Picture this: You’re asked to start and finish a project in a certain time frame. You’ve done projects like this before and you know it’ll go one of two ways: It’s either going to be pretty manageable, even with the time frame or, more likely, it’ll be going well and, surprise! A problem will show itself, making the time frame a bit more hectic. This happens in nearly every line of work. We have to plan for the unplanned and expect the unexpected. We also have to know how to manage our time when that happens.

I’m someone who’s still somewhat new to the working world of design and I’m still learning this lesson with each new project. Learning how to estimate and manage a time frame for a project is an important lesson and one that any aspiring designer or freelancer should be very mindful of, especially for those who have an hourly rate.

When planning out the time frame for a project, it’s good to categorize and overestimate. If I’m going to redesign a website, I don’t want to just say “how long will it take me?”. Instead, I want to say “what are the different parts that will occur during this project?”. For example, I’m going to have at least one meeting with the client, I may need a time frame that will allow me to create a sitemap, wireframes, and, of course, the designs themselves. After that, I’ll need time to build the site, upload it, and work out any bugs. That’s seven different parts right there for a “simple redesign.”

After figuring out your different categories, a good jumping-off point is seeing how long these different parts have taken in the past. If you don’t have a past to look at, make a guess and overestimate it. Always better to come in under the time frame and the budget than over. And make sure to take note of how long each part took you at the end!

Another tip is to always try to be a step or two ahead of yourself. For example, if you’re creating a web design, think about how that fancy parallax scrolling or cool button animation is going to get built. When building the site, check if that plugin you’re installing has had a good history of downloads and support so it won’t break and disappear a few months down the road.

So, what happens when you run into the near-inevitable “surprise problem”? What’s the plan when you need to revisit a piece to accommodate for a new element? Or when you have more meetings with the client than you had expected? Or when a built site is having trouble uploading? Well, in my limited experience, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. Of course, it’s usually good to keep the client in the loop. If they want more meetings than you had planned for, let them know if that will have an impact on the established time frame.

There also will often come a point when you have to do a bit of priority thinking. Say you’re working on a print piece and the client just gave you a rewrite to the content that completely changes the messaging of the whole piece. At this point, you’ve already had an established direction but this change has a ripple effect and you can see the time frame going out the window. Hypothetically, you’ve let the client know your concerns about the change and they said that it’s ok if the time frame gets pushed a little but they can’t go over budget. You know you’re already 80% through your quoted hours and making necessary changes to have work you’re proud of will take 140% of the quoted hours rather than the expected 100%. It’s not a fun place to be in but you have to make a choice: Are you going to put in that 140% but charge for the 100% or are you going to do 100% and produce an “ok” piece?

That’s an answer that will look different for each situation and each person. It sounds great to just always put in the extra effort to make a really stellar piece but the situation might not always allow that. You might have a stricter time frame than extra hours will allow or you might be juggling projects or you might need to move through because of financial reasons. Each situation is unique.

Whatever the decision ends up being in that case, you learn a bit more of how to prep your time frame for the next project and how to manage client expectations. Each new challenge presents a new lesson, as long as you’re ready to learn.