3 Things Freelancers Need to Know About Project Management

If you’re a freelancer (as I have been on and off for many years) the answer to the question “What Do Freelancers Need to Know About Project Management?” is likely a short and sweet: Nothing at all. Freelancers typically specialize in a core skill or service that they provide to clients, and aside from begrudgingly managing accounting and taxes, they tend to enjoy just working in their core discipline.

Of course, freelancers also know that they need to manage their time. There is no boss dictating hours or raising their eyebrows at you as you pass by their desk to take a lunch. The freedom that accompanies setting your own schedule, is quickly eclipsed by the harsh reality that you have to be the boss of yourself, if you’re ever going to finish that project.

But aside from time management, most freelancers aren’t aware of how they can improve their project management skills, or even why they should. Here are three ways a little project management acumen can help you and your bottom line.

  • Start with the end in mind. Project management is a formal discipline, and typically project managers are trained in project management best practices and certified as such. Project managers lead projects as large as building a dam or as small as building a website. But they all have one thing in common: the love of a plan.

The plan helps define all the steps of the project, prioritize what’s essential, define a team for delivery of those steps, and manage the project’s progress to a successful completion. Structured planning looks to the end goal first, and freelancers can learn a lot about how to streamline their work to save themselves time and money.

Think about your assignment or project you’re working on currently. You might have a clear idea of what you’re supposed to do, say, write a blog post or code a new website, but do you know all the possible steps you’re going to take or potential impacts to you getting that done? Has your client defined all the requirements of the project clearly? Or are you having to guess at what they want? If you’re guessing, chances are, your project is going to end up well past its deadline, and you have a good chance of getting an unhappy client.

But it’s the client’s fault, right? If they’re not giving me clear direction, what am I supposed to do? I’m only a freelancer.

Wrong. A client can get in your way of taking on a better gig, because their project is dragging on with no end in sight. A client can leave you hanging, not paying you for work not completed, because they keep adding scope to it. A client can give you a bad reputation.

You can help your client and yourself by clearly defining your terms and the deliverables. You can (at any time in the project, by the way), articulate that you are not available past a specific date, for example. Or that you will deliver only 3 revisions, no more. Or that you will agree to the project, only after it has been properly defined.

You have more control than you realize as a freelancer, and generally by setting your terms and helping the client reach their goal (as well as yours), you will find yourself working with reputable clients over time who value your work.

  • Structure is your friend. Many a freelancer I know love their freedom. Beautiful chaos, as one friend put it. The nature of freelance work can be like that. You might not have a client for over a month, and then suddenly you’re working on two or three projects at once. And since no client is perfect (see above), you likely have some competing demands, interesting personalities and unreasonable requests to boot.

It’s one thing to love the idea of chaos, but it’s another to live it daily. Project managers are highly structured in their thinking and processes, and it can seem alien to those of us who love the idea of freedom from such restrictions. Structure can be essential to not only maintaining some sanity, but also saving you time and money.

Whether you have one project or several, find some way of organizing your schedule that works for you. There are a wide variety of project management tools and apps you can use. Many project managers love the visualization tools like an online gantt charts, which allows you to create timelines of multiple tasks or projects and see what you need to do in the future, as well as what tasks are dependent on each other in order to complete them. Some also like Kanban board tools that can help prioritize task lists on different boards.

Whatever tool you use, be sure to take advantage of the technology fully. Set up alerts for yourself. Use tools that enable you to collaborate with your client or iterate in real time. When you roll your collaboration tool in with your planning and scheduling tool, you can also help educate your client on timelines, and when you’re in danger of exceeding the original timetable.

  • The art of closure. A project by definition has a start and an end date. That’s according to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK®), a handbook for professional project managers. The PMBOK defines all projects as having a “lifecycle”. There’s Initiation, planning, executing, monitoring and controlling and, importantly, closing. While not every assignment you have will require you to follow all the steps of a project, we can all learn a lot about how to close out an assignment.

Namely, make sure you properly hand-off your materials to your client, in a professional manner and according to the instructions they provided. If they weren’t specific about the deliverables, don’t let that deter you from a proper delivery yourself. Make sure you return any equipment you were provided, as well.

Make sure you communicate that you are delivering a “final” version, if relevant to your field, so that there are clear email trails of your official delivery of the final product/project. You’ll want to cc multiple people on the final delivery, as well, to ensure that in case one person didn’t get the email, you aren’t penalized for missing deadlines. Make sure, too, you follow up your final handoff with an invoice. Don’t wait for the company to pay you. Make sure you define the terms for payment process and date of payment.

You don’t need to be a certified project manager to apply best practices to your projects. You can go beyond a desk full of sticky notes to streamline your personal workflow and deliver work on time, so you can move on to your next gig: a much overdue vacation. You might want to start planning for that, as well.