I’ve been wrestling with this for a while now, and I can’t seem to figure out a good way to achieve what I’m wanting.
I’m a freelance video editor and manage a lot of individual projects. When considering new projects/clients, I need to take a good look at my calendar, see my general availability, and compare it to when the client wants their deliverable. Usually I just kind of scan through my due dates in OmniFocus, do some terrible napkin math, then accept or decline the job depending on whether I think I’ve got the bandwidth to get it done on time and at a high level of quality. I have, however (and unsurprisingly), gotten myself into trouble in the past, and am wondering if there’s a better method out there to prevent future over- or under-committing my time. I’d obviously like to fill as much time as reasonably possible to put food on the table, but I don’t want to pull all-nighters either.
I’ve messed around with timeline views in Notion, calendar groups in Fantastical where I only have project calendars, and use all-day events to indicate which projects I’m working on when, and few other various tools. They all haven’t really been super helpful, and require a lot of upkeep, it seems.
I enjoy time-blocking as much as possible, but that’s very much in the weeds and day-to-day stuff. I’m talking about developing a method where I can confidently tell a client that I can take their project on and deliver something to them anywhere from 3 weeks to 3 months from the time I talk with them.
Is there a method or tool out there that I haven’t found yet? How does everyone here solve this problem in their professional and person life?
You may want to take a look at Asana—I know—another task manager. The reason I suggest this is that it has powerful features, including the ability to see one’s projects in multiple formats—including a Gantt chart, as well as kanban boards, folders, etc. I find this useful for a “wide-angle” few of multiple projects. It has a calendar view as well so you have multiple ways of viewing and managing multiple projects. You can also create fields for managing the status, assignments, deadlines, priority, etc…
What was it that didn’t work about Notion timelines for you? And: where do you handle most of your project management? I found that part of the overhead of trying to maintain this kind of overview came from duplicating project records on different platforms just to take advantage of specific views or features… I’m currently experimenting with timeline views via Mermaid.js— not that I’d suggest that for everyone!
I find that Kanban layouts help me see my big picture. Trello is one basic option. I also have Kanban boards developed in Curio that I’ve interfaced to OmniFocus (since you mention this).
To me, your problem becomes one of setting up and maintaining balance across six columns: Yes/No, Promised, Next Up, Active, Done, Dropped. Any incoming requests go into Yes/No for a decision. The Yes/No gets pulled to Promised or Dropped. Promised get pulled to Next Up depending on calendar event and/or opening. When the project starts, it is Active. When it ends, it is Done.
Work to pull projects forward to Done. When too much comes in at the front end (Yes/No), you will have a handle on why certain projects need to be Dropped – your flow will not sustain making promises to all in Yes/No.
Hope this gives some basis for help in your planning.
On this: I’ve been really happy about GoodTask’s recent update for Kanban boards. And that’s actually where I’ve been making use of Mermaid.js, using some really simple syntax and an iOS shortcut to generate Gantt charts. Best of both worlds— Kanban for the current pipeline, Gantt for longer term overview…
Are your projects similar enough that you can do standard time budgeting? E.g.,
Project Category: Editing
Task 1 -- 30 hrs
Task 2 -- 15 hrs
Task 6 -- 6 hours
Standard Time Budget for "Editing Projects": 80 hrs
Standard Duration: 3 weeks
If you can get a rough handle on standard project budgets, then the 10,000 foot view is a matter of knowing:
For the next four weeks:
- Available work hours 240 (freelancers never work 40 hr weeks)
- Required tasks (get this info from OmniFocus estimated durations): 180 hrs
- Overhead tasks (time accounting, billing, etc.): 20 hrs
- Buffer for unanticipated work: 20 hrs
- Total committed time: 220 hrs
- Uncommitted time: 20 hrs
In that scenario – you have no time for a new project to complete, but if you slide the four week horizon forward to looking at the four weeks starting in two weeks, you might.
This kind of scenario playing at the high level can give you an idea of when you can slot commitments into your work plan.
At that point, you need to come down from the 10,000 foot level and spend time with the calendar.
This is an exercise you can do on paper, or in Excel / Numbers. I wouldn’t waste the effort to shoehorn time budgeting into software – you know your work and you know the gotchas. It’s all a matter of training yourself to spend time each week looking out over a planning horizon of 4 to 6 weeks. I know from my own consulting practice that planning my time and commitments beyond that time is forgetting that time demands coming from clients will make any longer-term plans unreliable.
Very interesting task manager for this purpose is Taskade. It has lists, boards, actions and mind map views of tasks/projects. I tried it, but it seemed too “beta” for my taste and did not have some basic features like url links. But it definitively seems like an app with a great future.
Hey Martin! The shortcut I made was inspired by the Mermaid.js diagram action in Drafts. It grabs a filtered set of reminders, formats those inputs into Mermaid syntax then pushes output through Mermaid for rendering. So it can do anything Mermaid allows (with edits to the template the shortcut uses).
Mermaid syntax does allow for changing the date format it expects to receive and the axis format it uses for the timeline legend. Haven’t yet managed to get that working for an “hours and minutes” Gantt chart as you’ve asked about, but in theory it should be possible…
And if not, I recommend Toggl to see how long things do take. Toggl also works well with a Stream Deck for starting timers with a button press. It’s probably the lowest friction time tracking I’ve ever done.
Where most tools fall short is being able to do some basic form of calculations to sum up how much time in total is budgeted, spent and what the progress is.
I’ve used Google Sheets for that in the past. I created a new sheet in the document for every project. Each sheet had a column for tasks and one for a rough estimation of how long each task would take. Buffers and uncertain tasks were also added in advance based on previous experience from similar projects.
In the first rows, the header of each sheet’s columns, I did time and progress calculations, mostly summing up the diifferent numerical values for progress or durations.
I also had a column to enter the estimation of the task’s fulfillment in percent and I color coded the task’s rows accordingly. 0% = white, then gradually from red over yellow to green and if the task was 100% done it additionally got crossed out.
In sheet one I used a script to pull in data from all those individual project sheets in the top half.
This is also were I set the general parameters like how much time I have to devote to the projects per week and how many weekdays there are accounting for holidays and vacation.
It loosely followed the “12 week year” idea. So I planned out a span of a year’s quarter including buffer weeks and a subsequent week of rest the 13th week.
Below that I put columns for each day of the 12 weeks similar to a 7-day calendar view, but just for 12 x 7 = 84 days. So the 12 weeks were visible at once and you can’t get lost in detail calendar views of just a week or month.
Back then I planned in hourly blocks so each day got 8-10 of those blocks as rows.
Each project had a “shorthand” so “graphic design client x” would become “DX” for example. In the 84 day overview I filled in the columsn accordingly. I grouped days together to work on a project in bulk and filled the day’s slots by copy and pasting the shorthand. When scheduling I always cross checked with fixed calendar appointments. The cells also got color coded with the color that matched the project via conditional cell formatting. And the sums across the 84 days for each project were calculated and compared to the required estimation in the top half of the sheet.
The only downside of this approach was that it wasn’t fun to use when on the go and absent from a larger monitor. And it was inconvenient to expand once the 12 weeks got near to their end. I nowadays would probably not stick to the 12 week schedule and instead have it as an ongoing plan. And I also wouldn’t schedule 8-10h. I’d probably just aim for 6 solid productive hours devoted in a focused manner entirely to each project.
I’ve used a SaaS for over a decade called Liquid Planner. It’s not cheap but its super power is the way you give it a ranged estimate for every task, and then it does the statistical processing to give you confidence intervals at different lengths of time (“you’re 50% likely to get it done by this date”). Of course, GIGO, but over time, it’s become very reliable for me. There’s a great feedback loop where I say how long I think something will take, then I track the time it actually takes, and finally, Liquid Planner makes it easy to compare my estimate to my actual.
A full year wall calendar like the Focused branded one that @MacSparky and @mikeschmitz put together. It’s literally always “on,” so, I always see it and therefore I’m always processing my current and future commitments:
I have wrestled with this problem as well. I use all the things: OmniFocus, reminder apps, TaskPaper, etc. But for just mapping out what the main thing I want to devote any particular week or even month to, I have landed on a very simple solution. I downloaded an Excel year calendar template, and made a bunch of rectangles that occupy the space of 7 days on the calendar. Then I just put a label on these rectangles (e.g. “The Henderson project”) and move them around on the calendar. I know there will be lots of other things to do from day to day, and those things are all in OmniFocus or whatever, but by looking at this Excel calendar I can see whether or not I have room for another big project in any particular week or month. Good luck on your search!
I totally agree! There’s a danger of getting hung up on the tool and neglecting the underlying information that you need to make the decision.
Of course, no estimate is accurate. In fact, at least at the beginning, I’d recommend you double whatever estimate you come up with. But if you follow this practice each time you take on a project - and then monitor the time it ACTUALLY takes to complete the project (I use Toggl), over time you will get a much higher accuracy rate. Still always good to leave some white space for the unforeseen though!