How to crush deadlines: Free tools and tips from a project manager

main.jpgAs young professionals, we manage projects every single day. Whether it is planning for a staff meeting or the next big fundraising gala, we are constantly trying to spin more plates on fewer sticks. As I’ve advanced in my career, I have picked up tricks to help make managing both big and small projects easier. Here is my top three tips to help any project run a little bit smoother.

  1. Find an organizational system that works for you. When I first started working, I simply used Word and Excel to keep running to-do lists. As I gained more experience and took on much larger projects, my organizational needs escalated. Nowadays, my colleagues and I use free tools like Asana and Trello to keep ourselves not only on task, but to also hold each other accountable for deadlines.

    I like Asana and Trello for different purposes. Asana works really well if you have lots of different of projects with several daily deadlines. It is also great if you like marking off tasks and seeing unicorns, narwhals, and phoenixes fly across your screen as a reward.
    Unicorn flies across the screen when a task is marked complete
    If you prefer more visual organization, Trello is an excellent tool. You can upload images to cards, which then can be used as visual points of reference. Trello’s system uses a card and board system (like a more robust Pinterest board) that allows you to easily drop and drag tasks.

    Can’t give up your Excel spreadsheet? Try AirTable. Think of it as a robust Google Spreadsheet with advanced tagging and view options.

  2. Over-communicate with purpose. Okay, so we all hate it when we’re on an email chain and there is at least one person who insists on replying all just so one person can stay updated. Or there is that other person who never replies all so you lose out on some crucial information. In a work environment where 9-5 doesn’t always mean working in the same space as your co-workers for eight hours straight, we often need other ways to keep in touch besides email. This is where workplace chat tools come in handy. And no, I am not talking AOL Messenger --- well not really. In my office, we use Slack to ask quick questions, share resources and news, or simply share a funny gif once and awhile. I think my favorite part of slack is that you can create and join different teams. For instance, while my colleagues and I use it for internal communications, I also use it with a client who is across the country for quick communications that don’t require formal emails.

    Another free service is Google Hangouts. This can be especially handy if your office already uses Gmail email products. 

  3. Frosting is poured onto a cakeSet realistic deadlines. We often think that we can cram over a dozen tasks into a single work day, but what we forget is that we will have to read emails, make phone calls, and *gasp* have to take lunch and bathroom breaks. Over the years, I have come to realize that when I say I need to get “X”, “Y” and “Z” done by the end of the day, what that actually means is I must complete three smaller tasks to then do “X.” Before you know it, your three original projects turned into a dozen smaller tasks -- and that just isn’t realistic planning.

    In my office we have set up a system where we each set out to complete three priorities in a day, knowing that each one of those tasks may require a multi-step process. Accomplishing anything else beyond three priorities? Well that’s just icing on tomorrow’s cake. 

While I am sure I could go on and on about ways to better manage your projects, it will always boil down to finding a system that works best for you. Bottom line, there are many free project management tools out there that are easy to learn -- so rather than letting deadlines swallow you whole, consider trying out some of these free online tools, they might just make your next project a breeze.

Please Note: The YNPN Twin Cities blog is an opportunity for YNPN-TC members (and others) to share their opinions about issues important to young nonprofit professionals. Each blog is written by the individual author, and the views expressed may not be shared by all YNPN members.

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