Project management: Two free tools to increase efficiency in your writing projects

Project management was originally developed for civil engineering, but even if you are writing a book instead of building a bridge, there are useful approaches to borrow that will improve your work flow. In a previous article, I described that within project management, tools can be roughly divided into “project definition tools” and “implementation tools.” Project definition tools are those that help you determine the scope, the tasks, and the budget (i.e., time), whereas implementation tools are those that help you conduct the work. Here, I focus on the latter, and present two tools from the lens of project management for writing.

Efficient use of time is key for optimal writing project management. Streamlining your process by eliminating unnecessary emails and meetings is crucial to maximizing your productivity and success. With that in mind, I recommend using OneNote and Kanban Flow. One Note helps organize the nouns of the project (e.g., graphics, notes, outlines), whereas Kanban helps organize the verbs (i.e., tasks). Both can reduce the amount of time spent on communicating.

OneNote is a digital notebook/notetaking program which comes bundled with Microsoft Office, so you probably own it already, even if you haven’t yet explored it. OneNote provides a central storage place for a project so that team members can access the materials online and gain an overview of a large writing project. Unlike more complex programs, like Scrivener, OneNote is fairly intuitive because the interface reflects a three-ring binder with tabs that you add and label as needed.

The major advantage of using OneNote over a folders system is that OneNote can better accommodate many different types of files. For example, OneNote can manage email files, thus allowing you to clear out your Inbox and reduce inefficient searches for old emails. Important conversational threads can even be inserted into your notebook without copying and pasting.  Instead, you simply hit “print” on the message and select “OneNote” instead of a printer. From there, you can select to which binder and tab you want that email to be inserted. I would also recommend storing meeting notes in that tab, or in its own tab. Compiling all project communication into one place greatly reduces the need to revisit already discussed issues.

Another valuable feature is OneNote’s capacity to handle visual images, including screen shots, Google images and figures. Unlike in Word, you can insert them into a tab and move them around without complicated steps, and they actually stay where you put them! For example, if you are writing a book, team members can collect and curate potential images, leave comments, and place them in tabs, organized by chapter.

A final important use for OneNote is to maintain a shared journal about the project. Ideally, each time one person works on the project, they can jot down a short entry (in 1-2 minutes) to explain decisions made, what needs to happen next, and any lingering questions. Even for a solo-authored piece, this intra-personal communication in the form of a journal provides a quick glance update that can help save valuable time and rework.

Kanban Flow
Kanban Flow  is a lean project management program that is one of the simplest such programs that I have tried. If you invest 10-15 minutes in watching tutorials, you will have all the basic skills to set up a Kanban board and use it effectively. The program allows you to invite members so a project board can be shared and updated by all. Although I have found the free version to be sufficient for my needs across multiple years, there is also a paid version that offers additional functionality.

Kanban itself is a workflow management method operating under the premise of making the workflow visible by the use of signs. Fundamentally, a Kanban board must have at least three columns: To Do, In progress, Done. Tasks are moved along their pathway reflecting their progress to completion. Therefore, in one glance it is easy to assess the status of the project in general, as well as individual tasks. In addition, by visually marking tasks, it becomes obvious as to which tasks are not progressing, and possibly holding up others. Finally, the use of a Done column is motivating because completed tasks do not disappear. This running list of completion helps one to focus on what has been accomplished (I mean, give yourself credit!) in addition to what still needs to be done.

Boards can be made more complex by including color coding by project subcategory or categorized by each individual’s responsibility. Additional columns to consider adding include one for High Priority Tasks, which indicates where to focus first, and another for Waiting On, meaning tasks that are not yet done but cannot be actively worked on. This ensures those tasks are not forgotten and are also not cluttering up the In progress column.

If using Kanban Flow on a team project, I highly recommend dedicating significant time for project definition, which will help to determine and delegate individual tasks. Then those tasks can be posted on the board and assigned to team members. This enables any team member to pull up the board and see exactly what their next priority task is, as well as where everyone else is at. The board allows updates to be continuous and visual, minimizing the need for emails and meetings, and it enables the team to hone in on important issues and problem solving.

In your most recent project, where did the major inefficacies or frustrations occur? Once you have established your own personal pain points, consider if either of these tools may help you be more efficient in your future writing projects.

Erin McTigueAfter being a tenured professor at Texas A&M University, Erin McTigue started her own business, The Positive Academic, through which she mentors and coaches academics in writing and productivity. Eri also presents a variety of virtual workshops for TAA on academic writing and productivity.