IT Employment

Common sense tips for overwhelmed IT consultants

Feeling bogged down with your IT consulting work? Before you switch to another career or go into early retirement, try these simple tips for staying afloat.

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.

Schedule correctly

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

KISS

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.

Final thoughts

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.

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About

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.

18 comments
papu
papu

Just a quick note... One of my biggest (in fact, probably the biggest in terms of man-hours) client for 3 years was a school. That said, summers was the most hectic period, as their IT department would take the opportunity to rebuild, upgrade and fiddle with everything. As such, summer was always the busiest and most profitable period! Taking holidays during summer would have been insane... and probably lost me the client! Other "peak" periods for schools are the first 2-3 weeks after the start, exams, and any breaks longer than a week. The best time to take a holiday is in the "lull" about a month after any major holiday, when the teething issues have been sorted out and the tech support team is just replacing toner cartridges.

bgroves
bgroves

Good story, except for the references to "geeks". We as IT Professionals should be recognized as such. The term "geek" is derogatory - it only serves to demonstrate the ignorance of those using it. Now Everyone, repeat after me: I am an IT Professional.

Rodrigo Branco Matsumoto
Rodrigo Branco Matsumoto

I have to confess that I really liked of KISS. Sometimes, some IT Consultants can't open properly their eyes for Occam's razor principal, simply because they think that experience is better than practicality. Many times I was caught for that. Who was never?

dmshiff
dmshiff

Yes, you DO need some down time, but you also need planned, scheduled time for self-education and research to remain technologically relevant and up to date. If you invest too much time and effort on the wrong technology path, programming language skill, or other dead end you will have to spend even more time and effort catching up. I stayed with low-end IBM mainframes, the VSE OS, CICS, and DB2 for as long as I wanted to keep working. I did add TCP/IP to my repertoire - and to most of my client's systems - before I retired a few years ago, but I knew what was coming.

pgit
pgit

blow out some disks in your back so you're forced into traction for a few weeks. Your doctor can help you with the pain... somewhat. Caught up on a lot of reading and correspondence. I recommend this "vacation" thing, though I'd think you might not want to 'schedule' the same one I did. Maybe a beach or something.

HAL 9000
HAL 9000

What is a Vacation? I hear lots of people talk about this and all my staff have one but I don't know what it is. What's the attraction with this? Actually I have staff and still don't get time off. Col

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

.. of taking too much onto my plate occasionally. OK, frequently. All the time. Sometimes I just have to clean house and cut back.

papu
papu

I'm a geek and proud of it! In the most childish way possible, Geek For Teh Win! (Make sure you spell it 'teh' and not 'the') I've been a geek all my life, was teased and made fun of when I was a child. Now, it's my turn to have my revenge. Wear your badge proudly, repeat after me: Geek is not derogatory!

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

Revenge of the Nerds/Geeks. The world has discovered computers and suddenly we're wizards instead of marginalized math olympics competitors. I don't find Geek or Nerd the least bit derogatory these days. Biff isn't coming around the soda shop to beat up on the nerds anymore.

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

.. that's when I take time away from going into the office to sit infront of a computer so I can go to the pool and sit on a lounge chair.. in.. front.. of a computer. (wait.. think I missed something.. let me go check the dictionary definition of that word again..)

jred
jred

Take a motorcycle trip. The lack of luggage space means you're more likely to leave the laptop at home, and you can't check (or answer) your phone while you're riding. Not only that, when you do happen to be available for the "emergency" call, answering "how soon can you be here" with "well, right now I'm under an overpass in a thunderstorm with a flat tire somewhere in the middle of Iowa...." always makes me feel better :)

oldbaritone
oldbaritone

all too often, there's PLENTY of time off if you "blow off" the customers too often. and you never know when the customer is going to make strategic changes, consolidations, budget cuts, or what-have-you.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

... when you take 8 hours away from the computer, which magically creates 24 hours of new work to be done by yesterday.

rmccollum
rmccollum

No vacation goes unpunished.... So were are the "new staff" that know something and can go it alone without me having to explain every step of the way? Now how can I help you?????

santeewelding
santeewelding

Only, when I snap my fingers, there is no staff jumping to the fore. There is otherwise the bugaboo about when it's busy and I'm making money, I lose by taking vacation. When there is nothing, I lose more by taking vacation. I haven't known what the word means for, lo, these many years, either.

HAL 9000
HAL 9000

Spent half a day at a domestic clients home sorting their personal system only used to surf the Net & Collect E-Mail and I had 3 days work to catch up on. Didn't matter that I sent one of the staff out to do my job either the work just pilled up without any warning. Sorry but I simply can not afford that as I have to work way too hard to try to catch up. It never actually Happens either I might add. I just don't stay so far behind. Col

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