Need a productivity system for scheduling multiple projects
June 11, 2013 10:05 AM   Subscribe

What would be a good system to help me figure out my work days and my availability?

I’m self-employed and have to juggle multiple client projects. I’d like to develop a good system to help me figure out how to block out time for current projects and assess my availability and reasonable deadlines when booking new projects.

When I begin a project, I develop a rough estimate of how long it will take. Let’s say one project will take me five hours and is due in a week, another will take twenty-five hours and is due at the end of next month, and maybe I have retainer client for fifteen hours a month. And suppose I have eight working hours each day to schedule time.

Ideally, there would be a program where, whenever I get a new project, I could plug in these numbers and due dates and it would populate the calendar for me. I could also recalibrate it for when estimates run over or short, projects are delayed, and the other hiccups that invariably occur. Unfortunately, no such program exists.

I’ve tried using Google Calendar for this purpose. For each new project, I would create a new calendar with a different color. Then I would create repeating blocks of time for the project, say two hours a day until the due date. Other projects are scheduled each day too, and I’d have time blocked out for administration, marketing, lunch breaks, meetings and so on until the day is full.

But the problem with this system is I’d find myself spending too much time tediously rearranging hour blocks. I’ve tried it with a paper calendar version too and colored Post-It notes, but again, it takes a lot of maintenance. Another problem is this system makes me decide the specific time during the day I want hours booked, but that doesn’t really matter. I’m looking for something more top level.

I’ve tinkered around with an Excel spreadsheet for this purpose with little success.

I’d appreciate any suggestions. To recap, I’m not looking for a task or appointment manager, but just a way to easily gauge how much availability I have and how much time I need to schedule for projects so I can meet their due dates.
posted by Leontine to Work & Money (2 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: This isn't a perfect match, but have you used/made Gantt charts before? You can make them in Excel, either in a super-basic way like graph paper, or with a bit more complexity, or as discussed in the comments here, there are a ton of additional ways to use Excel, and there are dedicated programs for making Gantt charts.

Gantt charts are primarily for managing individual projects, identifying dependencies, and figuring out how much time to allocate for sequential and related tasks to get a single project done. But if you use Excel or some other program that allows you to list a series of projects on the same time scale, you can see how your obligations start to stack up. And depending on how detailed you get in terms of your time breakdown, you can identify hours per day for projects.

It's a bit of a hack, but not the worst solution I could think of. Otherwise, I'd suggest a large year calendar on your wall (or taping off a calendar yourself, allowing you to scale the calendar however you see fit), with sticky notes for individual activities within a day. I'm sure there are computer-based calendars that can do this, but by having a REALLY big calendar, you can really see how much time you have in individual days. Just be sure to back up the events into a more wind-resistant format.
posted by filthy light thief at 11:14 AM on June 11, 2013

Honestly, I'd probably go with Google Calendar. I know you said you've tried it and it didn't work, but I think that it's because you got caught up in exactly when things showed up. So either that or just a list of what needs to get done.

It might help to think of it like a kitchen I know, it's not a kitchen. But so many things would be better if they ran like a restaurant kitchen. I'm sorry, it's what I know.

One list for things that need to get done at a certain time. Lunch (because you'll put it off if you can), meeting with other people, stuff like that.

One list for things that need to be done by a certain time. It's different because it doesn't matter when it starts. Need that report before 5pm? This is where it goes. Obviously stuff has to be done by a certain time, so stuff only goes here if it's due in the next 3 days. Change that time limit as needed.

A last list for stuff that needs to get done, but the timing either doesn't matter or is far enough in the future that it "doesn't matter."

The key here is that you'll need to break things up into the right components, stuff like that.

On my calendar I'd have an end date for everything. So maybe a task list would work better, but it doesn't really matter. That's just to have a better visual of when things need to be done.

Then find things that can automatically take care of themselves. A report your computer can run. Paying bills. Sorting the emails. If you don't have to do it, then don't. It's like having that roast in the oven while you cut vegetables.

I like white boards for the lists. Let's you move things over pretty easily.

The key though is that the "calendar" only exists so you can look at July 19th and say "Hmm, I need to have that preliminary design done for Bob and Susan needs her final copy." Times don't matter.

If you're worried about spending X hours on a project set a timer. Bob gets 1 hour for his design. Timer goes off, you're done.
posted by theichibun at 12:05 PM on June 11, 2013

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