When I started out on my own a few months ago I quickly became aware of the need for better organization; not only for myself, but for the sake of the people I work with. I have always considered myself an organized person, but this was a bigger jump from being employed. It’s always easier when you can just focus on your own work and rely on other people like project managers and account executives to keep track of time and assets. Gone are the bloated and complicated (or worse yet, underdeveloped) extranets and intranets of the working world. I am in charge of what happens now, and I like to keep everything in order. My methods are admittedly lo-fi, but they serve my needs just fine.
Some things became apparent immediately. Professionally I needed ways to categorize and track jobs by client and date, as well as put forth a nice portal for clients to view their work from. Personally, I needed a way to organize the chaos of a solo operation. Thanks in part to Apple and the ingenious folks at 37signals, many of the solutions were sitting right in front of me.
For time and schedules I didn’t have to look any further than iCal. Pair up a really robust calendar setup with plenty of customizable options, to-do lists, and alarms, and Apple has me sold (even though it’s free). Each client job gets its own schedule and color, and alarm emails help to remind me of upcoming milestones. I just recently purchased an iBook and now publish my calendars out to my server (via WebDAV) from my iMac and subscribe to them from iCal on my laptop. Hot. This works very well when I need to bring in subcontractors on a project, I can make a schedule that they can subscribe to, and everyone is up to date. iCal also gets some brownie points for playing nice with other frequently used Apple apps, iChat, Mail, and Address Book. If you aren’t on a Mac, or for some silly reason hate iCal, fear not! Mozilla has a cross-platform calendar initiative in the form of a Firefox (or Thunderbird) extension and a standalone calendar app called Sunbird. Both support the iCal standard for storing calendar data, so share and share alike.
For project management you really can’t beat 37signals’ Basecamp. Plenty of people have sung its praises, so I won’t waste too much time telling you how great it is. Basecamp is lightweight and whips your projects into order, helping even the most unorganized of people impose a structure and process to their work. Sadly, I am actually still using the free version right now, but hope to be able to upgrade to one of the more flexible paid plans as soon as I can justify the expense. The free version still works very well for a few larger projects, especially the ones that require a few extra bodies. I have used the full version when working with other companies (the main differences are FTP capabilities, and the ability to maintain more than one project at a time), and it just makes everything so seamless. Plainly, Basecamp not only helps you get it together, but it makes you look good in the process. Oh yeah, and schedules can be subscribed to using iCal (or Sunbird). Damn straight.
Also of note is 37signals’ other baby, Ta-Da Lists. It’s basically the to-do lists from Basecamp, but free, and a little less intense. These simple, shareable to-do lists have now become my homepage of choice. It serves as a soft reminder of what needs to get done, every time you open a new window… especially useful if you are easily lost to web surfing the day away. Don’t let these lists deceive you, because they can be shared, you can instantly extend them as your own pseudo project management solution. Sure, it takes a little bit more upkeep than Basecamp, but it beats sending and receiving around 30 emails in one day from a chain of “reply all” messages to upkeep your projects.
One last little wrinkle completes this loop of guerilla organization. After the invoices started piling up I started to get frustrated with the paper flow. I needed an easy way to keep tabs on all my invoiced payments, past and present. Something like a giant spreadsheet, but I hate Excel. I looked into Quicken and Quickbooks, but they were too involved. I’m not huge into programming, but I am good at finding solutions for specific needs. So, I made my own invoice tracking app using the poor-man’s CMS, MovableType. I just make each job number its own entry, client names as categories, and MT’s conditional for comments status becomes the toggle between unpaid, partially paid, and paid. A few templates later, some custom year archive code from a little birdy, and viola. I can access a master page with everything, and the clients can see just their invoices which are set as category archives that publish into their client folder (where they view their work from). In time, I could even make the individual entries printable invoices for the client to use. Simple and quick, with no bloat.
There you have it. I don’t claim to have the best workflow and organization, but I feel pretty efficient. All that matters is the less time I need to spend managing this one-man-show, the more time I can dedicate to doing what’s most important to me.