Sometimes I sit back and think about the fact that project management is a whole career.
People get paid salaries plus benefits just to keep projects running. As freelancers, we’re taking on what basically amounts to advanced project management…but we don’t talk about it all that much.
That’s a problem.
When I hear people expressing burnout and frustration in their freelance business, it’s often rooted in being overwhelmed with the work of managing their own business from a project perspective, on top of doing the same for each of their clients. I even know people who fear taking on more clients because they don’t think they can handle any more responsibilities.
And they aren’t wrong.
Go into freelancing with the wrong approach to project management and you can end up frustrated in a way employment can’t even begin to touch.
I’m not going to go into details on how to manage a project (the text from my grad school course in project management here might be helpful), but I do want to go over a few, practical tips to help you get your project management systems running better.
1. Check your peace of mind.
Since you’re a business of one, it can be hard to have an honest perspective on areas where you need to improve your project management.
For me, I know that any place I feel like I’m holding information, status, or goals in my head is likely a place where my systems have failed.
Try that for yourself. If you’re overly worried about dropping the ball on some deliverable, following-up on a task, or forgetting about an important conversation, it might reveal a gap in your processes.
2. Make sure you’re not doing your client’s job for them.
Even great clients will sometimes try to slip their responsibilities over to you. It doesn’t even have to be malicious. Sometimes they’re stressed and see an opportunity to take a break.
But you know what? Unless you’re being paid for that? You’re not being paid for that.
Don’t pick up problems that can’t be invoiced. (And check out the section on picking up other people’s burdens here.)
I hit a point last year where I could feel my projects getting out of hand.
I’d tried multiple project management tools (Zoho, MeisterTask, Asana, Trello), and even paper to-do lists (because that’s where I felt comfortable). My days still felt chaotic, especially as I started taking on more clients.
Things didn’t get better until I added on an automated to-do list, and one that’s specifically created for freelancers and helping us increase our revenue. (Focuster if you’re curious.)
Automation works and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that last year is when I crossed the 6-figure mark.
I know people love spreadsheets, but I honestly don’t recommend them or at least not an overreliance on them, even if that’s where you’re most comfortable. That comfort might be holding you back and might be an area you need to reconsider, especially with all the automation options out there.
Does it take a while to find what fits best with your systems? Yes, but unless your processes are super streamlined, manual might not be the way.
4. Communicate proactively.
For the most part, your clients aren’t thinking much about you. That’s one of the perks they’re paying for. Unlike an employee, you’re supposed to require minimum investment and effort on their end.
The downside for you is they can leave you out of the loop on critical information (like important updates to projects, changes in people or resources, or even no longer needing your services) that has a massive impact on you.
This is why I do monthly client check-ins and habitually bring up potential issues I see on the horizon. Do they appreciate it? Yes, but I honestly do it to minimize surprises for myself.
5. Make them wait.
This is a big one and a lot of people might not agree with me, but here goes.
One thing I don’t do with clients, especially new ones, is respond immediately.
I usually reply with a 4-hour buffer minimum. Sound rude? Sometimes it feels rude, especially if employment-Megan is creeping her way into the driver’s seat, but I let it ride. That’s for a couple reasons.
The nature of my work: I’m a writer. If I’m working on an intense messaging exercise, I might be completely head down in my work for hours, if not a whole day. That’s the nature of creative work and it’s my job to set realistic expectations. I might be available immediately today, but not next week. I want to get them used to the pace that’s comfortable for me.
A difference of context: As freelancers, we’re working with people in employed environments where they’re paid to be available on demand. I don’t really blame them for thinking I work under the same rules. At the same time, I won’t let them drag me back in.
That’s a deal-breaker for me. If I have to jump like I was expected to while employed, I might as well go back to that life where I at least got my benefits covered and somebody else was responsible for bringing in work.
To be more overt, you can also consider spelling it out in a “How I work” page or document, but I find that action is the best teacher.
6. Dedicate days.
I try to keep my days limited to no more than two clients each.
This ties into the last point, because if I get a response on a day where I’m already at my max, I don’t hit reply. I don’t return the call (I don’t pick up unscheduled calls anyway). I don’t check the Slack notification. Some people might say that’s a bad policy, but I’ll honestly put my mental health gains from freelancing against theirs any day.
I simply don’t scramble. I never have and it’s just not part of my temperament. (I remember my mother laughing at how I and another junior usher at church always moved at our own speeds during invitation to discipleship and how we would slow the whole service down.)
I usually dedicate the last corner of my day to responding to emails and getting outstanding tasks into my project management software, so MAYBE I’ll circle around then, but it’s not guaranteed.
7. Get it on your calendar.
At the end of every week, I have it on my calendar to go through all my current projects and check the status. That helps me keep everything running smoothly, and also means I go into the weekend with a clear head.
8. Plan for delays.
The hardest thing about project management as a freelancers is there are SO many moving pieces. All it takes is one executive’s last-minute decision or a busy day to throw your plans off. It’s honestly a lot like employment on that front. We might be indie, but we aren’t working alone.
To smooth this out some, I add follow-up tasks as soon as I submit anything that might fall through the cracks.
That’s been a lifesaver since I’ve had clients who let big projects stall for weeks while multiple executives found their time to add their opinions. (It’s also why I started billing after final draft submission vs. approval, but that’s a conversation for another day.)
I’m a big believer that you’re approach to project management as a freelancer should be about honoring your boundaries with the ultimate goal of improving your life. Finding your ideal project management system might take a few pushes to your comfort level, but ultimately, you get to determine how far you want to go and what your work life looks like. It’s one of the best benefits of freelancing, so make sure you’re not selling yourself short.
Got project management questions? Swing by the community to ask and get some answers.