While ideally I’d prefer to only work on a few projects at once, there are multiple reasons why that just doesn’t always happen. I’ve made a few mistakes along the way and learned a few lessons as well, hopefully someone else will too.
1. Using email as a project management tool.
I only ever left the most current project and actionable emails in my inbox, all other emails were archived in client specific folders. This meant that in effect my inbox had become a combined todo list of everything. Which was fine when I only had a couple of live projects, but ended up a daunting mess, when as well as live projects I had emails relating to projects that were: on hold, small edit jobs for clients, enquiries, invoices needed paid etc. I ended up with a big disorganised list that fried my head just poking through it looking for what to do next.
I take any actionable points from emails and put them into todo lists specific to the client or project. I’m currently using Wunderlist for this as it lets me sync my lists across multiple devices, set alerts, add notes and it’s free. I don’t think I need a full project management solution such as Basecamp or Minigroups just yet but that will be the next step. The only emails I now keep in my inbox are only that I need to reply to ASAP, any that I need to reply to but are not urgent I star and archive.
2. Wasting time deciding what to do next on a project.
It’s bad enough not knowing what to do next on a project but it’s much worse when you have several. I’ve had occasions where I’ve had 4 or 5 live projects and not being able to act on any of them because of a lack of information.
My solution for this has always been writing out a list of all projects along with the next action I need to complete to get that project moving. Once I have the tasks for the projects I prioritise them and start with the most important. This could also be avoided by keeping on top of emails and keeping todo lists up to date.
3. Trying to fit small projects into lulls in larger ones
A couple of times this year I was in a situation where I was waiting on client feedback or content for all live projects and had nothing I could do until I heard from the client. Occasionally it looked like I might have a couple of weeks. I’d get an email or phone call asking if I had time for a small project, I’d say yes. A week later the small project had grown (they nearly always do) and the other clients had got back and I was now stuck juggling several projects.
I’ll be honest I’m not going to start saying no to work that appears in a lull in other projects but I am going to start making sure I know better how long the lull will last. I’m also going to properly work out the time involved in the smaller projects and make the clients aware that if the project expands then my original projects take priority. Which brings me onto the next mistake.
4. Assuming a project is in a lull.
After a few days email silence from a client, their project suddenly seems much less urgent and you assume you wont hear from them in a while. This is what leads to new projects being started the day before an email comes through with a massive list of things to do.
I now take a several contact methods approach before assuming a project is in a lull. Firstly I email the client letting them know I need to hear from them before I can do anything more. If they don’t reply after 2-3 days I try phoning them, if they don’t pick up I leave a voicemail asking them to get in touch. If I still hear nothing a week later I both phone and email to let them know that I’m putting their project on hold and it’s up to them to contact me. This is also why I insist on a 50% deposit before starting a project, as for some reason this lull seems to usually happen right in the middle. Means I’m paid up right to when the lull is likely to happen.
5. Using email when a phone call would answer the question sooner.
Typical email conversation (slight exaggeration):
Client: “I need you to take the break away from the top”
Me: “Do you mean the page header, the section at the top with the business logo?”
Client: “I mean the part with the arrows to the topic page”
Me: “Ok the sidebar”
Client: “I prefer Snickers myself”
Time via email – possibly several days, time via phone call – 5mins.
Any time a client is having trouble grasping a concept or there is any confusion about functionality, I’ve just started picking up the phone. Instant feedback, problem resolved and a few minutes and a lot less chance of a lull occurring in the project.
6. Trying to work on several projects on the same day.
This is just common sense but I keep falling into the trap of writing a todo list covering about 4-6 different projects for the one day. It takes a while to get back into a project and it’s a waste of time if I’ve only spent an hour on it before moving onto something else.
I try to pick a dominant project for the day that takes priority over everything else. This way I can focus on making a lot of progress with one project than a bit with several. Also helps prevent having several projects ending at the same time at this staggers them out. I’ll keep a list of smaller optional tasks for the day which I work on if I need to take a break from the main project.
7. Reading emails as soon as they appear.
Because of my using my email inbox as a todo list it means that my email is always open and I’m reading emails as soon as they come in. Of course once an email comes in that needs something done that’s all I can think about and it totally messes up my workflow.
I only open my email app every few hours or when I’m between tasks, I try to never ever open email when I’m in the middle of something.
8. Not keeping on top of invoicing and payments.
A couple of times this year I’ve been so caught up with working on projects that I put off billing clients for completed work. Always in my head thinking that money appears a couple of days after sending out invoices. This of course led to a couple of times where it had been over a month since I had any money coming in, not ideal for cash flow.
Bill as soon as a project is complete, don’t leave it to the “next day” or say “I’ll do it this evening”.
9. Not writing action based tasks.
Sometimes when writing todo lists I get lazy and can’t be bothered writing actionable tasks so write thing like “Work on the website”. This means when I come to look at the task later I don’t know which part of the website to work on and I waste time trying to figure it out.
My tired morning brain only runs on 1 core until about 11am so it best to avoid making it think more than it needs to. Going to try and help it by only putting specfic actions into todo lists e.g Mark up the homepage, Add basic typography styles, style navigation.
10. Starting into projects too soon
This is probably one of my worst habits, exacerbated by the fact I need change to stay motivated. In fact just to staty motivated to write this article I had to go sit in a different chair .
I’ll have just about finished a couple of projects and I’ve got to the point were my enthusiasm is fading. A new project comes along and I jump into it straight away, killing what remaining enthusiasm I had left for the other projects.
My obligation is to do the best job I can for my clients so current projects must always take priority (regardless of size) over new ones.