The single most important thing to make project management for creatives work

The single most important thing that will make your project management work for you is the ability to break down your process.

Here’s why:

Without the capacity to understand your own process, in tiny pieces, project management is a big, ugly, crying-making kerfuffle.

A little story about Gantt charts

A long time ago, when I was first getting serious about project management, I fell in love with Gantt charts.

These magical little charts would solve my problem, I thought. They’re pretty, and petite, and simple, and it seems they are the holy grail of project management.

For these little charts were indeed in every book, article, and blog about project management.

I didn’t understand them. But I wanted them anyway. I didn’t know, then, that the micro-level view of the work was what made them fly.

I found software that would create them. I found tools that made them out of software I already had.

But because I didn’t even understand my own workflow, I was literally pissing into the sea in a rainstorm and hoping to turn the ocean yellow.  In other words, it was never going to work.

So I gave up on project management for the longest time.

Once I unlocked the secret, everything fell into place easily and effortlessly. Including the money.

Most of us come to project management because of money

Generally this means that we don’t understand how to create value-based pricing and are wedded to a money-for-time exchange. That’s a story for a different day, however.

What you do is say, gosh I’m doing all this work and feel like I’m not getting paid enough! (Usually, because you’re not getting paid enough.)

Then you say yes to everything that comes along because of a scarcity mindset.

And then before you know it, you’re doing a gazillion hours of work, never having a rest, and burning yourself out at a rate of knots. All you want to be doing instead is crocheting blankets on the porch with a mug of coffee and enjoying watching life go past, which is what you envisioned when you started freelancing. All that time!

What you got instead is an employee’s understanding of money, paired with the fervent desire to avoid living in your car.

Then when you come to project management, you have no idea how much time you spend on parts of jobs. You don’t even understand your own workflow, why it is the way it is, or even what you do on a micro scale.

Some entrepreneurial creatives get to this point and onboard a virtual assistant. But then what they do is create videos of their own process as it is, without asking whether or not the process is in its best possible form (meaning, most effective and most efficient). What they embed is the worst form of their process, not the best.

The only way to know that is to write your process.

Writing out what you do is the only way to get visibility over what you do

Writing forces you to think. If you have messy thinking, you’ll have messy writing.

Similarly, if you have a haphazard work process, then as soon as you begin writing it down you’ll start to see just how haphazard it is.

Documenting your work is the fastest way to assess its effectiveness and efficiency. When you see each step laid out on a page (or screen), you suddenly start asking questions.

Questions like, why do I do that there when it makes more sense to do it over here instead?

Questions like, wouldn’t it be smarter to put all those types of tasks together rather than leaving them scattered through the week?

Questions like, why did I think that the making part of this job was the same thing as the thinking (or researching or planning, or reporting, or documenting, etc) part of this job?

The answer is: Because until you wrote it down, you didn’t understand your job in the first place.

So how micro is micro? How small must be each piece?

Each piece must be a discrete task.

For example, if you were writing an article for someone, you might have pieces that look like this:

  • 1. Set up a client file
  • 2. Create list of requirements
  • 3. Brainstorm what you know vs what you don’t
  • 4. Identify areas to research
  • 5. Conduct the research
  • 6. Write what you learn
  • 7. Create an outline
  • 8. Write draft one
  • 9. Rewrite draft
  • 10. Run draft against requirements
  • 11. Review internally
  • 12. Edit draft for SEO (or accuracy, or grammar, or whatever else)

… You get the point.

The tasks are many. They are not:

  • 1. Write article
  • 2. Client review
  • 3. Finalise and deliver.

When you think about your work in such macro pieces, you very quickly find yourself in a tangled mess, because it is absolutely impossible to understand how much time you require.

If you know your work to the absolute micro level, and are willing to face the reality of it, you can add times that are realistic.

Once you have your draft set of tasks and times, you can run a timer with the next job you do and tweak the baseline times.

After that, you will understand how much of a “time margin” to establish. To do that, you think of doing the job again, but on a topic or for a client you despise. That dragging feeling you get? That tells you how much longer each part of it would take.

Build the ability to break down your process

It’s the only way to understand your job. And it’s the only direction from which project management actually works.

Building that capability begins with a notepad and a pen. For a week or two – or a month if you can stand it! – write down what you do, every time you do something. When you have a list, you can then review it over coffee. The way you write it down is the way you work; if it is illogical, haphazard, messy, difficult to follow, or jumps around, you know how to fix it: Put like tasks with like tasks.

As a creative, you must also understand the enormous effects of switching. Analysis and planning use different parts of your brain from creating. Never do them in the same session.

Roll with the changes

If you find that changing things around panics you because of your client flow, that’s ok! Changing your schedule will only impact deadlines for a short while, because once you have a new flow in place you’ll become more effective and efficient immediately.

And if you can do this, then the next step of building project management into every project as its first task will be a walk in the park.

xx Leticia

PS. You can get my book The Ultimate Guide to Project Management for Creatives, here.

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