The Secret to Maximizing Your Billable Time Without the Added Stress

Summary:In this week's episode I show you step-by-step what I do to keep track of client
projects. You'll see how this simple approach keeps me from EVER missing a client deadline.

As a solo professional, you earn a living by leveraging your time, skills and experience. And even though you can (and should) continually work to expand your skills and capabilities, the amount of time you have available is fixed.

Therefore, HOW you manage that time will determine your overall level of success.

Now, when it comes to time management, the first thing that most of us think about is day-to-day or hour-by-hour scheduling. Outlook, iCal and other similar scheduling software applications do a good job of helping you organize your day. So do paper-based planners and organizers.

But what all of these tools fail to do is help project-based solo professionals plan and manage their daily and weekly capacity.

Capacity management entails much more than just planning your day. It also involves the following:

  • Breaking down your projects into individual components
  • Distributing each component in a way that allows you to meet deadlines
  • Making sure you don't over commit to your clients
  • Making sure you don't over commit to yourself!

Outlook can't do that. Neither can iCal or paper-based FranklinCovey planners. What project-based solo pros really need is an intermediary solution"”a tool that complements their regular day-planning software and enables them to manage their workloads effectively.

I realized the need for such a tool a few years ago when I began moonlighting as a freelancer. After a few months of struggling to land even the smallest project, I suddenly found myself with more project opportunities than I knew what to do with.

I didn't want to turn down paying work. But I also didn't want to miss a deadline or lose my sanity. So I needed a way to make better decisions about the time I had available. I needed a simple capacity-management tool. That way, when a client or prospect called me with a project, I could tell him or her if and when I could take on the work.

For a while, I kept this information in my head. I then moved it to a desk calendar. When that didn't work, I bought a whiteboard. But that turned out to be too cumbersome. As project start dates and my own schedule changed, it was too difficult to keep track of all the balls I was juggling.

Project-scheduling software was much more than what I needed. It was too complex to learn and use. So, eventually, I decided to create my own spreadsheet-based tool. After a series of refinements, this is the tool I still use today.

Download Ed's "Capacity Scheduling" tool.

This capacity-scheduling tool is deceptively simple. When used consistently, it will help you estimate your work capacity more easily. It will also ensure that you never miss a deadline because you've over-committed. Plus, it will enable you to stay on top of upcoming projects and quickly make changes to your schedule as circumstances require.

Keep in mind that this tool is not intended to replace Outlook, iCal or whatever you use to track your daily schedule and activities. I still keep my appointments and scheduled calls in iCal, and I use a paper-based planner to schedule my day.

(Yes, I still use a paper-based planner; I've tried more than half a dozen approaches and I always end up going back to what's worked best for me over the past 20 years!)

However, I use my scheduling tool to break projects into individual pieces, schedule those pieces, and move them around as I progress and things change.

A Demonstration of How it Works

In this short video, I'll show you how I use this tool to break down projects and better manage my workload.

Another Way to Think About This

I treat capacity planning the same way a plant manager would treat production scheduling in a factory. I realize we're not really "factories," but many of the principles still apply.

A factory has only so much capacity at any given time. Which means that it can only churn out so much product every day and every week. A good plant manager will schedule production runs in a way that maximize output while minimizing equipment and operator downtime.

When a new order comes in, he has to figure out how to schedule it so that deadlines are met and the factory's resources are utilized as best as possible. If the schedule is full, he can't really "create" more capacity. Instead, he has to look for the next available slot. Or he has to juggle production jobs internally in order to keep everyone happy.

For both the plant manager and the solo professional, this involves a delicate balance between keeping resources (time) employed at near capacity and not going over what the "factory" can produce on any given day or week.

Six Helpful Capacity-Scheduling Tips

Here are some more suggestions that may help you better manage your time and increase your productivity:

  1. Set working hours, regardless of whether you work part time or full time. This will not only give you discipline and help you stay on track, but it will also allow you to figure out how many hours you have available every week. And if you already know how many hours you have every week, setting hours allows you to distribute them throughout the week, especially if you work part time and your schedule is going to be somewhat erratic.
  2. Schedule your daily activities hour by hour. You can do this either the night before or first thing in the morning. In my case, I look at my capacity-management tool first thing in the morning and schedule each activity and task for that day in my paper-based FranklinCovey planner.
  3. Overestimate project effort by about 20 percent. Don't fool yourself"”no plan is perfect. Things come up. Emergencies arise. That's why you need a good buffer. So if you think a project will require you to work three hours a day for six business days, give yourself another three-hour block. That way, you'll always be on top of the project, or even ahead of schedule.
  4. Allocate time every week for other nonbillable activities. Factor in some time for such activities as reading, going to the gym, bookkeeping, returning calls"”even a break or two. Make sure to block that time in your schedule and try not to give it up unless you absolutely have to.
  5. If you use my capacity-management tool, highlight deadlines with a different color so they'll be easier to spot. That way you'll quickly know what's due (and when) just by glancing at your screen.
  6. Finally, update your schedule as changes occur. Things will change quite often, so it's important that you continually update your tasks. That way you'll always have an accurate picture of your availability should a client call with a new project he or she needs your help with.

What do you think of this approach? Have you tried something else that's worked for you? Let me know in the comments area below.


  • Great tool... i give it a try.

  • Please confirm this is for FREE??

  • Imad M Mujeeb

    Although a great tool, but I beleive google calendar has a better visualisation of managing capacity tasks.
    No offence. Peace

  • Ed, if you ever have free time for a side project and can find a good software developer, a computer app of this would be great -- for one thing, to save having to update the tool every year. Feel free to contact me for ideas on what would be good to see.

  • Hi Ed, I love this tool. It's simple and yet uncommonly smart. When I watched your video I said, "Eureka!" (or something to that effect).

    I'm blogging about it in a post on FruitionFactors.com, and will point my readers to this page. (The post will be live at this link on Tuesday 4/10/12: http://www.fruitionfactors.com/?p=243 .) Hope to direct a few more capacity-management converts your way.

    • edgandia

       Fantastic! Thanks, Veronica. Glad to hear you found it valuable. And thanks much for spreading the word. 😉

  • Angie Mangino

    Thanks so much for this sanity saving solution.  I, too, am a paper planner person, but this addition to my scheduling is fantastic!  It appears so simple to maintain, which is a very big plus.  Now I won't have to cross out, draw circles, try to fill in new work with post it notes, and count on miracles to keep track of it all in my planner. 

    • edgandia

       Awesome! Great to hear this will help you, Angie. Thanks for letting me know. 😉

  • edgandia

     Paul - This app looks awesome! But you're right about it not tracking total time per task and per day. That's KEY to making this approach work.

    • Martha

       Yeah, I've used TeuxDeux and liked it, but it definitely doesn't do what this does.

  • Sudha A Shah

    Thanks, Ed, for your updated 2012 tool.  I downloaded the previous version a few weeks ago and have found it to be very useful.  

    I also created a template in Excel that you can customize for any year.  This template is almost identical in format, but there are some aesthetic changes.  Glad to share this with you so you can pass on to others. 

    • edgandia

       Thanks for the offer, Sudha! Can you send it to ed at internationalfreelancersacademy dot com? Would love to see it. 😉

      • Sudha A Shah

        Great!  I have emailed it to you.

  • edgandia

    Hey guys -- We've updated the capacity scheduling tool for 2012. The link in the episode above will take you straight to that updated file.

    Enjoy! And if you don't mind, let us know how this tool worked for ya. 😉

  • Tope Omitola

    Ed

    This is a great tool. And, it's free. GOD will bless you.

    • edgandia

       Thanks, Tope!

  • Did the freelancer fairies tell you I DESPERATELY needed something like this? This is awesome, but like other readers I'm not exactly sure how to update it for 2012?  I'd love a updated version too...as I'm officially an excel duffus!

    • edgandia

       Thanks, Stacey! Will get this updated for 2012 ASAP and re-post.

  • Thanks so much for not only sharing your Capacity Planner, but explaining how it works in such an easy-to-understand and concise way. This is much, MUCH appreciated! :o)

    • edgandia

       Appreciate the feedback, Holly! Good to hear this info and tool were helpful. 😉

  • To echo everyone else, thank you for, as usual, providing real tools and specific advice. I hate experts who create vague blog posts or do teleseminars that only skim the surface so you'll buy their products rather than giving real information and reeling us in that way. That's why I love you, Ed! 

    One question: is there an easy way to update this to 2012, or do you just have to go through and update the way the dates fall each week manually? I'm not terribly familiar with Excel, so I'm hoping there's a trick I just don't know about 🙂

    • edgandia

      Many thanks, Ally! Truly appreciate your kind words.

      Re: updating this spreadsheet, it has to be done manually. Sorry about that! I've updated the first 6 months in mine already. Let me update the rest and I'll send you a copy. I'll also update the link above with the 2012 version. Email me: ed at internationalfreelancersacademy dot com and I'll make sure to send you the updated file.

  • Ed, I swear, you never let me down. This is a fabulous tool and I love how you and the other professionals at IFA are always ready to share your best stuff with us. I shared this on my Facebook Page and sent out an SOS to have someone build it for me in Numbers... I am spreadsheet deficient. I am also one of the number who uses paper and pencil to schedule time.  To track billable time, though, I use MacFreelancer, which allows me to put in my clients, create multiple projects for them, and bill fixed items as well as timed ones. I can use the timer right in the software to populate timed invoices, although there is only one client I bill hourly anymore, and that's my husband! 😉

    • edgandia

       OK... now I'm blushing over here. Thanks so much, Sharon-anne! Appreciate your comments and your sharing this info with others.

      MacFreelancer sounds awesome. I wasn't aware of that app. Thanks for sharing that info. The key is to use what works for you. In many cases that means using a combo of 2 or 3 apps/tools, some of which are paper-based. Nothing wrong with that.

      Hilarious that you bill your husband by the hour! 😉

  • lee cornfield

    Thanks so much for sharing something real and valuable. I often use pen and paper, but this is infinitely better. I also use Grindstone as a backup, to track projects and set reminders for deadlines. If I've decided I need to work 2 hours on a project and switch, I'll use the built-in stopwatch, and other times, I might need to record the time on a project. So it really complements the scheduling. What I found most valuable in your post was the point you made about adding 20% to the estimate and the idea of inserting administrative and personal items. So thanks again!

    • edgandia

       Thanks, Lee!

  • Natalia Mackevics

    I've been recently looking for more efficient ways to keep my notes on planning combined with comments on what I've already accomplished or learnt. It's a pity that Word documents cannot have more than one sheet, like those in Excel. One of the options is to have an Excel document with a separate sheet for each topic, but what I need is more like a tex editor, i.e. I need more (and larger) text fields. Any suggestions?

    • edgandia

      Natalia -- Have you looked into Evernote? Sounds ideal for what you just mentioned. It's simplicity and flexibility is what enables you to do that sort of thing. Plus, it's free! 😉

      • edgandia

         BTW, I've been using Evernote to collect notes, thoughts and swipe file materials for various projects. It's been very helpful, and I'm barely using all of its capabilities.

      • Natalia Mackevics

        I've had a quick look, and it already looks towardly and promising. I wonder whether they have an offline version, as I want to keep all the stuff about me at home... Thanks a lot!

        • Barbara

          FYI Evernote is available for iphone as well and ipad.

  • Scott Flood

    It's funny, Ed, but just a couple weeks ago, I started building a tool like this in my mind, figuring out the basic steps so I could commit to Excel one of these days. thanks for doing the heavy lifting for me!

    • edgandia

      Love the synchronicity! Happy to hear this came at the right time.

  • Thanks, Ed! It looks great, I'll give it a try. I use paper, my cell phone and Todoist but nothing seems to work on its own. I need a combination of tools and I think your spreadshet could work. 🙂

    • edgandia

      Cool! Let me know if it ends up working for you. May take a few days to get used to working with it. Thanks for your comment! 😉

  • Kathy Henderson-Sturtz

    Clear. Concise. Doable. Homerun!

  • Thanks so much for sharing this! One question that comes to mind -- what
    about scheduling time in for administrative tasks (dealing with email;
    occasional but inevitable computer problems; invoicing; updating
    resume/web site; etc.)? Is that built into the 2-hour time blocks for
    each client? And is professional development part of the 10 hours?
    (Webinars, seminars, reading blog posts like this one.)

    • edgandia

      Hi Martha. If they're predictable admin tasks (bookkeeping, email, etc.), you want to list that as a line item. I usually do this by just calling it "Misc." and factoring in an hour or so every day or ever other day. For unpredictable tasks, that's where the 20% buffer comes in. For professional development, if it's longer than one hour, I'll also schedule that. But if it's keeping up with my business reading, I'll do that during some of my breaks throughout the day.

      •  Thanks for the response, Ed! I find sometimes that's the trickiest part of scheduling -- remembering to add in all the necessary maintenance and administrative stuff that seems like it will just take a few minutes. It's easy to underestimate that.

  • Thanks for posting.

  • Jeanne

    Awesome, awesome, awesome! Getting myself on a capacity planning system was one of my goals for 2012 but I hadn't gotten around to setting up my own method for it. Thank you so much for letting me crib off yours! 

    • edgandia

       Awesome! Glad this came in handy. 😉

  • Ed, this is a great answer to my earlier question: How to manage success! I too use a paper planner (Planner Pad) which I love b/c it doesn't hem me in to hourly commitments unless I want them. It also keeps me off the computer/screen more so I can plan at night w/o looking at a screen and checking email.

    But I need to go to another level to develop a better sense of my capacity. I'm going to try this out and see if I can fuse the two together.

    I especially appreciate your comment about a buffer zone since I have difficulty actually predicting the full extent of a project.

    • edgandia

      Thanks, Sarah! Let me know what you think once you get a chance to put it into play.

  • Diana Dragoy

    Hi Ed, This seem to be a great tool.  Right now I am using a daily planner, highlighting with miscellaneous colors for important and urgent projects.  Will definitely try your method.  Thanks.

    • edgandia

       I like the highlighting idea. I've seen a couple of friends do that and I know it works. I need to try it. Thanks for your comment!

  • Robyn Feld

    Glad to hear about a successful copywriter who still uses a paper planner like I do.  Your system supplements it beautifully.  BTW, I purchased the Land Work Now Blueprint and am very impressed with the thought and detail that went into putting it together.  The content will be useful for anyone who has a serious copywriting business.

    • edgandia

      Paper rocks! Thanks for your comments on the Land Work Now Blueprint. Good to hear you've liked it so far. Appreciate the feedback. 😉

  • Jenn McGroary

    Ed, This is amazing! Thanks so much for sharing. Scheduling all my projects has been a nightmare for me and I've been worried, I'm over committing myself taking on new projects. This will be a great tool to help me see where I have time that I can fit in other work. I especially like the point about scheduling personal tasks on there as well, because they are just as important for entrepreneurs in scheduling our days. :-)  

    • edgandia

      You're right, Jenn -- the personal stuff is key. If you don't factor those in, you create a great deal of stress because there will be no time for them. Let me know how this approach works for you once you've had a chance to try it. Thanks for the feedback!

  • I'm at the white board stage at the moment!...  Thanks for this its exactly what I've been looking for as well!

    • edgandia

       Love it when the timing is just right!

  • What a great - and easy - tool! Like you, I've been struggling with how to schedule the larger projects into my schedule so I am not cramming them into the week they are do. I also will use this tool to tackle some of my own projects I want to do to market my services. Thanks Ed!

    • edgandia

       Great to hear, Tess -- thanks! Yes, you bring up a good point. Make sure to factor in personal projects and other initiatives such as self-promotion initiatives, etc. In fact, this tool dramatically increases the chances that you'll get that important stuff done because you're purposely carving out that time. Good luck!

  • Brenda Spandrio

    This is ABSOLUTELY what I've been looking for! I can't wait to try it out. I've been so frustrated trying to plan and track my projects...

    • edgandia

       Fantastic! Thanks, Brenda. Happy to hear this will help you. 😉