Project Management for Converting a Campervan (How to Save Time And Money)
Good project management is going to be absolutely key to your successful van conversion. It will save you time, money, and help you make fewer mistakes. And yet, I seem to be the only one talking about it in the vanlife community. Indeed I have a whole video on it in The Van Conversion Course. Project management should not be an afterthought, but rather something to nail down before you even begin. It is estimated that 9.9% of every dollar is wasted during a project’s life cycle. Furthermore, workers spend over a third (36%) of their day looking for the information they require. In this article, I will show you how to increase your productivity while reducing stress, making your van conversion more cost effective, and potentially shaving months off the build time! I'm Shane, the van conversion instructor at Udemy, digital nomad, and proud owner of a beautiful self-build campervan called Beans. I am the CEO the fintech startup Aikido Finance and am a computer science graduate. I use project management in every aspect of my professional and personal life. So, let's jump in and have a look at how you can more effectively and efficiently build your campervan!
Apps to Download Before You Begin
The only app you need which will do everything that we talk about in this article is the note-taking / productivity app Notion. It's completely free and is available on desktop and mobile. You can check out this introductory series if you haven't used the tool before. Using Notion you will be able to create a supplies list, make a build timeline, create kanban boards, file away useful information, and even create daily todo lists. It's the all-in-one workspace and I would highly recommend it.
If you don't fancy Notion for whatever reason, you can always use a combination of other tools, though you may find you will have to use several apps rather than just one. For instance, you could use Evernote for filing your information, Trello for creating your kanban board, and Todoist for your daily todo list.
Whatever tools you choose to use doesn't matter too much - what matters is that you are following a system and process which will massively improve your efficiency and effectiveness.
Setting up Notion
The first thing to do having installed Notion is to create a dashboard which contains the following components:
Timeline (Gantt chart)
The dashboard will be a new page in your Notion workspace. In the first part of this article I will show you how to setup your dashboard in Notion. It is pretty fast to setup, but if you like you can just copy my dashboard and jump to the next section.
Let's have a look at how to setup each component before moving on to how to use it.
Overview: This is a simple todo list for your day. Anything you plan to work on today lives in this todo list, with the aim of having all your tasks checked off by the end of the day.
How to set it up: The only Notion command you need to know is that by typing forward-slash ("/"), a drop-down will appear showing you all the possible options you can use. You can create this todo list by typing the following command: "/todo".
Overview: As you research your campervan build, you will be taking in information from lots of different resources: from youtube videos, to blogs, to books, to podcasts. If you don't store this valuable information somewhere, it will go in one ear and out the other. In the productivity / project management world, where you store this information is called the Second Brain. You want to have information on-hand when you need it most.
How to set it up: Create a new page ("/page") called Incubator and select "List" from the template list to create a full-page list. Each item in the list is a page in itself.
Overview: This is a simple supplies list of everything you you need to buy or have already bought. It is a really good idea to keep one of these lists, it will help you estimate costs from the outset and in some countries will be needed at the end of the build when you are taxing your van (eg. in Ireland).
How to set it up: Create a new page ("/page") called Supplies and select "Table" from the template list to create a full-page table. You will need to create 6 columns in the table: Name (Title), Price (Number), Quantity (Number), Total Cost (Formula), Source (URL), Bought (Checkbox). To change the type of a column, simply click the column header, and change the property type. Total cost will be the Price X Quantity of an item. To edit the formula of the Total Cost column, click the column header and select Edit Formula from the dropdown. Edit the formula to be as follows:
prop("Price") * prop("Quantity")
Overview: The Kanban/Scrum board is an essential project management tool and is widely used by technology companies to manage workflow. You can think of it as a simple Todo, Doing, Done list. The aim is to get all your tasks (stories) from Todo to Done.
How to set it up: Create a new page ("/page") called The Build and select "Board" to create a full-page kanban board. The page should be ready to go straight away with the 4 columns: No status, Not Started, In Progress, Completed. You can populate the board with some mock stories to get started, such as "Install Inlets" or "Install Window", etc.
Overview: A Gantt chart is just fancy word for a timeline. It is linked to your kanban board and shows your estimated timeframe for completing each story and in turn, the entire van build.
How to set it up: Click the dropdown at the top of the Kanban board where it says "Board View", click "Add a View", then select "Timeline" from the dropdown. You can add stories to the timeline and they will automatically be added to the Kanban board.
Add The Kanban Board and Gantt Chart to The Dashboard
Overview: This is the final step of you Notion setup. You need to add you kanban board and gantt chart to your dashboard so that you can easily see them. They need to be front-and-center to keep you on track.
How to set it up: On your dashboard type the command "/link to page", then type in "The Build" to link to the The Build page which we just created. This will show the page on your dashboard. Do this step again so that you have two views of The Build page. Give one a Board view and give the other a Timeline view.
Et Voila! You have just set up your Notion dashboard for your van conversion and you're ready to start working effectively. Next, let's have a look at all the techniques you can employ to make the best use of your time and save you a tonne of money!
How to Research Effectively
When you are researching and gathering information on your campervan build, you will be taking in data from lots of different source; from youtube videos, to blogs, to books, to podcasts. If you don't store this information somewhere, it won't stick in your head for long. Human brains are not designed to store information which you have only read once. Indeed, Just-In-Time (JIT) learning has become increasingly popular, whereby you only learn what you need to learn, when you need to learn it.
As you research your van conversion, be sure to store anything that may be useful in the Incubator page on your dashboard. For instance, you might have a page in the incubator called "Installing a Window" which contains all material that you have found on the subject. By doing this, you will have everything ready to go at your fingertips right when you need it, saving you buckets of time. In the productivity / project management world, this is called the Second Brain.
Quick tip: install the Notion Chrome extension to save any website you find directly to Notion!
Make a Supplies List to Keep Track of Costs
As you deep dive into your van conversion research, you are going to come up with lots of features that you want in your van. Make sure you keep note of any of the big features that you want. Eg. a bed, sink, stove, solar panels, or even a shower! This will help you when you are designing your van. The next step is to go a layer deeper and determine which supplies you will actually need to buy. Add these supplies to the Supplies List page on your dashboard, noting the price, quantity and URL (link).
Using this supplies list you will be able to determine a rough budget for your build. Extra costs on top of supplies that you will need to consider are:
The cost of the van itself
Vehicle registration tax (in some countries you need to pay tax to change the tax class of a vehicle)
Road worthiness test
Engineers inspection (in some countries)
When you have a price that you think the entire conversion will cost add another 30% on top of it. This is a pretty common additional percentage to use in project management. Generally founders of startups (like myself) underestimate how much funding they will need to raise from investors and how much time the project will take by 30% on average. So give yourself a margin of safety in terms of both time and funds. It will cost more, and take longer than you think.
Create a Timeline to Estimate The Build Time
So you've done your research and have written out your supplies list. By now you should have a pretty good idea of the high-level milestones in your van conversion build. In software development, we call the high-level tasks / milestones "Epics". Add all of these Epics to the gantt chart (timeline) in The Build page on your dashboard. The epics should be in chronological order starting at the very beginning and finishing at the very end of the build. Eg. The first epic might be "De-rust Van Interior" and the very last epic might be: "Upholster Mattress for Bed".
After you have done a high-level timeline of your build you should again add at least 30% on to the timeframe. To give you some context, I thought my van conversion would take 3 months, it ended up taking 6 months. I should have added 100% on!
Making a timeline is very important. As managerial author Peter Drucker famously said in The Effective Executive, "What gets measured gets managed" and conversely, "What doesn't get measured doesn't get done". By giving yourself a timeframe and deadline to complete a task you are utilizing Parkinson's law. Deadlines are one of the best tools you have as a project manager to get the job done on time. Parkinson's Law states that "Work expands to fill the time that you allot it". In other words, if you give yourself 2 months to complete a task, you will complete it in 2 months; if you give yourself 2 weeks to complete a task, you will complete it in 2 weeks. Use short deadlines to increase productivity.
Setup a Kanban Board to Maximise Productivity
This is the most important section in this article. If you do nothing else, do this. If you aren't using Notion, then use Trello to get this step done. As you added Epics to the timeline you might have noticed that they were also added to the No Status column of the kanban board on your dashboard. As you work on and complete these Epics they should flow through your kanban board from todo to done. You can add notes or checklists to these card by clicking on the card and adding some text.
You may feel feel that some of the Epics are too big and inclusive, if this is the case, break the Epic into Stories which are more specific and manageable in size. By decreasing the size of stories, you will complete more of them and thus play to your own psychology: More wins = a happier van-builder. Converting a van is tough, there's no beating around the bush. So make the experience as pleasant as you possibly can. By breaking the process into manageable chunks you will gamify the experience, increasing your motivation to keep going.
How to Correctly Use a Kanban Board
The use of the board you have just setup is pretty intuitive. As I've said before, you just move stories from Todo to Done. I discuss the use of it at length in The Van Conversion Course. However, there are a few more techniques you can employ to increase your effectiveness with the board. The first technique is to use sprints. The sprint is very commonly used in tech companies as a way to manage workflow. It is a time-boxed period of time (usually one or two weeks), during which the team work on specific Stories. When I was doing my van build I used 2-week sprints during which I would try to complete a certain number of stories which I had pulled in.
On the first day of a sprint, you will decide which stories to work on during the cycle. When pulling stories into the sprint be mindful of how many you take in. If you take in too many, you won't get them all completed and this will make you feel crap at the end of the sprint - thus decreasing your motivation for the next sprint. As I mentioned above, the aim is to have lots of small wins and gamify the process. Try to complete all your stories - this means not pulling in too many!
One thing to beware of is not to WIP yourself. WIP stands for "Work in Progress". Humans are not built for multi-tasking. Multi-tasking is a conditioned 21st century skill which leads to increased stress, lack of focus, ineffectiveness, and a multitude of other downsides. In a given day, your aim should be to get as many deep work hours as possible, whereby you focus on a single task and absolutely nail it. Context switch as little as possible. In relation to the kanban board, don't work on more than 1 Story at a time.
Maintain a daily task list
The last step of the project management process is to maintain a daily list of tasks (AKA a TODO list). I like to create my todo list the night before as it gives me a reason to get out of bed on time. Make sure that your todo list is doable; if you put to many things on it, you won't finish it and it will make you feel bad. The tasks on your todo list should be linked in some shape or form to the stories on your kanban board.
Do the Most Important Task (MIT) on your todo list first thing in the morning. This is known as the Eat The Frog technique. Once you get the hardest thing out of the way, the rest of the day is easy!
You can also think about using the 1-3-5 rule to determine how many tasks to pull in for the day. This rule states that the most productive amount of work to pull into a given day is 1 big task, 3 medium tasks, and 5 small tasks.
I personally use a Bullet Journal rather than Notion for my daily todo list as I really like writing on paper. I have a whole system setup with the bullet journal, laying out my month and days. But that's for another blog post.
The Bullet Journal
13 Essential Productivity Techniques (MUST READ)
Before we finish this article, I have a few nuggets of productivity wisdom to impart to help you have a more successful van conversion.
Consistency is the most powerful tool you have. Just do a little bit every day. Jim Collins calls this the 20-mile march
Use visual gamification techniques. eg. with each story that you move to done on your kanban board, put a paperclip in a glass which is kept in plain sight. Keep adding to it as you do more. Or for even more fun, get a Snakes n' Ladders board and for each story that you have completed that day, move your piece up the board.
Stop context switching and remove distractions. Leave you mobile phone hidden from sight. On average, it takes between 11 to 25 minutes for a person to return to their original task after an interruption.
The dream equation from the 4-hour work week by Tim Ferriss is as follows:
a. Limit tasks to the important to shorten work time (Pareto’s principle or the 80/20 rule)
b. Shorten work time to limit tasks to the important (Parkinson’s law)
2-day rule: don't skip a habit for more than 2 days in a row. As James Clear talks about in his book Atomic Habits, In order to win an election you don't need every vote, you just need a majority. It's okay if you miss 1 day working on the van, but don't leave it more than 2!
Use loss aversion to your advantage. Okay this is a crazy one, but when I was converting my campervan (and when I was creating The Van Conversion Course) I used a website called Beeminder. I actually still use the site for learning Spanish and for publishing these articles. It plays off loss aversion, one on of Daniel Kahnemann's behavioural economic biases. Loss aversion is a tendency to prefer avoiding losses to acquiring equivalent gains. Losing feels roughly twice as bad, as winning feels good. In beeminder you make a monetary pledge (eg. 5$) that you will do something. Personally, I pledged that I would work on building my campervan 5 days in a week. If I worked on the van in a given day, I would log on and make note of the work. If you fail to hit your goal, you lose your money. It sounds psychopathic, but it really works!
Batch similar tasks together. For example, if you are cladding your walls, don't cut one piece to size, then go into your van and screw it in. Cut all the wood at the same time, then go into your van and screw it all in at the same time. Batching will easily save you over 30% of your time.
Design your work environment consciously and make sure its clean. To destress and speed up the build time, make sure your workshop is organised. When you need a tool, you should know exactly where it is and not have to look for it. Similarly, always keep a pencil in your back pocket (it's a super important piece of kit). This requires putting everything back where it's meant to be and cleaning up at the end of each day. Don't let the crap build up!
Get into flow state. Performance improves by up to 500% when in flow state. Flow state is a state of intense concentration where all background noise seems to die away. It is triggers dopamine release. To enter flow state, you need to be working on a specific task with no interruptions for an extended period of time. There are many flow state triggers, here are the ones that are relevant to converting a van:
Change up your day-to-day, do things differently, to how you did them in the past so you don't get bored.
If you are working on a task that is complex, you will enter flow state easier. It has been found that the optimal difficulty should be 4% above what you feel comfortable with
You've done a task before and are now doing it again. You've spotted a pattern.
Spend less time on the internet. Late nights on the internet kill productivity, better to wake up early and get crackin'
Spend less time speculating
Get friends and family to help out - it increases motivation, increases speed, and makes the process easier and more fun. A good soundtrack helps too!
Walk out to the van and get things done one at a time, once you have a plan from start to finish.
The 7-Step Process to Building A Van
In the tech world, the software developer follows a 7-step process to building an application. I think that this process is very relevant to the van converter. Here is the process and how it relates to camper building:
Gather requirements (e.g. "ability to cook food")
Analyze the requirements (e.g. "stove and the needed fuel" etc)
Design solutions to each requirement. (e.g. "an induction stove run on solar, and a propane stove run on propane, for bad-sun days and want-to-cook-outside days")
Develop those solutions (buy the stoves, decide where they go, etc)
Test those solutions (Run the stoves, cook something, check amp/propane usage. Pack up the van and go camping.)
Integration (how will this fit into my expected kind of van life?)
Deployment (go do it)
Project Management And my Van Conversion
In this article we have discussed the very best best productivity techniques that exist. In fact, there is a lot more that we could have discussed, including the use of a GTD Dashboard. As you can probably guess, I'm a complete productivity geek. However, sometimes less is more. Trying to take on too many systems at once can be overwhelming.
Good project management was absolutely essential in my van build. Particularly the use of the kanban board. I couldn't have been without it.
You can check out some more campervan productivity tips, plus a whole lot more in The Van Conversion Course.
Have you got any other helpful project management tricks? Let me know in the comments below!