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...

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