Six Ways to Tame a Monster Project

Are you a creative freelancer facing a monster project? Read these six tips before tackling the major undertaking.

One of the challenges we face as creative entrepreneurs is finding ways to work through problems. Working alone, we don't have colleagues just over the cubicle wall to bounce things off of. When I'm stumped, I find that writing about the problem helps me think it through. So bear with me as I hash out an issue ­– one that affects all of us at some point in our freelance careers.

I'm talking about the Monster Project.

You know the one: It encompasses a ton of work over a lengthy period, perhaps six months or more. It has a lot of moving parts. It's tricky to plan and schedule. It looms over you, threatening to eat up all your billable hours.

I'm in the early weeks of a Monster Project, and I'm struggling with how to wrestle it into submission. My Monster Project is a cookbook ­with about 75 profiles and roughly 100 recipes. It involves corralling a bunch of people ­– some enthusiastic, some not ­– to sit for interviews and contribute content. It's all due July 1. It's a beast.

How do you tame a Monster Project? While I'm not entirely sure yet, here are some strategies that are helping so far:

1. Turn it into a benevolent monster. I realized recently that when I spoke about the project with friends, I talked about how much freakin' work it is. That kind of negative thinking isn't helpful. Instead, I've decided to focus on how much freakin' fun it is. How it's a passion project focused on a subject I love. How it's a terrific career-boosting opportunity.

2. Give the Monster Project some structure. With any Monster Project, the pre-work is essential ­– the planning, scheduling and spreadsheet-making that will help you keep it on track. I created a Dropbox folder system that my collaborators and I can use to share files. I made a massive Numbers spreadsheet that enables me to track when I make contact with each person I need to interview, which files I've received and from whom. This pre-work not only set the stage for better project management and time management, but it also felt like an accomplishment in itself.

3. Break the Monster Project into achievable chunks. On a recent Friday, after a week of interviewing sources and editing content, I felt like I had nothing to show for the work. I was really no closer to being finished than I was on Monday. Ugh. Now, I'm setting interim milestones and goals. This week, for example, I want to conduct five interviews. This month, I want to hit 50 recipes collected. The first week of March, I'll devote two full days to writing.

4. Recognize your tendencies. My wonderful husband has rightly observed that I tend to overestimate the time it will take me to do just about anything. I'll commonly start the week in a panic over how much work I'm facing, only to have everything wrapped up by noon on Thursday. I think this project is consuming more of my time than my TimeFox report shows it is. Your Monster Project is likely more manageable than you think.

5. Don't let the Monster Project keep you from other work. Overestimating the MP's footprint in your workload means you'll hesitate to take on other projects. Use time tracking and scheduling tools to get a handle on how much time it truly requires, and you'll see what time you have available for other work. Don't let the Monster Project stomp all over your cash flow.

6. Don't overwork the Monster Project. The best advice I've received on taming an MP came from my friend and fellow freelancer Michelle Taute. Michelle recently published her fun book Fold Me Up, a collection of paper fortune tellers (aka "cootie catchers"). Fold Me Up was a passion project ­­– but also a Monster Project – for Michelle. When I asked her how she managed it, she said, "In the end, books [and Monster Projects] are like old houses ­– they'll take as many hours and resources as you'll let them have."

Have you tamed a Monster Project? Let's hear your tips!

Tags: Freelance