw up your marketing ideas, make the materials, and distribute them. Likewise, creating a brochure for a client is a project. By practicing effective project management techniques as a freelancer, you can increase your effectiveness and productivity.

    The first thing that you will need to do as a freelancer is list all current projects - both those projects you are working on for clients and those you are working on for yourself. I use Microsoft OneNote to keep track of all my projects, but you can use a pen and paper or any word processing program. Take some time to list all of your commitments (you can even just perform a brain dump here with all of those things you need to get done). Once you have everything in front of you, you will need to develop a way to handle the projects you're confronted with.

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    Tracking Your Freelance Projects

    Depending upon how many projects you have going on at once, you will need a system for tracking your projects and action items. When I first started out as a freelancer, I used Microsoft's Outlook to track my projects; as my business and projects increased and diversified, I found this system no longer worked, and began experimenting with different freelancer-friendly project management software programs such as Ubidesk or Central Desktop. I found that while these programs were great for projects I was collaborating on with clients, that what worked best for me was a combination of OneNote and Outlook. Discover what works best for you and be consistent with it - even if you are starting out and you don't have a lot of projects, by getting in the habit of tracking projects now, you will make life in the long-run easier.

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    Decompose Each Project to Determine the Strategic Next Action

    picture Once you settle on a way to track your freelancing projects, you will need to decompose your projects. Decomposing a project simply means breaking the project down into its component parts. You may find you have a range of projects from simple to complex. For example, if you are a writer working on a sales letter for a client, your project may only consist of a few steps, but if you're designing a website, there may be many parts, many task dependencies, etc.

    To break down your project, ask, "What needs to be complete so that I can say the project is complete?" For each step, ask yourself "Does this need anything else for me to complete it?" When you are done, you will have a complete list of tasks that you will need to complete in order to create the final desired result.

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    Enter Your Action Items into Your Project Tracking System and Enter Hard Deadlines

    Once you've decomposed your project, you will know what needs to be done - at this moment. To retain all the things you must complete, enter them into your project tracking system. Repeat this for each of your projects until all action items for all projects have been accounted for.

    Now, you may have hard deadlines for client projects. Enter those into your system now, and working backwards from that deadline, assign each task associated with the project a deadline for completion.

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    Notes on Managing Multiple Projects

    Now that you see your hard and fast project deadlines laid out for you, and you have a list of your multiple projects, you may notice many of the following patterns:

    • Your client projects are evenly spaced
    • Client deadlines tend to all fall together around certain dates
    • You have a client deadline almost every day
    • Your client projects are spread out
    • You have three projects due on the same day

    Whatever your situation is, it's important to know - especially if it looks like you've overbooked yourself for a particular month, week, or day. When this occurs, it is vital that you stepladder the projects (especially if you intend to get any sleep). Try, if you can to either get projects done ahead of schedule, or if this isn't possible, you may be able to work with a client to move a deadline. Managing multiple projects can be done - so long as you track them and break your projects down.

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    Adding in Personal Projects and Projects with Soft Deadlines

    picture Once you've scheduled the tasks for your hard deadline projects, you can schedule the tasks for your soft deadline and personal projects. You should still schedule these because unscheduled tasks tend to never reach completion. Simply schedule the soft deadline tasks around the tasks that require hard deadlines. Aim to only have 3-5 main tasks each day - any more than this will lead to stress and potentially to burnout. Of course, if you're able to complete more tasks on one day, that's great, but if you are not, do not stress yourself out.

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    Just because you are a freelancer, doesn't mean you don't need to communicate with stakeholders. Stakeholders in your projects include your client, a company, an end-user, etc. You need to communicate things like project deadlines, project progress, and any problems that come up during the execution of your project. When in doubt, get in touch. Don't assume anything when it comes to clients.

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    Close Your Projects

    One thing often forgotten in the management of projects in general, especially in freelance project management, is project closure. Take some time once a project has been completed to close the project properly. Check to make sure there is no follow-up necessary, or if there is, then schedule a time for follow-up into your calendar. Take a few minutes to write a brief report about what you completed in the project (this will help you fill out your LinkedIn profile, put together a resume, and construct cover letters to future clients), what you learned while working on the project (this will help you increase your efficiency and it will give you a reference for the future should issues arise), and what you would hope to do differently should you have to complete the project again. Also record how long the project took (even if you didn't bill by the hour) because this will help you to calculate charges in the future.

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    Project Management Helps You Keep on Track

    Effective project management techniques can help you to keep your projects on track and your clients happy. By carefully managing your projects as a freelancer, you can increase your efficiency and you can ensure that you obtain a reputation for being well-organized and competent. You can find many tips for managing projects here on Bright Hub.