Monthly Archives: November 2011

How to Manage a Small Virtual Project Using Free Online Tools (Includes Templates)

For most small virtual projects that require communication among 5 people or less, you probably don’t need to use any sophisticated project management or online collaboration software to manage them.

Instead, you can just use a combination of free online tools such as Google Docs, Doodle, and Skype.

Here are five simple steps to help you set up and manage a small project (the templates I use below refer to a graduate school course project that includes writing a final report & presentation, but the templates could be used for any type of small project):

Step 1: Sign up for a free Google Account
If you already have a Gmail address (I discussed why you should get one in my previous post), then you automatically get a Google Account and you can skip this step. However, if you don’t, then click here to sign up for a Google Account using a non-Gmail email address.

Step 2: Create a “Project Scope & Approach” Document
Using your Google Account, go to Google Docs and create a “Project Scope & Approach” document (click on “Create” then “Document” which will open a new window or tab).

This document will serve as a one-stop-reference for the team so that you avoid relying on back-and-forth email messages (which could get confusing).  The document will contain all the information the team would need to do the project, including:

  • The project’s objectives/ requirements
  • The team’s contact info (emails, phone numbers, Skype Names, etc.)
  • The project’s assumptions
  • The division of labor (who’s working on what)
  • The step by step approach to finishing the project
  • Any other additional info

All Google Docs files have the option to be shared privately with other individuals by entering the email addresses associated with their Google Accounts (just click on “Share” in the top right corner and enter your team members’ email addresses).

I have uploaded a sample “Project Scope & Approach” Google Doc template. Feel free to copy and paste it into your own document to use as your own (the document is uncopyrighted – so I don’t care if you steal my exact wording :) ). Here’s a screenshot of how the document looks like:

Step 3: Create a “Project Timeline” Spreadsheet
Also using Google Docs, you can create a project schedule spreadsheet (click on “Create” then “Spreadsheet”) which will show the dates that certain milestones need to be completed by. This is a watered-down version of a Gantt chart that helps visualize where you stand in the project.

I have uploaded a sample “Project Timeline” Google Doc. Again, feel free to use it as you wish. Here’s a screenshot of how the timeline looks like:

Step 4: Use Doodle to set up times to talk
Doodle is a phenomenal tool that helps you schedule a common time to meet with your teammates without having to rely on multiple back & forth emails. It’s free and you don’t even need to register to use it (I love it when companies do that). You just set it up, send out a link, and everyone fills in their free timeslots. Doodle then shows you when the common timeframes are.

Step 5: Use Skype & Google Docs for Conference Calls
Skype is a great tool for virtual meetings because it lets you have audio conference calls with your teammates for free (video conferencing requires a fee though).

The cool thing about using Skype with Google Docs is that you can see what someone is typing during the call. This is helpful if the team needs to discuss edits to a document in real-time.

I hope this was helpful! Let me know in the comments section below if you have any suggestions about anything I might have missed. Happy Project-Managing!

5 Reasons to Change your Email Account to Gmail Today

Exactly one year ago, I changed my email address from a Hotmail account to a Gmail one. Yes, I know having waited that long probably makes me a dinosaur in productivity land, but I was very reluctant to make the shift with all the potential headaches and switching costs.

However, I couldn’t be happier with the move because it saved me tons of time and dramatically increased my efficiency.

If you don’t already have a Gmail account, here are five reasons why you should sign up for one today and reap a lot of productivity benefits:

  1. Email Centralization: For this reason alone, it’s worth switching. Gmail allows you to consolidate up to 5 of your other email accounts. So if you have several Hotmail and Yahoo email addresses, you can receive all the messages to those accounts in your Gmail inbox. This means you don’t have to worry about notifying your contacts that you have a new address, and most importantly, you’ll have a one-stop-shop to check all your other accounts (major time-saver). Another cool thing is that you can even send emails from those other accounts through Gmail.  You can read more about how to consolidate your emails here and here
  2. Email Threading: Gmail has something called conversations, which basically threads all your emails about a specific subject together. For example, if you’re having an email discussion among your friends about “Chicken soup recipes,” and you receive 7 emails about the topic, then you’ll see one email item in your Gmail inbox with the number (7) next to it, as opposed to 7 separate emails with “Re: Re: Re: Chicken soup recipes” in the subject lines. This feature takes some time to get used to, but it’s amazing how much it organizes in your inbox. You can read more about conversations here
  3. Priority Inbox: If I ever meet the product manager at Google who came up with this idea, I’m buying him lunch. Priority Inbox is a feature which automatically sorts the emails that are important to you and those that are not by placing them in different sections in your inbox (it just knows how to do that based on a few smart factors). This is a phenomenal feature which helps focus your attention on what really matters. I can go on and on about Priority Inbox, but it’s easier if you just watch the cool cartoon video Google has about it here
  4. Labels: Gmail doesn’t use folders – it uses something called labels instead. I won’t go into the details of how this could really help you organize your messages, because there are plenty of blog posts that show you how to strategically use them. However, the main benefit you should know about labels is that you can use multiple labels for each message, and they make finding emails much easier. Read more about how to set up labels here
  5. Keyboard Shortcuts: If you really want to save time opening, composing and replying to emails, you should forget using your mouse and use keyboard shortcuts instead. In Gmail, if you hit the “c” key, you’ll automatically open a window to compose a message. If you hit “r,” you’ll reply back to the sender, and “a” replies back to all, and so on. You also have other helpful combinations such as “g then i” which will bring you go back to the inbox. If you want to use shortcuts, you’ll have to turn the feature on (it’s off by default).  Learn more about how to do that here

My next post discusses how to use Gmail and Google Docs to manage a small virtual project.