two people looking at paper

Whether you are a solopreneur or manage hundreds of employees throughout the world, you need a system to make sure that projects get done efficiently and on time. In an increasingly frenetic work world, there is no shortage of software developers offering to make your work more manageable by using their app or their platform. 

But what is the ideal solution, and how do you sort through everything to find it? If you are ready to upgrade or rethink your project management, how do you find the tools that work best for your business? Before delving into the nuts and bolts of what any software solution offers, take the time to identify what your needs are.

Task Lists vs. Project Management 

It’s tempting to think of project management or work management as a long and complex list of things to do, or tasks. But a task is a subset of a project and understanding the difference between the two is key to getting started.

A project is a thing that must happen. It has a beginning and end, and you know when it is done because you have an outcome. Let’s use a simple example: my project is to serve dinner for eight guests three days from today. I consider the project complete when we have eaten and the dishes are in the dishwasher. 

Tasks are all the things that happen before the project is complete: plan a menu, make a grocery list, buy groceries, put away groceries, chop vegetables, cook dinner, eat (finally!), clear the table, put the dishes in the dishwasher. Some of those things must happen (planning, shopping) before other things (cooking). One person doesn’t have to do all of them; I can assign the tasks to different family (er, team) members: one does the planning, one does the shopping, one does the cooking, and ones does the cleaning up. Each team member then has their own set of tasks, with time-sensitive deadlines. For example, the menu planner must consider any food restrictions of the guests, plan a balanced meal, and stay within budget. They must complete those tasks in time for the shopper to do their job, and so on.

To-do lists are a way of handling tasks, while project management is a way of handling all the moving parts that go into a project.

How do your current systems work?

Do you have systems in place that work well for your business, or do you just run around putting out fires? Do you have standard operating procedures for taking orders, onboarding new clients, scheduling production, sending invoices, collecting payments, paying bills, or whatever other processes you need to run your business? 

Don’t expect any software application, no matter how widely used or how well-reviewed, to fix a systems problem. Get your house in order in terms of workflows before sitting down to decide on a digital solution.

Who comprises your team?

You may be your entire business at the moment, but consider that you may need to add additional team members in the form of freelancers (virtual assistant, IT support, or a bookkeeper) or even an employee at some point. A business with multiple team members will want to be able to manage permissions around who has access to what, as well as have the ability to assign projects and tasks to different team members. Look for a platform that is scalable.

What are your needs?

Can you get by with a simple digital to-do list or do you need a more complex system that allows for assigning projects and tasks to different team members? Do you need to set up dependencies (finish Thing A before you can do Thing B)? Do you need to have a review and approval process? 

Different brains work differently. Take into consideration the way you, the business owner, prefer to digest information. Choose a platform that appeals to you, the primary user, but don’t forget that other stakeholders need to use it. Getting buy-in from everyone will be important for success of the system.

Some people are more word-oriented, while others prefer more visual input. Most applications allow you to visualize projects as a list or board, but some have the additional viewing options like a table, timeline or Gantt chart, Kanban board, or calendar.

What is your budget?

Many platforms offer a free tier with limited features. This may be all you need in the beginning, especially with just one or two team members. For more robust features and integrations, you’ll have to pay; often the payment is based on a “per user per month” basis, with a discount for paying for plans annually.  You can usually sign up for a free trial period before committing to a paid plan.

gantt chart
A Gantt chart is a bar chart that illustrates a project schedule. It was designed and popularized by Henry Gantt around the years 1910–1915.

What integrations are possible?

Despite what the marketing materials say, there isn’t one app that is going to solve all your problems. You may need some combination of applications and integrations that work together. For example, being able to schedule a Zoom meeting from within the platform, then adding it to your Google Calendar. As you evaluate applications, remember that native integrations (ones that can be set up within the app) are easiest. Using a third-party solution like Zapier to connect applications provides an additional point of potential failure. Keep it as simple as possible!

What support is available?

Look for online training tutorials and a robust user community. See if there are
downloadable templates to get you started. Is there 24/7 technical support? Is it easy to import and export projects and tasks? Read reviews from users to get a feel for what the new user learning curve is.

What are other creative businesses using?

Conversations with several Craft Industry Alliance members confirm that one solution doesn’t work for everyone.

Isaac Russell, a full-service website consultant, started out with Trello. He says, “Quickly I found out that managing the tool became its own project.” He switched to Asana for communications with his small team, but he doesn’t think that Asana handles recurring tasks very well. For communications with his clients, he finds that email, combined with a FreshDesk help ticketing system, works best.

Pam Grice, a podcaster, content creator and educator, works with four team members over three businesses. She uses Asana for task management, a paid Slack plan for communication, Acuity for scheduling, and AirTable for surveys, all in conjunction with Google Drive. She had used Asana as a solopreneur. As she brought on new team members her use of the platform grew. Now part of new employee onboarding is teaching them how to use Asana within the organization. 

Kim Werker, co-owner of Nine Ten Publications, is a fan of Notion. She says “it’s like if Evernote and Google Docs got together. It can be what you want it to be.” When starting their business, Kim and her partner Kate Atherley realized that they visualize things very differently. The challenge was to find a single system that worked for them, as well as interns and contractors. Notion fit the bill. Kim noted that Notion does not include a spreadsheet function; for that they use Google Sheets. They use a paid Slack plan for team communication. 

Professionally, I have been using ToDoist for several years and have been happy with it. Although it is more of a task management program, the premium version has features that allow it to be used for simple project management with team members. 

Other apps that were mentioned in these conversations include ClickUp, Monday,  Basecamp, Wrike, Dropbox, and Microsoft Project.

Final Thoughts

Take a serious in-depth look at your workflow, users’ skills, budget, and gaps in your current system. Then, do your research on project management tools, try some out and choose the tool that best matches your system and goals.

We’ve polled our network of creative teams to find out what software solutions they’re using successfully and rounded them up here. Take a look and perhaps you’ll find just the right tool for your next project.

Edie Eckman

Edie Eckman


Edie Eckman is a knit and crochet author, designer, teacher, blogger and technical editor. Since Covid-19 has kept us home, she has successfully made the transition to online teaching. Find her at edieeckman.com.

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