How to master efficiency and workflow

A woman leading a business meeting
(Image credit: Shutterstock/fizkes)

Time is money, as all business owners know. Workflow, time management and internal administration – if you can make these processes more efficient, not only will you boost your bottom line, but it will also free up your time to focus more on the creative side of business life. 

Even if every business could benefit from improving its efficiency - you just need to know how you’ve already added a project manager to the team, as head of your company you need to nail the basics of good organization. So take a step back and set some processes in place – your clients, bank balance and sanity will all thank you. Read on for efficiency enlightenment.

Perfecting project management

Your business needs a platform for creativity while still ensuring the work gets done. Perfect project management – the idea might put a damper on your enthusiasm, but being organized is the key to turning out great work, on time, every time. 

Your business needs to be on top of deadlines and demands, budgets and billing, files and feedback – not to mention any staff you might bring in along the way. So what’s the secret? 

Whether they’re manual or digital, you need some efficient systems and processes in place that will ensure your projects are approached logically. If you undertake work for external clients, you need to keep on top of jobs or risk being swamped by your workload.

A man leading a business meeting

(Image credit: Shutterstock/fizkes)

Analyze the brief:
Once you’ve won a project, analyze the brief and work out what you need to do to get it done. How much research do you need to do into the market your client operates in, its brand, business, competitors and so forth? Plan time for research and inspiration, sketching out ideas and refining them.

Get the details right:
Be as specific as possible with establishing the brief and what you’re offering for the fee. This can take time but often saves a lot of pain in the long run. The more you can open up about your processes, the more the client will see the value in what you do. 

Log the conversation:
Make notes while talking to clients and keep a document logging feedback. After you’ve had a meeting or phone call, send an email outlining what you agreed. If anything has been misunderstood, the client can clarify it. 

Share the load:
If you’re running a business with other people, split the project management workload. Each of you could take ownership of one project at a time and see it through to completion. Agree on an overall system, though. If each person’s system is different, it leads to confusion.

Get others going first:
If you need to assign parts of your project to others, brief them and get them started before you sit down to work yourself. You won’t feel there’s something hanging over you, and it also prevents Bottlenecks and last minute ‘why isn’t this done?’ bedlam.

Record how many hours your business spends on each job with weekly timesheets, and use this data to calculate if you’re working efficiently and charging the right amount. 

Give clients deadlines:
Sometimes your client has to meet deadlines, too, or you won’t be able to deliver. If you require any information or components from your client, communicate with your contact very early on about what you need and agree deadlines regarding when you’ll receive it all.

Time for feedback:
Don’t estimate how long each stage is going to take based solely on how long you think it would take you personally. Build-in time for you and your employees to discuss and develop the work, and for client feedback. Amendments take longer than expected.

A little pessimism:
What can go wrong will go wrong isn’t always true, but anticipating problems is crucial. Listen to what clients, staff and suppliers tell you. If they say ‘yes’ to a deadline but add that they’re very busy, it’s worth asking questions to find out if they’re being realistic.

Long-term planning:
Anyone who’s completed two major projects in the same week knows that clashing deadlines can be a killer. If possible, develop a cycle so that your major projects conclude every two weeks or so. That way, your attention isn’t divided, and you can give the best to each client.

Essential time management tips

A man standing in front of a giant digital progress graph

(Image credit: Shutterstock/NicoElNino)

You’ll face conflicting demands on your time, so a bit of forward-planning will pay dividends.

First the worst:
Many people find that tackling the jobs they don’t like first thing gets them out of the way. Know when you’re most productive and slam- dunk the tedious, tricky or  more taxing tasks while you’re at your peak. 

Stick to the list:
Effective project management begins and ends with managing your own time. Make a to-do list every day, and stick to it. Include back- up entries – things you can  get to if something on your list is delayed or falls through.

Learn to prioritize:
Tasks will vary from day to day but some will be more important than others, so when you draw up your to-do list, mark the jobs that really must be done that day. 

Bring in a project manager:
Bringing in a decent project manager is the fastest way to improve efficiency in your business if you find it tricky.

Work in flexibility:
Some days things won’t go as planned, so allow flexibility to swap things around. And be realistic – don’t set unachievable goals. Can you delegate any tasks?

Eat, drink and be merry:
It’s important to balance the pressures of running a business with taking time out to relax; exercising, eating healthily and getting enough sleep all help boost your overall productivity.

Regulate email:
Checking your email every five minutes is the fastest way to reduce your efficiency. Set a schedule for dealing with email – perhaps first thing in the morning and again in the afternoon, depending on where in the world your clients are based.

Be strict with clients:
Once you’ve got an email schedule in place, let your clients know so that they don’t inundate you with phone calls instead. If you find one client is taking up more time than is reasonable, be firm and politely explain that their requests are becoming unproductive.

Gantt chart masterclass

An illustration of a laptop displaying a gantt chart

(Image credit: Shutterstock/Photo Veterok)

Less labor-intensive than expensive project management programs, a Gantt chart will track your progress.

Break it down:
You can set up a Gantt chart in Excel or Word, or draw it on a whiteboard. The first thing you need to do is break your job down according to the tasks that need to be done – by you, your team, and by the client. More information about creating a Gantt chart in Excel can be found on the Microsoft support page.

List it all:
Write the tasks in a list down the left-hand side. What the list comprises will, of course, depend on the type of business you’re in and what kinds of products or services you provide. However, you’ll also need to factor in any time your work is being checked by clients, and any amendments that may be necessary.

Factor in time:
Time is represented left to right across the top of the chart. Most projects rely on contributors’ time measured in days, so it’s best to have small columns headed ‘M’, ‘T’, ‘W’, ‘T’ and ‘F’ – and above that block them out into weeks. It’s up to you if you include weekends. 

Set up an order:
Now work out which bits of the project can be done independently, and which ones rely on one another. If you run a design studio, for example, the layout of a brochure could be started, but it can’t be completed without the copy, photography and illustrations. Re-order tasks in the order you need them completed down the left-hand side. 

Color code:
The tricky bit is estimating how much time is required for each element. Plot this in, color coding the days as you fill them in on the chart going from left to right. Staying with the design studio example, concepts might take four days, client approval two days, layout five days, and copywriting two days. A dependency pattern will then emerge.

Estimating how long a section of a project will take comes with experience. One rough formula is to take an optimistic assessment of each element of the project and a worst-case view, and then average the two.

Cost it:
Cost the project by multiplying the amount you expect to spend per day on each part of the project by the number of days blocked out for it. Photography might cost $600 per day, design $350, copywriting $400, web development $800 and so forth. The chart will also tell you when you’re going to need to get external help in, such as a photographer or web developer, so you can book them well in advance.

Subject to change:
Update your Gantt chart as you go along because things are bound to change. However, make sure you keep your original, so when the project is complete, you can go back and see where your projections were correct, and where they were shaky.