Oy, fellow freelancers. When I began working as a freelancer, I was terrible at this key skill: estimating the time spent on a project. I’d tell clients my hourly rate, and they’d respond with some variation of:

“Great. And how long do you estimate [this project] will take?”

At which point, I would swear and despairingly flop around and arbitrarily estimate somewhere between .01 - 1,000,000 hours and hope that I was somehow accurate. I continually underestimated my time, which resulted in money lost – and lots of frustration for me.

Fortunately, after a couple of years, I learned how to do time estimates more accurately. I created a simple system that helped me estimate accurately for even the newest gigs. I present it for you here in the most fun, least-boring way possible: as a sort of silly dance!*

*Work with me!

The Super-Nerdy But Sorta-Fun Project Time Estimation Dance

Break it Down

(break it down, break it down, break it down now)

Alright, ladies and gentleman. Take your project and break it down into very simple steps. What’s the first thing you’ll need to do? The second? Don’t be afraid to go really granular – will you need to get approval for each step? Will you need to spend time conference calling or emailing team members? How many edits will you do? Write them all down in order, and don’t worry about time yet, we’re just outlining procedure. Just go with the flow, baby.

Put It Together

(Untz, untz, untz. Now you’ve got the beats; make the combination.)

Next to each step, write down how long you think it will take. Be generous with yourself here – yes, you maybe CAN accurately edit a ten-page document in ten minutes, but that’s probably the fastest you’re going to go. Pick somewhere between your fastest time and your slowest time; a nice comfortable honest medium. Don't worry about your final time estimation yet.

Once you’ve written down all your micro-times, add it together; that’s your initial macro-project estimation number… but wait! You’ve still got moves!


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Give it Some Wiggle

(It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.)

Okay. You’ve got your initial estimate. Now add in a little bit of extra wiggle room – this is your “pillow” in case you hit any snags. Is the client especially demanding or picky? Add in extra editing time. Is it a new kind of gig, one that you’ve never done before? Add in a little “learning curve” period. Will you have to do research? Make sure you’ve given yourself the space to go down a few rabbit holes.

While adding in some moderate swing time can feel scary – what if you go too far, your conscience screams - it’s actually doing both you AND your clients a favor. That ensures that if you run into one of life’s inevitable snags, you’ll remain calm and collected – it’s just a minor improvisation on the rhythm.

Now it’s time for the big finale!

Look over your whole number – make sure you that you didn’t leave anything out – and deliver with a big smile (jazz hands optional).

If you’ve been chronically underestimating your time, you may be surprised by your outcome! But I ask you to consider this; most freelancers underestimate their time rather than overestimate – *because we have pressure from clients to be efficient, we’re predisposed to underrate expenditure. *

When I started doing this kind of estimate, I was sure that my clients would balk when I sent calculations that were not based on my absolute fastest times possible. Instead, I got complete composure in response; I can honestly say I have never had a shocked or perturbed reply to a project fee based on this kind of time estimate. My “medium speed”, it turns out, is still pretty fast – and I bet yours is, too.

So go on and dance, dance, you freelance fool, to your own drummer; odds are the beat is just about right!**

**So, so nerdy, I am. But dancing made it more fun, right?

How do you estimate the time you spend on a project? Let us know in the comments!

Kate Hamill lives and works in New York City, where she consumes an inordinate amount of Sriracha daily. You can catch up with her on Twitter at @katerone.