Three Easy Tips to Help You Effectively Estimate Project Time

Do you know how much time your next project will take? As a freelancer, you should at least have an idea.

If you’re freelancing, you must be able to effectively estimate the time each of your projects will take. If you can’t do this you won’t know how much to charge for your work or how to best schedule your time.

Estimating is one of the core freelancing skills, yet it is one that many freelancers struggle with. If you have trouble in this area, you’re not alone.

In this post, I’ll give you three easy tips to help you improve your estimating skills. I’ll also briefly share task-based estimating.

If you’ve ever underestimated the time it takes to complete a project, this post is for you.

Tip #1. Know the Scope of the Project

Before you can estimate how long a project will take you, you need to understand exactly what is involved with the project. You can’t estimate a project properly if all you know about the project is that the client wants you to “write some copy” or “design a website.”

If you’re not sure what the project entails, ask questions until you are sure you understand. It should be a red flag if a client is not willing to define the project for you.

Freelancers who accept projects through agencies, collaborations, or through some other arrangement where you don’t communicate directly with the end client should be especially cautious. Make sure that the person coordinating the project fully understands both your profession AND the client’s requirements. If they don’t, their poor communication could wind up costing you time and money.

Tip #2. Know the Level of Support Needed

Besides the actual work requested, some clients need additional support. If you fail to consider this support in your estimates, it may throw your estimate off.

Here are some common things that clients sometimes ask for:

  1. Technical support requests–Web developers in particular and programmers are often asked to continue to support a project after they have completed the initial work. Try to find out what the client’s requirements will be to determine if you should charge a modest fee for this service.
  2. Revisions–Whether it’s rewriting copy or code, many freelancers have faced the dilemma of endless revisions because the client keeps changing his or her mind. It’s best to try to define the number of revisions you are willing to make at the start of the project. Charge extra when the revisions get out of hand.
  3. Meeting time–While many clients are satisfied communicating mostly through email, some clients require more. They may wish for regular phone meetings or video chats. Other clients may require you to write a weekly status report of your progress.

Whatever the client’s support needs are, remember that they are likely to take time. So, be sure to schedule for client support in your estimate.

Tip #3. Know Your Past Work Speed

Some freelancers work quickly. Others work more slowly. While speedy work doesn’t necessarily imply a better freelancer, it’s important that you know your typical work speed when you are estimating projects. In general, most freelancers underestimate the amount of time that a project actually takes.

If you’ve been a freelancer for a while, you can use your past projects as a guide to determine your work speed. For example, if your business is to design logos, look at the last few logo design projects to see how long they took and factor that information into your new estimate.

For years, I have kept a spreadsheet of all of my projects with recorded start times and finish times. I always know exactly how many hours I spent on the project. Not only does this keep me from undercharging for my work, but it also helps me estimate future projects.

One Approach to Estimating

There are many approaches to estimating project time, but I generally like to use a task-based approach. This means I break a project down into smaller tasks and estimate each task separately based on the information I get from the client and my past work. This method usually produces a more accurate time estimate.

Here’s what this approach might look like for a very small copywriting project:

  1. Preparation for initial client meeting (1 hour)
  2. Initial client meeting (1 hour)
  3. Customized contract or written terms (1/2 hour)
  4. Project research (2 hours)
  5. Write draft (3 hours)
  6. Revisions (1 hour)

Total time required 8 1/2 hours

The first thing you’ll notice is that I’ve included some phases of the project that many freelancers don’t include in an estimate. Many freelancers would estimate their time based only on task #5 and would call this a three-hour project. But, they would be wrong.

Those other steps really do take time and should be included in the project’s time estimate. (Note that in the example I only included 30 minutes for creating a contract with the client. This is because I have a standard agreement that I customize for each client.)

If a freelancer was quoting a flat fee for this project and based the fee on only three hours of work, they would wind up doing five and half hours of work for free. You can see how this mistake could really impact a freelancer’s bottom line over time.

Your Turn

How do you estimate your project time?

Share your tips in the comments.

Image by Brooks Elliot