Creative entrepreneurs must learn how to plan their projects. You must forecast project stages, schedules, and time requirements. Success in business depends on cultivating this essential skill.
That’s because as creative entrepreneurs, our businesses sink or swim on how effectively we use our time. I’ll be the first one to urge you to get beyond the billable hour model of pricing, but it can take a while to get there. So until you are in a position to demand such high fees that your time costs are more than adequately covered, maximizing your time will determine your overall profitability.
And so budgeting your time is just as important as budgeting your money. In fact more so, because while both time and money are limited resources, your money supply can grow—you’ll never add more than 24 hours to your days.
The Key Time Management Input
When you begin to budget your time, always remember the important reality that only 60% of your overall time will be available to you for productive, billable, creative activity. The other 40% needs to be spent on your business rather than in it. Missing this critical measure is the first and biggest mistake creatives make in project management. If you miss it you’ll never properly budget your time. You’ll constantly find yourself shoehorning too much work into too few days. Many creatives that have tried to budget their time give up because it feels like such a futile effort. But the futility is based on having missed this prior 60% standard, not in the effort itself.
Good Data Makes for Good Planning
Once you understand the limitations on the overall amount of time you have to work with, you can start effectively planning your projects—and budgeting time accordingly. But it’s also helpful to have solid reference points to work from. If you faithfully measure your time consistently, comprehensively, and accurately, you’ll generate a great source of information for forecasting and budgeting your time. But if you’ve neglected your timekeeping, don’t use that as an excuse for not budgeting your time. It’s better to make guesses, and observe how reality matches up with speculative benchmarks, than to leave your schedule up to chance.
Platforms for Project Management
When you engage in planning and budgeting, whether your time or money, you’ll need two sets of tools. One that provides a backwards look, showing you how much time or money you’ve spent historically, and one that forecasts time-based on past data. For your financial budgets, your past data source might be Quickbooks, while your past time data might be in a timekeeping system like Harvest or Toggl.
But you’re going to need different tools for forecasting. Forecasting tools have to be more flexible since projections are always looser, and need to be adapted to changing circumstances. That’s why I recommend using spreadsheets for modeling your revenue and expenses. But finding flexible tools for forecasting project time is a bit harder.
Project Management Platform Recommendations
There are some good tools out there. I often recommend a tool aptly called “Forecast” that’s offered by the same company that makes Harvest—the two systems are fully integrated and make a great pair. Currently, I use Teamwork.com (premium) for my project and resource planning. If you’re a solo-preneuer, or if your projects don’t involve months-long schedules, then the Harvest/Forecast pair would be more than adequate. If you have larger teams, a more robust project management platform like Teamwork may be necessary. Of course, there are many other platforms out there, all with their own strengths and weaknesses. And each one will take some time to learn and implement.
The Priority of Project Management is Must be Upkeep
But before you invest the time to adopt and set up a project management platform, count the cost that you’ll need to maintain it constantly and consistently. Time passes moment by moment, day by day, week by week. Nothing stops it. And so any forecast of your time changes by the minute. If you don’t keep it up to date, its usefulness diminishes with every passing hour.
Learning how to strike a balance when implementing these tools is a critical skill for any creative entrepreneur. If you go overboard and try to account for every hour of every project it will be impossible to keep up. But if you’re too vague, and not structured enough, your data will not be useful. And in either case, if you don’t update it regularly, really on a daily basis, it will quickly become inaccurate and useless.
Consider Using a Virtual Assistant for Upkeep
Setting up and structuring your project management systems can be a heavy lift, and as the principal of your firm, or as a solopreneur, you will need to invest significant time upfront. But once it’s running you can easily find help to keep it up. Daily reviews and updates of these systems is a perfect role for a virtual assistant (VA). Some virtual assistant companies like Zirtual have VAs that are specifically screened for having project management experience.
Once a project management system is up and running, it doesn’t take that much time to keep it going. But if you fail to give it around half an hour a day or so, all the effort that went into setting it up in the first place will be wasted. And its purpose in helping you budget your time will be thwarted. In the end, if you fail to budget time you’ll experience lower margins on your work and many other consequential downstream struggles in managing your company.
Take stock of your time. Manage it well. Make and keep a time budget. And you’ll soon find that your margins improve, your profitability increases, and your creative business will thrive.