Earlier this year, I started taking on more regular projects for freelance writing clients. As I worked through the projects each week, I quickly realized that my simple schedule-based planning system wasn’t cutting it.
My setup then had a monthly calendar and two pages per day. What I needed was a week’s overview. Specifically, I needed a time management system that could tell me how much time I actually have available for tasks each week. Something that didn’t just remind me of appointments, but also told me how many “open” hours I had.
My solution was to supplement my schedule-based planning system with one that’s project-based.
Projects vs. Tasks
Before I go further, I probably should let you know how I define a project vs. a task.
Projects are not simply a set of tasks I can easily check off a list. For me, a project needs more thinking or “noodling” time than a task. It may be completed in segments. It requires a bit more planning.
For example, cleaning the bathroom is a task. It just needs to be done.
Sewing a pair of pajamas is a project. It involves a series of steps and requires some thinking through (type of fabric, whether I need to get some supplies, figuring out the right size, etc.). That time for thinking is included in the number of hours I allot to the sewing project.
So, on to project-based planning…
Project-based Planning and the Project Plotter
Project-based planning is simply a way for me to see, at one glance, the number of hours I have available and the number of hours that specific tasks are expected to take.
In a way, a weekly or daily schedule provides that kind of information. I could figure out which hours of which days are free. But to do that, I have to count the open blocks of time. That’s easy to do, of course, but I need a one-glance way of telling whether I’m planning too much work for the amount of time that’s actually available.
So I created what I call a project plotter.
The project plotter is a page or a part of a page in my planner. It’s a set of blocks corresponding to the number of hours I have available for projects and other large tasks.
As I plan each week, I consider how many appointments are already scheduled and figure out the actual hours I have available for work. I then block off the hours I estimate I’d need to do specific items.
Here’s what the project plotter looks like (pardon my in-a-hurry handwriting. I promise I can write better than this!):
By plotting my hourly allotment for projects, I can see at a glance how many hours I’ve already committed to doing certain tasks. After I complete an item, I mark it off with a highlighter or colored pencil.
Longer appointments also get blocked off on the project plotter. For example, if I’m chaperoning a school field trip or preparing for an event (like the picnic in the example above), those activities take up time that would normally be available for work. That’s just part of the flexibility that comes with being a freelancer, and the project plotter allows me to manage that.
Benefits of Project-based Planning
So why do project-based planning?
First of all, project-based planning isn’t meant to replace schedule-driven planning. I use it as a complement to scheduling.
Project-based planning lets me “schedule” items that require more than an hour to complete, but don’t have to be done at a specific time during the week.
The project is “in my schedule” without being an appointment. I know how much time it will take, approximately, and whether or not I have the time that week to do it. Doing it this way gives me some flexibility as well.
What if I can’t finish it in one week?
Not a problem, I just carry it over to the following week, perhaps adjusting the number of hours I allot to it.
Sometimes, I have a recurring project and client work that I do every week. I just block it off on the project plotter every time.
Another perhaps not-so-obvious benefit of the project plotter is that it’s also a tool that allows me to focus on the big rocks I want to accomplish. These big rocks are my goal-related activities.
Big rocks = projects.
Writing these big rocks in my project plotter lets me see them often as a reminder of what I need to do to accomplish the goals I set for myself.
Writing that next great American novel? Block off a few hours on the project plotter!
Using a project plotter has helped me become more productive, without being driven by urgent tasks all the time. It has helped shift my thinking from “What do I have scheduled right now?” to “what can I work on that will move me toward my goals?”
Even if I only have one free hour, I can use that one hour toward completing a big rock. I highlight (with satisfaction!) that hour off the project plotter, and know that it’s one hour’s work closer to accomplishment.
Is it a perfect planning system?
No, but it helps me be more realistic in my planning, as well as better choose what I spend my time on. Besides, it’s very satisfying to see those hours fill up with color every week!
Next time, I’ll talk about how I keep track of all my projects and allot hours for each. See you then.