Freelancer, Manage Thyself!

John Tabita
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Last week I gave you a few tips on getting control of your desktop and your to-do list. This week, I’ll show you some ways to manage tasks that have more than one step, affectionately known as “projects.”

Task or Project?

It’s important to distinguish between a task and a project. Any task that requires more than a single step to complete is a project. And while I’m all about taking advantage of technology, sometimes ordinary pen and paper works just fine. I used to keep every item related to each job inside a three-ring binder. And I do mean every item, such as:

  • Signed contract
  • Proposal or project brief
  • Client’s completed Needs Analysis questionnaire
  • Printouts of important email exchanges
  • CD of client’s original files
  • Website Style Guide

Each project binder was kept in my desk drawer for quick access. I found it faster to flip through a few well-organized pages than clicking through a bazillion emails in my inbox looking for that one particular message the client sent three days ago, asking me to change the background color.

What’s a Style Guide and Why Do I Need One?

Businesses have certain colors and typefaces they use in their logo and print collateral. To insure their corporate identity is uniform throughout the organization and in all their advertising, larger corporations will create a Corporate Identity Manual or Brand Style Guide that everyone must follow. That way, Mabel in Accounting can’t change the color of the company logo to match the paper she chose for the company picnic flyer.

I created a similar document for each site I was designing—not for branding purposes, but because I didn’t remember what color I used for the sidebar, or how wide I made the header image or the page width. As I converted a site from a mockup to a working web page, I found myself opening and reopening my Photoshop file and clicking on an element to find its properties. To prevent all this wasted time, I started printing the client-approved mockup with notes, like so:

Having this printed style guide next to me as I worked sped things up tremendously.

Using Today’s Project Management Tools

So how would I manage projects with today’s technology? Honestly, I might stick with good ol’ printed pages in three-ring binders because it worked so well. But more than likely, I’d give some apps a test drive. I’ve been using Springpad to keep track of some ongoing projects. Springpad is available for both iOS and Android. There’s no desktop app, but their website has the same built-in functionality. Springpad also syncs to multiple devices.

Springpad allows you to create any number of ‘notebooks,’ and within those notebooks, you can have individual notes, bookmarks, or tasks. There is a browser bookmark (called a ‘Clipper’) that allows you to add any of these without having to go to the Springpad website or app.

You could easily substitute my three-ring binder system with Springpad’s notebooks—one for each project. Notes or tasks with links to the appropriate files on your hard drive could replace printed pages. I recently had a chance to test that for a WordPress site I’m designing.

I started off by bookmarking a number of WordPress themes to show the client. I did a quick mock up of my three favorites by taking a screenshot, then dropping in their logo and an appropriate header image. I attached each mockup to its corresponding Springpad bookmark. From my client’s computer, I logged into my Springpad account, opened up the project notebook, and showed him each design I’d bookmarked. When he picked his favorite, I opened the attached mockup for him to see.

In lieu of meeting with the client, I could have shared each bookmarked theme as a link. The client would see a web page with links to both the theme and my attached jpeg mockup:

You can also label items with different tags. I found this helped me categorize the tasks I needed to complete. For example, I tagged the task Can’t get Author pluggin to work as ‘tweaks’ and I tagged Need copy for Vision page as ‘content.’ That allowed me to filter my tasks by category and work on one type of task—like minor tweaks—in one sitting.

Other Worthy Mentions

I’d be remiss not to mention a couple other productivity apps. One I’ve been experimenting with is Producteev, which allows you to create multiple workspaces and add tasks to those workspaces. Just like Springpad’s notebooks, each workspace can represent a specific project.

If you’re working as part of a team, Producteev can be used as a collaborative tool. With Springpad, tasks can only be shared, but Producteev lets you assign tasks to different team members.

An app mentioned in the comments of last week’s article is also worth mentioning. I haven’t tried it yet, but Todolist allows you to create sub-projects and sub-tasks—something Springpad and Producteev both lack.

How about you? Do you have favorite app to help you manage projects? Do you have a workflow in place to get them completed in a timely manner? If not, why not?

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  • http://twitter.com/nickbeske Nick Beske

    Doesn’t look like there is an option to create task list templates like you can with Basecamp. I don’t like the per project pricing model either, not a good value unless you are only working on 1-2 projects.