Project Delivery - Chill Before Serving
by Dana Winslow
A few weeks ago, I had finally finished a project that seemed to have taken me forever. I'm sure you've had those projects before – the ones where the clients can't quite seem to make up their minds about what they want, server problems delay you for two or three days, and computer crashes make you start from the beginning three or four times.
Oh yes, it was one of those projects. No matter how hard I worked at it, I just couldn't seem to get this project finished. And, to top it all off, I finished said project three days – three days – late. If you're a perfectionist like I am, then you know how much it killed me to be three days late on this project.
You can also imagine my husband's confusion when, having finished the work, I closed the project and left the computer.
What? Didn't I send in that project? I mean, it was already three days late – why wouldn't I send it off right away?
Because right away is not always the right way.
Speed Versus Quality
I understand the temptation to send that project off as soon as you've crossed that finish line. Half the excitement of reaching such a threshold is getting to send it off and be done with it. That's one less thing cluttering up your to-do list, one less source of stress and drama, one day closer to getting that payment.
I totally get it.
But is speed really a good enough trade off for quality, pride-inducing work?
This is the real conundrum... Which is more important? The speed in which you can produce a satisfactory product, or the extraordinary quality of the product that you deliver? Ask a room of 15 clients and you'll receive 17 different answers. Every client is unique and they each hold a different priority. So, really, the best person to answer this question is you. Which of these elements do you want to base your reputation on? Fast turnaround? or Quality?
Allowing your projects to chill a little bit before sending off that email is the easiest way to increase your productivity and quality.
That's not to say that you shouldn't work as fast as you possibly can. Offering fast turnaround is very important for a freelancer. Taking two weeks to design a logo might be fine for some of those less-motivated types – but for the freelancer it is unacceptable. But I don't want you to actually change your working habits at all – after all it's your working habits that are making you a success, right?
What I want you to evaluate is your delivery method.
A Little Test
Okay, so we're going to run a quick little test. A few years ago, a friend advised me to do just exactly what I am about to have you do, and it really opened my eyes regarding the idea of allowing a project to chill a little bit before sending it off to your client. So, we're going to try this together. I know you have some project burning in the background right now. I want you to briefly switch over to that project and save it – without thinking, without finishing that last little bit... just save it.
If you happen to be one of the rare freelancers who doesn't always have a project that you are working on open and running, that's okay. You can still participate in this little experiment. Just think of a project that you've recently finished. Don't open it yet.
Now, whether you're using a project that is already running and you've just saved, or you decided to run with a previously saved project, email that file to yourself. I want you to follow the same process you would to email that project to your client – write the email just as you normally would write it, compress the files, attach them and mail it to yourself.
I know it may make you feel a little silly doing it this way, but trust me, no one is going to read this but you. And it's important that you do exactly what you would do if you were a client. As a freelancer, you probably have most of this process on autopilot by now, so it should only take a few seconds to get that email off to yourself.
And a couple seconds later...
Oh, lookie here... Someone has sent you a newly finished project!
So, open your email and take a look.
How does the email look. Imagine this email came from someone working for you. Would you be happy with the email? Are there typos? Does it read the same as every other email that you've ever sent to this client? Go back through some of the progress updates and reports that you've sent to various clients. Do they read like personable emails? Do you sound like you're genuinely interested in the project, or do the emails read more like a form letter?
Are you proud of that email? Is it the kind of email that you're proud to have your name attached to?
And for those of you who did not follow my instructions and are now thinking to yourself, "Well, I would have written a different letter if I were actually sending it to my client"... Well, there's not very much that I can say to you except that you kind of missed the mark, didn't you? No, no, don't try doing it now because it won't work the same way. Just relax and wait for the next part of this exercise.
So – now you're either happy or unhappy with the email that you've sent yourself (or vaguely indifferent because you didn't send the right email). Here comes the real test... Let's open that project and take a look.
I'm even going to show a copy of this project that I took at the moment we started the exercise:
Ooooh, are you nervous? You shouldn't be – this part is actually really easy.
Read through your project. You don't have to spend too much time on this, just skimming over it will work for this. Anything catch your eye? Specifically, anything that's making you cringe a little bit?
Let's take another look at the project that I saved quickly... today's article. Even with taking just a couple of minutes I can see some glaring issues that I will have to revisit before I even think of publishing this article:
Oh no, no, noooo... This just wouldn't do at all. I would not be proud of this article (which, as you'll see, is why it will be getting edited, refined and changed around before you read this...). As-is, the above article would embarrass me.
How about your project? Would you be proud to have a client look at that? Could you show it to anyone else with that beaming smile that conveys absolute pride and competence?
If you're answer is, "Yep, this is perfect," then awesome. It's rare to find a freelancer who can live up to his or her own standards all the time – especially during a surprise inspection.
But if your answer is anything other than "it's perfect," imagine what your client would think of it.
Your Own Worst Critic
In most cases, we are our own worst critics. Then again, you probably already know that. It's kind of a like a superpower, the Freelancer Critical Sight.
Superman has the whole "able to leap over tall buildings in a single bound" deal, and Spiderman has the whole webbie thingy going on. Someone needs Critical Sight, right? And who better than a freelancer for the job?
The problem with critical sight is that it rarely turns on while you're working on a project. Especially if it's a project that you've been working on for a long time. Just several hours of focusing on a project is enough to render your critical sight useless for a short window of time.
This is why letting your projects chill out for a bit before sending them off to your clients is so important. It gives your superpower of critical sight a chance to charge up. And since you're a professional freelancer, you know that passing your project in front of your worst critic's eyes (that would be you) with charged-up critical sight is the best way of assuring you're delivering a quality project.
How Long Should my Projects Chill before I Send them Off?
This is really going to be up to you and your own schedules, work patterns, and the type and number of projects that you're working on. Your aim is to be able to look over your project with fresh eyes. No doubt you'll be able to catch the major mistakes while you're working. But little mistakes, things like sporadic typos, simple misspellings or that one extra little semicolon... those tiny little mistakes usually hide best when you're in the throes of your work. But bring on a pair of fresh eyes, and those little stinkers have a harder time hiding.
If you're the freelancer who works on just a few projects at a time, then chances are you'll need a little longer to freshen up your eyes a little bit. A day and a half to two days should work wonders for that. But, if you're the freelancer who, like me, finds her/himself working on upwards of a dozen or so projects at any one time, less time should be sufficient.
The key is to all but forget about your project for a while. That means completely closing the project, its folders and files. Everything. Just leave it alone.
Once it's closed, how you forget about that project isn't really important so long as you actually stop thinking about it. So delve into your other projects, take your friends out bowling, or cook a gourmet meal – whatever you need to do to stop thinking about that project for at least a few hours. This is why you busier freelancers out there will probably require less time to get your critical sight working at full speed... because delving into your other work projects will help to clear your mind of the project you just finished.
Will Absence Make the Heart Grow Fonder... or The Flaws Grow Bigger?
If you open that project and it looks even better than you thought it had before; if it fills you with that sense of pride that deserves your name, then it's ready to be sent off. So, start writing up that email and get ready to send it.
If, on the other hand, you are seeing those tiny little mistakes, the flaws that you just can't approve, then it's time to polish up your work and make it something you can be proud of.
And this, my friends, brings me to the main point of this article. Working fast and meeting deadlines is absolutely important, maybe even one of the most important skills that a freelancer can offer. Clients want their projects finished on time and they need to know that when you promise something you can deliver on that promise.
But what good is meeting a deadline if your finished product is subpar? Or if the client has to contact you to have you revise or fix something? If your finished project isn't the absolute best that you can deliver, then your reputation for meeting deadlines is useless to both you and your clients. Your promises will mean nothing if your quality isn't there. And reviewing your project through the freshest eyes possible is a way to improve your quality dramatically without any added effort or extra work.
Maybe, but This is Only for Writing, Right?
You might think so, since I used typos as an example so often throughout this article. But the truth is that this piece of advice can work wonders for any freelancer. Yes, writers will have fewer typos, better use of their vocabulary, and will find redundant words not being used over again and again. ;) For developing, you will find yourself producing more efficient, more logical bug-free coding. Web designers will find that their designs are cleaner and make more sense.
And, yes, you might think that this works better for larger projects than for smaller projects. Bugs, typos and errors are more common the more complex a project is. But you shouldn't discount the benefit that smaller projects also receive from this extra step.
Why does this simple method work so well for all types of projects?
Well, besides giving you a refreshing look at your project through your most critical eyes, it also helps remove some of the little details that might have stolen your focus during work. Have you ever tried developing a new site and found yourself delayed for a day or more while trying to finish one component that was giving you trouble? Or been writing an article and struggling to make one thought flow well into another thought?
Fresh eyes help to give you a perspective on the entire project as a bigger picture. Maybe those problem areas you were dealing with before aren't so big; because you were so focused on them you couldn't see how minor they really were. Maybe your fresher eyes will reveal a better answer than the one you originally plugged in there.
So, How Am I Supposed to Plan For All This Extra Time?
This is where you're going to find your biggest challenge with my advice – finding the time to carve out this little break for your projects. Especially if you've already given time estimates to your clients, adding in another day or two might seem a little hard to pull off. You could bust your tail to get the project done a couple of days early, take your break and then still be able to send it in on time – but the whole point of this practice is to help reduce your stress load and elevate your quality at the same time.
Remember, you only need to take as much extra time as you need to forget about the project for a few hours. This can be harder than you might think, especially if you're like me and you continue to think about and deliberate the project even during other activities. If this is you, then you probably will need the extra day or two. But if you're able to quickly separate yourself from your project and truly forget about it, then you'll only need a few hours.
It's not always easy to allow time for your project to chill. But if you care about the quality of work that you're putting out, then it isn't just recommended – it is a must.
Have you caught a big mistake by letting a project chill? Or, conversely, did you once fire off a project too quickly and come to regret it? Share about your experiences in the comments.