This post hasn't been updated in over 2 years.
It’s easy to see the financial benefits of using certain tools: for some freelance niches, not having the most recent copy of the Adobe Creative Suite is the same thing as walking away from every client who is more up to date. But project management tools don’t have such a clear cut value.
There are plenty of freelancers who manage big projects with what amounts to a stack of sticky notes and a calendar — a minimal cost when you look at tools that might charge a monthly subscription or have a one-time cost with a couple of zeros on the end.
Putting a number on saving a few minutes here and there can seem barely worth the effort. But the reality is that project management tools, used correctly, can save you a lot more time than just a few minutes at a go.
The Time Sink that is Project Management
I’ve been known to wake up in the middle of the night, stressing out about whether I’ve taken care of every step of a particular client’s project. Every client I work with has different requirements for exactly how a final draft should be submitted and I’m responsible for a ton of different details.
It’s stressful, but it used to be a lot worse. I used to rely on just a simple checklist to help me juggle all these moving parts. I was constantly worried that something was about to go horribly, horribly wrong.
Not needing to go over the plans for each project a dozen times to be able to check that I’m hitting each due date definitely helps.
I started trying out a bunch of different project management tools. Currently, I use Basecamp, but I’ve tested dozens over the years. I wasted my fair share of time on transitioning information between systems or trying to troubleshoot a piece of software that I had overloaded, but now that I’ve found a good fit for what I do, I save a lot of time.
The biggest time saver is just knowing that I have a system that works. Not needing to go over the plans for each project a dozen times to check that I’m hitting each due date definitely helps. Having a tool set that actually notifies me of what’s due soon, so I don’t have to try to remember to even check it is great. Being able to organize information all in one place adds to that benefit: I can look at one page and not only does it have each step of a project, but it also has all of the details I need, like word counts or submission guidelines).
I do still have to spend time on managing projects and in checking to make sure that everything is correct within the software I rely on. But the benefit of a good project management tool is, first and foremost, to get everything out of your head and into a format that can make it more manageable.
Manageable Projects are Repeatable Projects
Freelancers are notorious among some business owners as a group of people who start from scratch on every single project. There are varying degrees of truth in that claim for each of us. Most freelancers have some templates that make starting a new project a faster process at the least. But overall, many of us don’t have a set process that we follow for every client that comes in the door.
I noticed this glaring lack in my own business when I started looking at project management tools meant for businesses bigger than just one or two people. Most had a space for templating out entire projects that I just couldn’t fill. I had a routine, but it wasn’t actually written down anywhere. But putting it into a system meant that I noticed more often when I missed a step or where I could improve on what I was doing.
Creating a set process made even more of a difference in how I freelance than having one project management system where I put all of my information. The right tools make it a lot easier: I can set up a brand new project, complete with each step I need to take, with one click. I can make sure that I ask every client the same questions and can give them a chance to look at just what I’m up to on projects for them.
Where’s Your ROI?
The return on investment that you’ll get from using a project management tool probably won’t be exactly the same as what I’ve seen. At the very least, I do expect that the right software or tool set will make your freelance business run better. A little peace of mind can be worth quite a bit, even if you don’t save hours every day or look more professional to your clients. Graduating from a sticky-note system is worth a little investment.