How Long Will It Take? Six Tips for Estimating Your Project Times
By Christina Gillick
When I first launched my business as a freelance web writer, I thought I could write an article in a few hours …
Was I wrong? Not completely. Sure, I could sit down and write 1,000 words in a few hours … but they wouldn’t necessarily be my best words.
To write a truly good article — and ensure I’m charging enough to earn a decent hourly wage, I also need to consider the time required for researching, brainstorming, outlining, and revising.
The same is true for any other kind of web writing — landing pages, emails, sales letters, and more. Even social media posts take more time than the actual five minutes you might spend writing the content.
So, how can you accurately estimate how long a project will take? Here’s how I do it:
1. Understand the Goal of the Project
Start by addressing these three questions:
- How complex is the project?
- Am I responsible for one page of copy … or 10?
- What other pieces will be expected?
The answers will help you understand the goal and clearly define the scope of the project.
Don’t underestimate the importance of this first step … I can’t tell you how many times I stayed up late writing a last-minute order device or follow-up email to accompany a sales letter. But, if I had simply asked the correct questions up front, I could have blocked out a more accurate amount of time for the project.
Pro tip: Don’t be afraid to ask your client questions. I used to think asking questions was a sign of an amateur. Nothing could be further from the truth! Your client expects you to ask questions. Otherwise, how will you know what they’re looking for and how to make them happy with the final copy?
2. Break the Project Down into Specific Tasks
Recently, I wrote a Wealthy Web Writer article, entitled, 7 Tips for Staying on Task (When You’d Rather Do Something Else). In it, I said:
“Divide big projects into manageable chunks. While it’s simple to think you’ll spend a week or two on a 20-page promotion, it’s easy to get distracted (and overwhelmed) when your calendar vaguely says, ‘Work on promo.’ Instead, break the project down and schedule multiple time slots for research, outlining, writing, editing, and revisions.”
Think about defining specific project tasks like typical goal-setting. You wouldn’t just say, “I want to be a six-figure writer this year,” and … bam!
Instead, you would break down your income goal …
$100,000 divided by 12 months works out to $8,333.33 per month. Divide that by the number of average weeks in a month, and you’d need to earn roughly $2,000 per week.
From there, you could break it down even further …
“I need to write two landing pages per week to earn six figures this year.”
You might even crunch some numbers to determine how many existing or prospective clients you would need to contact, how many of those people would need to hire you, and so on.
But, for the purpose of estimating your project time, let’s break it down into at least six parts: research, brainstorming, outlining, writing the first draft, polishing your draft, and completing client-requested revisions.
Pro tip: Work with repeat clients to cut back on time spent in research. Plus, as you get more familiar with a client’s workflow, you’ll be able to better estimate how much time each phase of the project will take.
3. Estimate Time Requirements for Each Section
Now, it’s time for the tricky part … actually estimating how long each part of the project will take. While this might seem a little confusing now, just think — the more you do this, the easier it will get.
I like to start with an estimate of one day per section (for every 10 pages).
So, let’s say you’ve been hired to write a sales letter. You’re not sure how long the letter should be, but the sample your client sent is 10 pages. That’s a good place to start. Here’s how your breakdown might look:
- Research – 1 day
- Brainstorming – 1 day
- Outlining – 1 day
- First draft – 1 day
- Polishing – 1 day
- Revisions (from client) – 1 day
Pro tip: Be flexible. And don’t get bogged down with research. For many of my early projects, I assigned a lot more time for research, thinking I would want plenty of facts to work with. I quickly discovered that a lot of my research was just “too much” … most of it didn’t wind up in the final copy.
Now, I prefer to research less upfront, outline sooner, and then research again later to fill in where my copy lacks proof. The result? I’m able to spend a lot more time enhancing my copy with things that actually make a difference.
4. Add Extra Time for “Chaos”
For this step, we’ll add in time for anything — and everything — to go wrong …
What I wrote for Wealthy Web Writer way back in May 2013 still applies:
“No matter what plans you make or how perfect those plans are, you can expect them to change or, in some cases, completely turn into chaos. Deadlines get moved. Other obligations come up. Some days we just don’t feel like writing. That’s okay.”
We just need to anticipate some of these changes with built-in “time buffers” so we can stay on track and meet our deadlines. I personally like to add one day per week for chaos and catch-up.
Let’s use the example from Step 3 where we budgeted six days for a 10-page project. I would add at least one full “chaos day” the first week and then another half-day the following week:
Week 1 –
- Monday – Research
- Tuesday – Brainstorming
- Wednesday – Outlining
- Thursday – First draft
- Friday – Chaos/Catch-up day
Week 2 –
- Monday – Polishing
- Tuesday – Submit to client
- Wednesday – Chaos/Catch-up day
- Thursday – Catch-up or “get ahead” day
- Friday – Revisions (from client)
You might spend your catch-up days finishing up one of the previous tasks, gathering additional research to beef up your copy, getting ahead on the next phase, or — if you’re on track — taking off early!
Pro tip: When in doubt, double the time you think you’ll need. If you spend twice the time researching, the result is more proof and stronger copy. If you double your time for writing, you’ll have stronger copy. If you spend more time polishing … again, stronger copy.
5. Plan for Project Overlap
No matter how well you plan, there will be overlap in your projects …
- Maybe you need time to think about and brainstorm a big idea …
- Maybe you need to interview someone, and they’re not available until the following week …
- Maybe there are client delays …
No matter the issue, you’ll need (and want) overlaps in your projects. This ensures you aren’t wasting your time while waiting.
That’s why I like to use Google Calendar to plan my schedule. I can block out time for the phases of each project and easily drag-and-drop them to other days as needed. (This also helps keep me on track and gives me a better idea of how to estimate project times in the future.)
In my experience, client delays during revisions are the biggest reason for project overlap. I’ll submit my final copy, and (in some cases) it’s weeks before I get a response. If I sat around waiting for the client, I would quickly go out of business.
To get an idea of how much overlap you should plan for, ask your client:
- What kind of turnaround time can I expect on revisions?
- Who else will participate in this project?
- How many people will need to approve the copy before it’s considered complete?
If a client says they’ll need 48 hours for turnaround, I assume they’ll need double that amount of time. Then, I fill the time by getting a head-start on my next project.
Pro tip: While it’s good to get ahead, don’t count on it. Your client might come back right away with revisions. So, schedule each project as if you have no extra time (and don’t forget to add in time for chaos).
6. Set Clear Expectations
Once you do all the above, be sure to set clear expectations with your client about your delivery date.
If a client asks you to complete something by a certain deadline, it’s a good idea to take some time to go through the steps above. Later, you can come back to the client with a deadline that works for you.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve accepted a project — excited about the work or pay — without considering the time the project would take …
Once I started planning the phases, I quickly realized I was in over my head. But, by then, it was too late. My only option at that point was to work day and night — and even over the weekend — to complete the project by the agreed-upon deadline.
Avoid having the same thing happen to you by understanding the goals of the project, breaking it down into phases, adding in plenty of time for chaos and project overlap … and then setting clear expectations of when you’ll submit the final copy.
Pro tip: Once you know your project deadline and have all the phases planned, staying on track is essential to meeting your deadline. See my recent Wealthy Web Writer article, 7 Tips for Staying on Task (When You’d Rather Do Something Else).
Estimating how long a project will take might seem overwhelming now, but it does get easier with practice. Once you’ve completed a few projects, you’ll have a much better idea of how long you need to research, outline, and write a project. What takes me eight days, might only take you six!
For now, over-estimate … and then track how long each phase actually takes you. This will help ensure you deliver your project on time — with much less stress. Plus, you’ll create a baseline to better estimate future projects.
So, now it’s your turn — how do you estimate how long projects will take? Did I leave anything out? Do you have any questions? Please comment below to join the discussion.
This article, How Long Will It Take? Six Tips for Estimating Your Project Times, was originally published by Wealthy Web Writer.
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