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Making do with what you've got

by Geoff Hart

Previously published, in a different form, as: Hart, G.J. 1994. Making do with what you've got. Independent Perspective, the newsletter of the Consulting and Independent Contracting professional interest committee, Fall:1–2.

As freelancers, our survival depends on managing projects and organizing time, appointments, and lists of contacts. Buying special-purpose software for each of these needs, however, can push you into bankruptcy: $200 to $500 for project management software, $100 to $200 for an appointment calendar, and up to $300 for a personal organizer. Of course, we wouldn't be freelancers if we didn't have a certain amount of the "do it yourself" spirit, and you'd be surprised at how much you can do yourself with the tools at hand. Take the word processor, for instance.

Each of us owns a word processor, and we probably spend most of our time using it. Each management task I listed above is really nothing more complicated than managing lists of words, and what manages words better than a word processor? For my own freelance work, I rely on my word processor not only for words, but for managing my projects. Here are a few tips on how you can do the same:

What files do I load? My appointment calendar and my project tracking list. I load the tracking list first because this way, the calendar ends up on top of the window for tracking once the program finishes loading. A small point, but when I return with coffee, my "to do" list is staring me in the face. Here are some details about these files:

Tracking file

I keep my tracking file simple, although I've developed elaborations for various purposes. Each entry in the file is a client's name, followed by the name of the project. The first line after that, indented, is the most recent status of the project (e.g., "sent second draft to client for review"). When there are deadlines to meet, I add the dates as indented points beneath the status line. For more elaborate tracking, and sometimes for invoicing, I add the actual date I finished each task, the time required to do so, and the cost. If you can build tables with the table editor of your word processor, you can use the table's column headings as your checkpoints. This also lets you use the table's spreadsheet features to track times, costs, and so on. This is too structured for my taste, and generally too complicated for my needs, but the information may be important to you.

To-do list and calendar

My to-do list calendar is even simpler. I type the names of each month in a large, bold font, then add dates and tasks under these headings only when I take on new chores and establish new deadlines. If I have nothing to do on April 1st, no number 1 appears under the heading for April. When I first created my list, I added birthdays and other occasions that occur every year at the same time. Now, when I come to the beginning of a new month, I copy the text for the entire month and paste it at the bottom of the file before I start adding new appointments to the original copy. This way, I don't have to retype the repeating events every year. Finally, to ensure that I don't leave anything until the last moment, I add a reminder one or more weeks before the actual date. For example, on March 24th: "First draft of OMNR edit due in 1 week; do I need an extension?" Every item in my tracking file can be added to the to-do list calendar simply by switching windows, copying the text, returning to the calendar, and pasting the text at the appropriate point.

Most word processors now allow you to colorize text, and this makes it easy to label entries in red for high priorities and leave the rest in black on white; more sophisticated color schemes are also possible.

Contacts

My contacts file is an alphabetical list of names, along with addresses and other important notes (e.g., "this client won't tolerate split infinitives"). When I need an address, I open this file, then copy and paste the required information elsewhere (e.g., into a reminder letter). If you're ambitious, you can create a mail-merge file from this information and use the word processor's mail-merge function to sort the list, select a specific name using a macro, and perform several other useful tricks.

Making do

None of these tricks work as well or as efficiently as dedicated software. Project management software tracks complex projects much more effectively (e.g., it handles resource requirements and constraints), and automates reminders and deadlines for you with little intervention. Personal information managers integrate addresses with your word processor and FAX modem, for example. But my frugal system has worked so well for my simple needs that I've never been tempted to buy additional software. I'm a jack of all trades, working on mastering one, and this approach fits my style better. It could work for you too.


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