Dealing with mindless consulting tasks

How well do your consulting engagements make use of your intellect? Answer this poll question, and read tips on getting boring tasks out of the way quickly and avoiding procrastination.

Bob Eisenhardt (reisen55) sent me an email in which he described a frustrating day of dealing with mindless client problems such as rampant malware and incorrect logins. He avoided burnout, however, by solving what was for him a more interesting problem with Active Directory. His story left me wondering whether most consultants experience a similar ratio of engaging work versus mindless, repetitive tasks.

As a software developer, whenever I even think of the word "repetitive," a little guy pops up in the middle of my pre-frontal cortex waving a flag with "DRY" written on it. The Don't Repeat Yourself Principle, besides establishing a single, authoritative source of truth about a given process, also prevents you from having to spend time doing it over and over again. There should be a way to encapsulate and automate these tasks so that you push a button (or even let cron do that), and it all takes care of itself.

Now that presumes that the task truly qualifies for the term "mindless" as well. If each iteration of the task requires a unique evaluation, then automating it could be too difficult to be practical. That's when you start looking for ways to eliminate variables in order to simplify the process, so that automating it might be easier.

If the task in question underutilizes your brain, then you're not treating your client fairly when you bill your consulting fee for performing it. Consulting means applied brainpower, not a warm body manning the switch. This might be a good opportunity to educate one of your client's employees. Your client should appreciate your willingness to save them money and to enhance their investment in their staff. Choose an employee who would see this task as an opportunity to learn and advance themselves, though—rather than resenting you and their employer for dumping busywork on them.

Sometimes there isn't anyone else qualified to perform a task, and there's no practical way to automate it either. In that case, we just have to get through it while looking forward to more interesting work when we're done. Paradoxically, the danger of getting stuck on an uninteresting task is immense. The dread of doing it can keep you from getting started, even though you know how relieved you'll be once you get it finished. Like other cases of procrastination, the best approach is to just get started. Break it down into pieces that you can easily achieve, and then give yourself some little reward for finishing each piece. This works much better than beating yourself up for not getting enough done.

On the other hand, if you find that the majority of your work qualifies for the category of Things I'd Enjoy Less Than a Colonoscopy, then maybe it's time to make some changes in the kinds of engagements you're accepting. Or perhaps you need to evaluate your strategies for educating your clients or automating their processes in order to avoid these contingencies.


Chip Camden has been programming since 1978, and he's still not done. An independent consultant since 1991, Chip specializes in software development tools, languages, and migration to new technology. Besides writing for TechRepublic's IT Consultant b...

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