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.