Open Source

How to know when you have too much business

What's the sweet spot for having enough consulting work and income? Chip Camden reveals the answer.

This might seem like an odd subject in our current economy, but bear with me and you'll see it's an important one.

For several years now, I've been operating at about 60-80% of my billable capacity, in order to reserve time for self-education, open-source projects, and other activities. I therefore adopted a "picky and pricey" stance towards new business, weeding out all but the most attractive projects. Recent changes in my personal situation and in the economy, however, have prompted me to desire more income. So, I've started taking on additional projects and cutting back on non-billable activities.

As you might expect, the feast or famine phenomenon executed a rapid 180 for me, and I'm already beginning to have trouble finding time for all this new work. Yet, I don't want to give up any of these projects because I could really use the money. How do I find the sweet spot between having too much to do and having too little income?

I pondered this problem as I took my early morning walk today. I thought about options: perhaps I could sub out some of it? No, with the kind of work I do I'd spend more time managing someone else than I would doing it myself. Besides, my clients probably wouldn't be happy about that. Could I raise my rates? No, they're already about as high as they can go and still get any takers.

Then it hit me. There is no sweet spot. The reason why the feast or famine phenomenon is so common is because for most of us, the conditions we call "feast" and "famine" overlap! As my friend and mentor Ken Lidster once told me, "No matter how much money you have, it's never more than you need." Likewise, no matter how much time you have, there's always something to fill it up. Thus, I could never contrive a state of affairs in which I have enough money and enough time. We humans seem unable to have enough of either, never mind both.

It comes down to choosing which one you want more. Since I can't make more time, perhaps the only relief from this situation is to be content with less money. Right now that's not an option for me. Personally, I'm living pretty frugally, but I have commitments I have to keep. Maybe in my next life I can be a mendicant Buddhist. In this one, I'm just going to have to buckle down and get an uncomfortable amount of work done. But of course there is an upper limit to how much I can actually accomplish. How will I know when I'm about to hit that wall?

I've been there before. Back in 2002 I generated almost twice what I'm making these days, at lower hourly rates. At the end of the year, I looked at that milestone gross number, then shrugged "So what?" I virtually lived in my office that year, and I got so burned out that I immediately made the changes I mentioned at the beginning of this post.

Despite the enormous amount of work I accomplished that year, the burnout had been showing through all along. I had a lot of trouble with procrastination -- it was hard to get started on anything when I had so many things I needed to do. My usually over-optimistic estimates became downright pipe dreams. That whooshing noise of deadlines flying by didn't do anything to relieve my stress, either.

I've learned a lot in recent years about how to deal with procrastination and get things done. Break projects down from monoliths into small steps, then just pick one and do it -- then do the next one. Regarding deadlines, I've learned the importance of constantly communicating my status with my clients -- not only so they aren't surprised, but also so they can consider expeditious alternatives. Nevertheless, I'll keep an eye on these two signs: if I experience more than my usual trouble with procrastination, or if schedules start to slip more than I can explain by unforeseen circumstances, then perhaps I've got too much on my plate.

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About

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...

13 comments
birumut
birumut

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MikeGall
MikeGall

You're right on that point. Also schedule slippage. TPS/lean methodologies are nice here even if dealing with one persons tasks. Procrastination happens because either we are bored (took wrong project?) or are burned out and need a break. Either way we are doing too much work or not the right work. When working on things schedules will slip occasionally because our estimates of the effort involved will be wrong but when a large chunk of your ongoing projects slip behind you are clearly over booked/under estimated time involved. I think then the best thing to do is stop taking new jobs (at least if they aren't emergencies for existing customers) until things start to either get finished and out of the queue or back on track.

wfreeman
wfreeman

Really? Now? Wow, all I can say is, "Congratulations!"

realvarezm
realvarezm

is hard to find the perfect balance in life. Family, friends, work, money and knowledge dont get along very often and to put more stress to it, you are at the limit of your capacity. You have to make sacrifices, your income, gadgets, trips and gourmet food can wait or maybe you already had enough of it. The quality of life that you give your kids and family in general, thats my real comitment; everything else can wait. Cause when you are old and retired the last thing you will want is regrets about things that REALLY matter, because by that time there will be nothing you can do to fix the damage you have been procrastinating.in your life.

JohnMcGrew
JohnMcGrew

I???ve been operating at about 60-80% of my billable capacity, in order to reserve time for self-education, open-source projects, and other activities. I therefore adopted a ???picky and pricey??? stance towards new business, weeding out all but the most attractive projects. After learning the hard lessons, this is where I ended up, and was comfortable with it. "100% capacity" simply is not sustainable. I had a lot of trouble with procrastination ??? it was hard to get started on anything when I had so many things I needed to do. My usually over-optimistic estimates became downright pipe dreams. That whooshing noise of deadlines flying by didn???t do anything to relieve my stress, either. Strangely enough, this remains my biggest obstacle. First thing on the morning, I look over the "to do" list. On any given day, it can be 20 to 50 items long, and grows once I start reading the e-mail or getting phone calls. And the end of the day, what didn't get done gets re-prioritized to the future. It never seems to get shorter. It can be dispiriting, and frequently leads to procrastination, which clearly is the opposite of what needs to happen. The trick to dealing with it has been accepting that the list will always be long, and you simply need to continue attacking the items one-at-a-time.

casey
casey

Chip - As long as your direct labor is the exclusive source of revenue you will be bound to a feast-or-famine cycle. I would suggest if you need more money and have the support of customers to expand your business, you do it as quickly as you can. Who cares if you spend all your time managing a staff if the bottom line is more money in your pocket and less variance to the income stream. If you've read any of Alan Weiss or Gerry Weinberg's work, you know if you are a sole income-generator there will be a ceiling that you will hit and not be able to break without without expanding. Years ago that number was around $500K; today it's hard to say with both inflation and poor economic trends at play. During your next walk you may want to think about re-making your career and using your knowledge to coach rather than do. You may find you enjoy it and open the door to grater wealth at the same time.

reisen55
reisen55

Sir, I have to agree with you ONLY if I mostly review MY office network. I know the pitfalls of the systems, software and internet, I have a full redundancy platform in place so that if primary system fails, I have a duplicate downstairs fully operational. A second StarTrek Bridge as it were. I know how to PREVENT problems from creeping into my network. The things that ARE wrong are everybody ELSE out there, inclusive of clients, and THAT is where my business is! I cannot invoice "myself" but I do work for and invoice "them."

santeewelding
santeewelding

No next life. Mendicity now, or never. Besides, what exactly [i]is[/i] there that can be begged -- to include more or less of business -- that has to do with composition of self? That's what you're talking about, right? If these things [i]do[/i] make of your self, pray for that second chance. Maybe, then, you get it right. Because, the way you're talking, something's wrong.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Yes, the market is pretty thin in general, but even so there are pockets of activity. That only helps to make the feast-famine cycle more pronounced.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

I also find that it helps to give yourself little rewards for knocking things off the list. But no punishments -- they don't work.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

... I like what I do, and I don't like managing people. I tried that for several years, and found that all the money in the world doesn't compensate for an unhappy career.

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