As the story on the economy reads more and more like a Stephen King novel, a fear that consultants secretly feel even in the best of times frequently rises to the surface: What if business dries up completely?

The work that you’ve already agreed to do with your clients is your “pipeline.” In order to avoid the feast or famine phenomenon — well, the famine half of it, anyway — consultants like to have a pipeline of at least a few months’ work. Some would say, the more the merrier — especially in this economy. But there are a few points to consider here:

  • The more work in your pipeline, the longer it will take for you to get it done. Make sure that the work at the end of the pipeline isn’t at all urgent for your clients. You’ll probably end up squeezing in a few more small, high-priority projects along the way, so you may get to those low-priority projects even later than you think. Those projects might eventually become higher priorities for your client, or the client may just get tired of waiting for you to get around to them and find someone else to do the work.
  • It’s easier to justify delays on low-priority projects to clients who also own some of your high-priority projects. If one client constantly sits at the back of the queue, they’ll start wondering whether you’re ever going to do any work for them. So one factor in prioritizing work should be “how much attention have I given this client lately?” even if the job itself isn’t urgent.
  • On the other hand, it’s good to have work lined up from more than one client. If you rely on only one customer for most of your business, he or she has the power to empty your pipeline with one swift decision.
  • The fear of reaching the end of your pipeline may keep you from ever working on those end-of-the-pipeline projects. It’s like your rainy day fund, so you hate to touch it. That’s bad for several reasons, though. It’s unfair to your client, who is certainly not expecting you to sit on their project ad infinitum. It’s unfair to your business, because it may keep you from seeking new work to take that end-of-pipeline spot. And it’s unfair to you, because it may lower your opinion of your ability to get things done.
  • Too much work in the pipeline may lead to burnout. You start looking at every hour not spent on billable work as an expense — “It’s costing me $500 in lost revenue to watch this football game!” The pressure is compounded when a number of items in your pipeline are semi-urgent to your clients. How can you take time for self-improvement, networking with peers, play, time with the family, or even sleep?

The last bullet describes my situation from a few years ago. I’d sit in front of my computers in the morning and think of eight things I wanted to get accomplished that day, but I’d rarely finish more than two or three of them by the evening. The tasks would take longer than I thought, or some emergency or interruption would arise, or procrastination would set in. The movement in my pipeline was barely perceptible.

In the long run, a clogged pipeline is worse than an empty one, because the empty one is at least available to move the sewage — er, I mean, projects — along. You need to keep things flowing at a reasonable pace — completing projects and adding new ones. To do that, be careful not to take on too many projects. I finally found a good plunger a couple of years ago, when I learned how to say “no, thanks” to some job offers that come in my inbox, and I’ve done a much better job of managing my workload.

But, as Steve Friedl says, “The fear of an empty pipeline is with most consultants constantly, even if they’re consistently very busy.” (By the way, I recommend that you read his great article.) That fear is undoubtedly what motivated me to take on so many commitments in the first place. And now that I’ve streamlined my pipeline just as the economy is tanking, I’m starting to feel the old butterflies again.

None of my clients have dropped any projects yet, nor have they asked me to reduce my hours. I’m wondering how long it will take for the economic crisis to reach that point, if it does. Have you seen any impact on your business? What steps are you taking to keep your pipeline healthy?

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