IT consulting is a stressful job that has you constantly on your toes, pulling out your hair, and dealing with irate clients -- and those are the good weeks. So what do you do when you get overwhelmed because you have more work than you can handle or the gigs are too tough? You can continue on as is and hope to pull yourself out of the muck and mire, or you can step back, take a moment, and help yourself out before you wind up with an early retirement and a painful ulcer. Here is my simple advice that I hope will save you from a career-ending breakdown.
Know when to quit
Our egos are oftentimes the biggest issue in our struggle to keep our heads above the water line of sanity; this causes problems because you do not want to allow a task to get the better of you. When faced with a problem, the typical IT geek will look that challenge in the eye and dare it to best him or her. Sometimes that works in your favor, and sometimes it does not. The best plan of attack is to know when to throw up your hands and say "I give!" You don't necessarily have to give up completely -- you just might have to send in another consultant or even call a support line for help. The longer you struggle with that issue, the farther behind you will get. The farther behind you get, the more stressed you will be.Related: What to do when you get in over your head
Get more help
At some point, every IT consultant hopes to have the problem of too much business. When it happens, many IT consultants are faced with three choices: struggle on and hope to make it through the storm, turn down business, or hire new help. If your company is ready to expand, the addition of new employees could be a serious stepping stone for the business; if you think hiring more staff would just be a means to an end, it may not be the right decision. If you decide to get more help, be smart about how you introduce new hires to clients (e.g., inform them that someone new is coming to their office) and how you prep your new employees (e.g., make the person aware of any issues or quirks they might run into at the client site).Related: Overcommitted? Face the music and talk to your client
Take a break
You may be tempted to work around the clock, year round, but you simply can't do it. You must take a break from the tension. If you are a lone gun, make sure to schedule your vacation around a time when you know your clients aren't going to be hit hard. For example, if you have retail clients, the last thing you should do is take your vacation during the holiday season. If you have clients who are deeply involved in weddings, don't plan your vacation around wedding season. Is your biggest client a school? Make sure the summertime is your time to take a break.Related: Six secrets to productivity and getting tasks completed, Plan your vacation to these geeky destinations
Take off the watch
I have a rule that is pretty much hard and fast: I wear my watch during work hours and only during work hours. That means, when the watch is off, I'm not working. I don't take work calls; I don't look at logs; I don't look at work email. It's simply not healthy to be too attached to your job. If you can't remove yourself from your job, the work will haunt you morning, noon, and night.
You should use a calendar for your schedule -- but don't do it half-way. Make a schedule that will run your work life and try very hard not to deviate from it. In order to do this effectively, you will need to have a solid grasp on how long a job will take. And, if you find a job is taking longer than you think, stop and call the next job and try to reschedule. If that next job can't reschedule, call the job after that and reschedule them. The last thing you need is to let your work day eat up your private time to the point where your private time is at the mercy of your job. If you manage the schedule well and learn how to shuffle jobs around correctly, those jobs will fall into place.Related: When calendars collide: Five scheduling tips for busy IT consultants
I always approach a job with the Keep It Simple Stupid (KISS) and Occam's Razor (i.e., the simplest solution is usually the correct one) methods in mind. Unless Murphy's Law is having its way with you, Occam's Razor usually holds true. You should start with the simple solution first so when that solution is correct, you've only spent a fraction of the time you would have spent drilling down with a more complex solution first.
Keeping your head above water is far more than just knowing IT like the back of your hand. If you are a genius at a keyboard but you can't keep a schedule to save your life, you're going to suffer. Remember, being an IT consultant entails knowing how to keep yourself sane so you can enjoy your career (and your personal life) far longer than you would just going at it blindly. Take some time to resolve the issues that keep you from drowning; it will be time well spent.
What approaches are helpful when you get overwhelmed? Share your tips with the TechRepublic community.
More IT consultant tips
- Ways IT consultants can combat burnout
- Sanity saving tips for newbie IT consultants
- 10 things consultants can do to stay organized
- Are you only working for the money?
- Maintaining a balance when work and home are the same place
Jack Wallen is an award-winning writer for TechRepublic and Linux.com. He’s an avid promoter of open source and the voice of The Android Expert. For more news about Jack Wallen, visit his website getjackd.net.