I lovingly refer to this spreadsheet as “the best thing I have ever made.” Being a professional maker of things, this is high praise! I don’t have a natural affinity for managing time. I don’t even have a natural affinity for telling time. The clock face still confuses me, I never know what time of day it is and I almost always underestimate how long things will take – especially dinner.
Of course, working in design and marketing, time management is an integral skill and the ability to forecast goes hand in hand with winning and delivering work. So instead of relinquishing time management to the recesses of my brain, declaring it cumbersome and only necessary for accurate invoicing, I’ve made it the central component of all my measurable endeavors.
On Friday afternoons when I think, “have I actually accomplished anything this week?” I don’t have to rely on my memory, call history or folder of sent emails. I cmd + tab over to my handy dandy spreadsheet and immediately know where my projects stand, what is and isn’t getting attention and what my highest priorities are. The best part is, visual reporting is built in. Anyone can look at the spreadsheet and see at a glance, what is going on across a multitude of different projects.
This spreadsheet combines methods from a few different approaches to project management, all of which were introduced to me by Kevin Raney, a project management professional with eighteen years of experience and a long list of certifications from the Project Management Institute. When I found myself overwhelmed with the number and variety of tasks on my plate as Director of Marketing for a manufacturing company, Kevin graciously helped me navigate and start prioritizing effectively.
I realize that “real” project management entails A LOT of intricacies like scheduling, mapping dependencies, managing people, and determining milestones, but for me – a soloist wearing multiple hats – an up-to-date backlog, time tracking and activity notation were the components I needed most.
I had grown so accustomed to multi-tasking I didn’t realize I was overwhemling myself by trying to do too many different types of mental activity with no space in between. I would design a new graphic, decide I needed a new pattern and work on that, then decide the new pattern needed to be incorporated on the product pages of the website, then realize the navigation on the product pages was inconsistent and start editing css, then get back to the graphic, which was actually for an email newsletter. Next I would realize I needed copy so I’d switch to that, then I’d design the email, fight with Mailchimp or Hubspot for a while, then switch over to importing customer email lists! I got a lot done just flowing from one thing to the next but it was hard to track, hard to measure, and just plain stressful.
It took almost two years to develop a method that integrated seemlessly into my workflow. At first I was blocking time on a google calendar, maintaining a backlog of projects in one spreadsheet and noting hours and activities by day in another. This was a step up from just keeping a very long list, but it took a lot of time to maintain and didn’t really help when I sat down to work and just didn’t know where to start.
Next I tried out Asana and various time trackers. I added my entire backlog into the software and finally began grouping tasks by type. I put web development in one category, copywriting in another, design in another, etc. I was able to get a better idea of everything I had going on by using subtasks and status markings. Prioritizing still involved a lot of assessment time, moving things around and clicking into each task to see what the last note was. To plan my weeks and track my time I used Hourstack, which integrated with Asana somewhat but was still a separate app to maintain. Hourstack would pull tasks and subtasks automatically, putting them in blocks that you could drag onto a weekly calender. This worked for a while because I could track time and leave notes in Hourstack, then export reports at the end of each week for my leadership team.
The evolution to my current method happened when it started taking as much time to maintain the status of projects in my apps as it did to actually work on the projects. The reporting available in the apps was not great and I found myself having to do a lot of manual work to get the data from the apps into a format that could actually communicate to my team outside the marketing department.
Do you want to read that Asana export? No, you do not.
Exporting to PDF in Asana is a little better because there are more visual cues but you don’t see any notes and no matter how projects are prioritized, they can only be exported in alphabetical order. Since none of my other colleagues were using Asana, there was no way to give them an accurate view without a lot of manual work.
This Hourstack export is easier to read but doesn’t give a view of progress over time.
I decided I needed a visual tracker for myself and my team. I envisioned a bar graph that would build itself over time, include daily notes and require little explanation. I transferred my backlog back to an excel spreadsheet, but kept all the tasks categorized. I ordered them according to which category was highest priority and which tasks, when they came up, would pause other tasks. I froze those panes and to the right added columns for each day of the week. It started looking like a very elaborate time sheet, which apparently was exactly what I needed!
I started planning my weeks by filling in boxes with a colored background, then when I would complete a task – or make any progress on it – I would log the number of hours I had spent and add a note in the box to describe what I had done. Adding a note added a little red arrow in the corner of the box and you only had to hover over the box to show the note. As days went by and pink boxes were gradually filled in it was very easy to see which categories, projects and tasks were getting the most attention. With excel formulas tallying hours it was also easy to see how many hours I had spent by week or by project.
Instead of exporting reports or taking screenshots I started sending the same spreadsheet I was using as a weekly report. My leadership team could easily see what was going on with just a preview in their email. If they wanted to take a closer look they could download the spreadsheet and see the status of any project. Compared to an 8-page PDF from Asana listing every project or a 2-page PDF showing a table of hours and notes from Horstack, this was much easier to read and grasp quickly.
This has become my go-to method for all the projects I work on. I’m not relying on anyone else’s software, constantly thinking about what I would change. I’m also not relying on eighteen different text files with notes and to-do lists spread out all vying for attention. Priorities, planning, tracking, and reporting all in one!