How Long? – Estimating Your Work

Modern Numbers Clock from Uncommon

In an earlier post I mentioned that ‘what’, ‘how long’ and ‘when’ describe the building blocks of project planning. We’ve just tackled scope (the ‘what’) so now it’s time to take a look at ‘How Long’ – or, in more technical terms, estimating.

Figuring out how to estimate your work is important for a couple of reasons.

You can’t accurately plan or schedule if you don’t know how long it’s going to take, and it also helps you figure out if you have scoped out too much (or too little) work.

So how do you estimate your work? For a small or indie-biz it’s pretty straightforward. Some of the projects or tasks you’ve set out for yourself you’ve probably done before; you intuitively know that it takes you, say, 4 hours to produce a new pattern and cut out pieces for 10 items.

For activities that are new or unfamiliar, it’s best to think through the individual steps of an activity, assign an amount of time to each step (start with a conservative estimate, meaning you allow yourself lots of time) and then track how long it actually takes you to get it done, making adjustments as you go.

For example, let’s say you’ve decided to increase your social media activity; you’d like to have more of a presence on Facebook, Flickr and Twitter. These are ongoing ‘maintenance’ activities, so one way to estimate them would be to break them down into initial set-up and daily chunks:

Set up Facebook Page:
4 hours
Set up Twitter Account: 2 hours
Look up and join relevant Flickr Groups: 3 hours
Daily Twitter reading/responding/tweeting: 20 mins
Daily Flickr uploading/surfing/gallery making/ group sharing: 30 mins
Daily Facebook admin: 45 mins

In this example you would plan for a day or two of getting your accounts set up and then spend about an hour and a half a day on social media activities.

Breaking everything down and measuring it in this granular way is not always necessary; with time and practice you may not need to do it at all.

It can, however, be very helpful when you’re grappling with the enormity of new projects and activities you want to commit to, and not sure if and when you’ll have the time to get it done.

8 thoughts on “How Long? – Estimating Your Work

  1. I have started doing this with my action steps these last few weeks and find it really very useful! It also shows me that by limiting my time on a particular task in turn, it allows for more to be fruitfully and actually accomplished by the end of any given day.

    I enjoy how you broke down even this example of increasing your social media presence. Being so specific just helped me to identify areas of my own projects that need to be rebooted – Thank you so very much!

  2. Thanks for the article! I also wanted to mention it’s good to know how long it takes to do stuff when you start looking at doing custom jobs for clients. Like meetings, revisions, sourcing supplies and even photographing work to send to them for approval. I sometimes forget about how long it takes to price, photograph and post new work to my shop.

    Thanks for the social media breakdown, I often wonder how long I should be spending on that. Cheers!

  3. Thanks Eleanor!

    It’s helpful to break it down into chunks of approximate time. The only trouble is, I often find myself starting one thing and then getting distracted mid-stream. The hardest thing for me to tackle is Focus.

  4. I have a terrible sense of time. Things almost always take longer than I anticipate. Still I make the lists and schedule the time and then do it again if I fall short. Somehow I manage not to miss most deadlines. The key for me is just keep working.

  5. Yes, the ability to stay focused (if I could figure out a way to bottle that!) and just keep working are definitely the key to productivity.

    I find breaking things into steps, even if I just jot down a few line items really helps. The technical term for this is called WBS, or ‘Work Breakdown Structure’ at my old day job this was a science. We had spreadsheets and databases of how long it took to do certain things (‘metrics’) We’d plug all the data into forms that would generate estimates for large scale projects and that would go into determining project pricing. Obviously too complicated for what most of us are dealing with day to day, but a watered down approach of this has served me well in my own little enterprise.

  6. I’ll echo Jennifer and say that paying yourself fairly for custom projects (95% of my work) depends on your knowledge of how long it takes to do the component steps of the proposed projects. *All* the steps. It’s essential to figure that out.

    You have inspired me to get serious about calculating the time spent on my social media tasks. I’ve been meaning to do it for months. Thanks, Eleanor!

    I look forward to segment three.

  7. Breaking projects down is so important. It can be a challenge when you’re just starting out on your own sometimes, especially if you’re starting up a business that’s totally unrelated to your previous career. For me, I’ve been working for graphic design agencies for almost a decade, and each of my previous jobs has had different methods of keeping track of time spent on each phase and part of a project. I’ve been blessed, because now that I freelance for myself, I can take the best of those experiences and use them in my own methods.

    I’m still working out the kinks, and sometimes it’s still difficult to estimate (especially for out of the box, totally custom projects), but most of the time, I manage. I try to always produce an estimate to the client before work begins with a provision in our contract that mentions the final invoice may reflect additional hours and costs. That way, when the unexpected happens, both parties are prepared.

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