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.
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 blog, he also contributes to [Geeks Are Sexy] Technology News and his two personal blogs, Chip's Quips and Chip's Tips for Developers.