Project Management

When there aren't enough hours in the day for your consulting work

If you're all too familiar with the seven day work week, independent consultant Chip Camden proposes three ways to change that situation.

As an independent consultant, I often find myself over-committed. It's all too easy to accept one more little job, thinking that I'll squeeze it in somehow. Before I know it, I'm apologizing for not getting around to one thing or another. I don't want to disappoint my clients by failing to meet their expectations. Besides, being behind the 8-ball all the time ramps up my stress. I hate getting to the end of the day and having three or four things I meant to look into but didn't even touch. Let's explore some of the alternatives for changing the situation.

Put in more hours

My knee-jerk reaction is to just work harder and longer. Sacrifice evenings and weekends, and forget about any kind of social life. That approach can work when dealing with a one-time event, but it's all too easy for it to become the new normal. As Parkinson's Law states, "Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion." If you overbooked yourself for a 40-hour week, you'll soon be doing the same for an 80-hour week if you allow yourself to work that much. Besides, after a certain point you become less productive -- especially if you resent not having any time of your own.

Do less work

The opposite approach is to try to cut some things out of your schedule. But which things? If you eliminate billable work, can you still meet your budget? Consultants often charge a lower rate for higher volume work, so you might think that it could make sense to scale that back in preference for a higher rate. But if there's a good reason for that price difference to begin with, then it should be just as important to keep the one as the other. Higher volume work saves you a lot of unbillable holes in your schedule.

You might seek to reduce or eliminate some unbillable activities. However, make sure you understand the costs associated with that move. Reducing self-education, for example, could lead to your obsolescence in time. Charity work has its own benefits that aren't easily enumerated.

Perhaps you should consider raising your rates, if you're experiencing more demand than you can meet. Even though doing so might paradoxically increase demand for your services, at least you can say "no" to some jobs without worrying about your income.

Use time more wisely

A third class of alternatives involves coming up with ways to spend less of your time getting the same amount of work done. You might immediately think of subcontracting or hiring employees. Believe me, that probably doesn't save you any time -- it only changes what you're working on. I'm thinking more along the lines of streamlining your processes through the automation of repetitive tasks, focusing on one thing at a time, and eliminating interruptions. When you're overwhelmed, it's easy to fall into procrastination, so you need to get rid of all distractions. We're not robots, so we do need some time to reflect -- but we should set aside specifically delineated breaks for a walk or a meal, then go back to "full on" mode when that's over.

I wrote this post as a form of self therapy. Being close to the problem, I probably missed some ideas. Help me out in the discussion.

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...

19 comments
RMSx32767
RMSx32767

You'll have 48 hours per day. You won't have additional TIME but you will have more hours.

JohnMcGrew
JohnMcGrew

[i]As Parkinsons Law states, Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.[/i] Along with deciding what jobs/clients to accept or dump and how to charge & bill properly, this was in the list of the hardest lessons of consultancy I had to really learn and understand. For a very long time, I was perpetually stressed because there just was too much to do in any given day; and it didn't matter if that given day was 5 hours, 8 hours, 12 hours or more. The big realization? [i]If you are good and in demand, there will always be more to do than you will have time for.[/i] This is actually good fortune. [i]So get over it![/i] Prioritize what needs to be done and do it. What doesn't get done today will have to wait. If you are still getting more business than you can possibly handle, it means your rates are too low. Raise them, lose some business that you can't get to anyway, make some more money, and get some of your life back. You'll be less stressed and happier.

reisen55
reisen55

Easy. Hire more workers in India.

PMPsicle
PMPsicle

There have been some great comments. I heartily recommend Michael Gerbers E Myth books. The concepts of working in your business versus on your business, and of developing systems as the principle entrepreneurial responsibility are both dear to my heart. The one additional action I would suggest is to identify what you should be doing, what makes sense for you to do and what should be dumped. We all do tasks that could just as easily be done by someone else -- at a much cheaper price. For example doing our own bookkeeping or formating our own reports. When we're under-utilized it may make sense to do this work. However, if we find ourselves working over 40 hours then it makes more sense to offload this work to someone else (i.e. outsource it or hire someone part time). A bookkeeper for example can be hired for $20 an hour in many cases. The key is to do what is most important first, then the next most important task. Start with the end in mind, assign priorities and don't be afraid to let someone else deal with what you can't do. As entrepreneurs our first and most important task is to work on our business. As professionals our next most important task is to earn money (i.e. billable time). Other tasks necessary to running a business follow after that. If you run out of time while you're in the billable time area then you need to hire more professionals (even if they are part time or recurring). If you run out of time during the overhead work then you need to outsource tasks (i.e. hire people in those areas). It's a simple matter of return on investment. Put your time where it will earn the most for you. Glen Ford, PMP http://www.vproz.ca

reisen55
reisen55

I learned long ago in corporate upgrades that respect for hours = good work, that 2:30 am is NOT the time to perform a server upgrade or migration. A co-worker, former Marine, also said that if they (client) are badgering you about work, then work more slowly - drive's em crazy. I do my best work when I know what I am doing and can think clearly about it, and if the client wants a ton of work done fast or long, then be up-front and tell him NO, I will do it the RIGHT WAY and that's it, PERIOD, END OF DISCUSSION. As a field of work, we can wipe out of business in a heartbeat. It is important for both the client and ourselves to ensure proper train of thought and protocol.

sysdev
sysdev

I have some basic rules. 1. I almost always stick with one project at a time. If I have a critical request for another short project, I explain my need for a short break in the current project (the client has never rejected that - they know that they may be the next one to request a short come back). I then make sure that the team is going to stay on track for the short time I am going to be gone and assign an assistant Project Manager if I do not already have one. I check in with that assistant every day that I am gone at least once, frequently sever times a day (cell phones have made it easier everyone has one), go back (usually flying) to the requesting client and handle the short task that they need, fly back to my current client and pick up where I left off. It is most often like I never left because I am sill managing the project even though I am not present physically. And my assistant project manager handles things that need a physical presence. My normal work week is 50+ hours, but I have been doing that for years, so it is my normal. I usually have more than one project waiting for the current project to finish, so I choose carfully and try (not always successfully) to reschedule the projects I cannot accept. I schedule my breaks -vacations just like another project. I will take phone calls when on vacation, but I won't come back to the client (I am with my family). It is easier now that all my children are grown and are adults 2 of 3 are marrried and the third has a wedding planned for next year. My oldest has two children (3 1/2 and 1 years old) so that sometimes alters the nature of the vacation from all adult to adult and child activites, but the grandchildren take naps and we are able to do adult activites after they go to sleep. We do break up into groups that want to do different things almost every night (I can't keep up with the activities of my twenty something children, so sometimes my wife and I babysit so my children and their spouses can do what they want. I don't mind). These breaks are either one or two weeks. And we try to do them several times a year. Sometimes not all can go for various reasons, but it is usually a group.

ksimon8fw
ksimon8fw

My tendency when I'm loaded with more work than can be done in a day/week is to focusing on the big picture - all the tasks at once. It's easy to get going on one task and getting that 90% done and moving to the next one before doing the cleanup on the first one. However, that's when it's even more important to pay even more attention to the task list - and start knocking them off one at a time. Focusing on the task at hand is the most efficient way to get that one task done, and move to the next one when that one is buttoned up. Kevin

drj
drj

I have been consulting since 1972 and have had employees and have worked alone. You get much more done when you develop your own system. I don't just mean do this at 8am, that at 9am. I mean 1) take your knowledge and expertise, 2) systematize it so that you can easily do it repeatedly, 3) sell the use of the system to your clients so that they do the heavy lifting and you do the advising. Michael Gerber explained this years ago in his E-Myth book series. Well worth reading. We started tele-consulting in 2012 and it has been a great success. We don't have to travel, we get $3,000/month for a couple of consultative phone calls, the client does the work and assumes ownership of the project and the result and is happy. You can spread yourself around if you plan it.

cmaritz
cmaritz

#1) start sooner #2) do it faster #3) do less Mostly what you described above, Chip. Of course not all of these will be available as options in every scenario, but the idea is there. Each one has a down side ('dark side') which could lead to unhappy customers and/or burnout. #1 might sound stupid, since it doesn't attempt any improvement of the task at all, however it may be that a rearranging of the schedule itself allows for deadlines to be better met #2 means increasing an element of speed in the system somewhere, this could be getting more efficient at something or it could simply mean getting an extra pair of hands ... end result is still a system that does the same thing faster #3 does not mean throwing out steps regardless, but should mean getting rid of wasteful / repetitive / low value actions without taking on additional costs or risks It is also good to periodically do 'hidden option #4' which is to step back and ask 'Why am I doing this at all??' ... who knows, it may open doors for innovation and new opportunities and 'doing a better thing' instead of just 'doing a thing better' :-) Thanks for the post. And a late Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you and yours. C.

WMDH
WMDH

then hire someone to help you out. Perhaps a young graduate or a second jobber. Burn out really isn't worth it.

gechurch
gechurch

I used to stress a lot too due to constantly having more work than I could handle, and I too have come to accept that this will always be the case. I enjoy all the projects I take on so am not yet ready to say 'no' to some of them and step back a little (but think I will be at that stage some time in the next 5-10 years). Anyway, I agree about getting over it! Since realising and accepting that I will always have more work than I can get through, and that some things won't get done in the timeline I was aiming for I've been a lot less stressed. I still love to get things done straight away and impress clients, but I've learnt to ask myself the question "Do I really need to be up this late at night to complete this task, or can it wait until later?". I'm surprised by how few things really can't wait until I've had a sleep.

gechurch
gechurch

I certainly agree with the sentiments of being honest up-front, of working best when not bothered, and of the importance IT plays in business. I don't agree with the attitude you are proposing though. What benefit is it to drive your client crazy by working slowly? And why be so inflexible when discussing future work? There are much more tactful ways of explaining realistic timelines and procedures to clients without doing the equivalent of saying "talk to the hand 'cos the face ain't listening". IT already has a bad reputation from people that act like self-important jerks. Lets not advocate more of it. Good communication and management of clients is a core part of consulting. Refusing to discuss things through with your client is not "doing it the right way".

uwishtoo
uwishtoo

And then what? Take more hours to train them and explain the idiosyncrasies unique to each client? It's easier to do it myself if I have to take 4 more hours to meet with and then train someone. Been there done that and it also took me longer to clean up their mistakes than if I had done it myself.

JohnMcGrew
JohnMcGrew

...but in the long run they will be happier with a quality job done later. Failure and stress will linger in their minds far longer than the fact that it took longer than they wanted for something to get done right.

gechurch
gechurch

I would have given you more than one vote if I could have. My thoughts exactly. I work as a consultant in a very small IT firm and we constantly struggle with workloads. We have great people that generate more work, but find it really, really hard to find the right person when it's time to hire. More often than not it cost us more time managing the new hire than it would have taken if we had just done the work ourselves. This is all fine and expected, provided the new hire is a good long-term prospect. More often than not this isn't the case. If I worked for myself I don't think I would hire a second person (unless I was aiming to build up a company of say 6 or more people then retire and live off the income). I'd rather turn down work.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

I managed people for years, and I really don't like that kind of work. I can't see trying to relieve too much of a good thing by doing something I don't enjoy instead.

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