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

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Comments

  1. says

    This is fabulous, Laura! Where were you when I first started? :-) This may be just my personal style, but I often do meeting notes or outlines for bigger projects – e.g., white papers, so that would be other tasks I’d add.

    I use your same task-oriented approach. Great post.

  2. says

    It would seen that the author of these blogs would want to be known before one reads the blog especially when the author writes the word “I’ll” or “I”. Who is that? Then I have to scroll down to find out if I want to even read it.
    I noticed that you (the blog) want to put the author of the comment first. Why not the same for author of the blog?
    Why is not the name of the author at the top? Please answer.

  3. says

    Ask…ask…ask. Never be afraid to ask for clarification and details.

    Example of how to go wrong –
    Tech: “What do you need?”
    Client: “A website design.”
    Tech: “Photoshop to the rescue! 3 hours and $200.”
    Client: “Sweet! A whole online store for $200? Will my customers be able to use eChecks?”
    Tech: “I thought I was just designing it?!?!”

    I learned a long time ago to discuss the project in as much detail as humanly possible before beginning or even giving a solid quote. Even answers to questions asks can often turn into more questions. I want to know the entire website they want from the header to the database.

    The one issue I’ve run into is that clients often want a quote very early in the process. I give them a rough estimate, but it’s hard to give them a solid quote without knowing the project time, which itself is hard to know without discussing everything in detail.

  4. says

    Some really good points. Enjoy reading your article. I would never give a quote on the spot, always best to collect all the information first and then provide a solution/price.

  5. Suzanne Stanton says

    This is a great post, as all of yours are, Laura. But here is the interesting thing, there are alot of non-billable hours in here. I would be curious: if this is your project time estimate what is your project cost estimate for this scenario?

    Even at the bare minimum $50/hr. this could be $425 for small copywriting assignment. I would be curious to see the cost estimate based on the above outline.

    Definitely the time outline is very, very accurate. Great post!

  6. Laurie Lewis says

    Keeping task-based work logs is the most effective way to get all the information you need to estimate a project. I don’t log just start and stop time; I log the specific tasks I do while I am working. I then use these task-based logs to estimate later projects. When I look back at past logs, I find the points Laura so clearly outlined in her blog. Past activities trigger questions to clarify the scope and level of support. (I had to transcribe an interview in the past. Will I have to transcribe for the project I’m estimating?) I’m not guessing how long it will take to do tasks in my estimate calculation, because I have records of my past speed.

  7. says

    Wow!

    I went out for a few hours and came back to find all these comments. That’s great–I love a good discussion.

    Cathy Miller–Definitely use your notes for bigger projects.

    Gold, It’s just a style convention set by the site’s theme. As the writer, I don’t pick the theme, but I don’t mind getting credit at the end.

    TheAL–LOL! I bet your example comes from experience too. Definitely get all the details first and then follow these tips to do an estimate.

    DesignFacet, On-the-spot estimates make me nervous too. You may have throw out a ballpark, but I’d always qualify it. You could say something like, “my prices start at x for x.”

    Suzanne Stanton– $425 is not a horrible fee for good copywriting. A serious client will pay that if the quality is high enough. Remember, advertising agencies often charge over a $1,000 for things like sales letters or press releases. I think we are so used to seeing the low rates that are so often publicized through social media, that we forget to check other sources.

    Laurie Lewis, Great points. We definitely learn from our experiences and get better as we go.

  8. Suzanne Stanton says

    Laura, you are indeed correct about so many things. Thank you for your continued posts and putting project estimation figures behind the very solid ideas.

  9. says

    Timiing myself while I work on projects has really helped me take control of my freelancing. If you know how much time a job will take you, you can then extrapolate how many jobs you’ll need to stay profitable. So in turn you can adjust your rates based on that.
    Looking back on a few weeks worth of time tracking, you can see a pattern of how many hours you are actually productive.
    now, when a client asks me for a quote, I’m much more confident that it will be realistic both in terms of cost and meeting deadlines.
    I started using rescuetime, but it had issues with custom reports. So I switched to Toggl, which is really awesome.
    In the end, you can charge by the project or by the hour, it won’t make a difference.

  10. says

    Having a fee schedule that clearly presents starting prices and/or price ranges for your services can help for the clients that want a ballpark estimate right away. I provide clients with this type of fee schedule upfront to give them a good indication of what their minimum costs would be for all the services I provide. I also found that after I spent the time to come up with my general design fees it proved to be a beneficial tool for helping me put together detailed estimates as well.

    In determining my fee schedule I had to look at the time I would typically spend on certain project types and that task helped me to develop a great point of reference for my estimates. As Paul mentioned above, tracking your time on projects in a proficient manner is essential and can help in both developing/revising your base fee schedule and in completing new project estimates more accurately.

  11. says

    Nice to find this article on estimating. I’ve been applying some of these techniques to software application development, but I see a couple I’m not using which look really useful.

  12. says

    Paul, I think you’re definitely taking the right approach. Plus, knowing how long various projects take keeps you from undercharging.

    Chris Allen–There can be some advantages to a fee schedule and some disadvantages. The main advantage I can see is that it can give a prospect an idea of whether they can afford you. The disadvantage is that not all projects are the same even if the end result is the same.

  13. says

    Laura – Thanks for the response! You are correct that not all projects are the same. Life would get boring if that was the case, right!?! And you make some great points about fee schedules.

    I was simply trying to express that the process of developing a fee schedule gives one the means by which to assign a value to their services based on the number of hours they would typically spend working on specific project types – in a sense doing a project estimate for each type of service he or she would be providing. And that this is a good starting point and area of learning for ascertaining what information is needed to determine a projects true scope and in turn how many hours each phase or portion of the project will take. Essentially, build on what you already know from past experiences (as you mentioned in tip #3) to further improve your project estimating skills.

  14. says

    I’m definitely guilty of underestimating! I appreciate the breakdown with 6 steps. Looking back, quoting only step #5 seems like such a rookie mistake, but they don’t teach this stuff in design school! I also tend to work best at a slow, steady pace, and I’ve yet to embrace this – so sometimes I underestimate time out of wishful thinking! I’ll definitely be referring to this in the future.

  15. says

    Thanks Samantha and Mandy! I’m glad that you found the post helpful. :)

    Mandy, quoting #5 only is a very common mistake among freelancers. No one should feel bad about making it, but it does cause freelancers to drastically underestimate their time and to overcommit. Hopefully, this post will help to change that.

  16. says

    We are working on weekly basis with different clients and projects, this process really works for some projects but sometime you need quick project assessment specially with the clients who has no idea of processes. But we like this idea and implementation is the key to success.

    Thanks

  17. says

    Need the support of a software to automatically estimate a project and create in a few clicks the corresponding plan/gantt chart already filled in?

    Try the free version of http://www.ganttwizard.com: just a few clicks and you’ll have something ready to be delivered to your customer.

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