Uncharted Waters

Jan 20 2016   2:31PM GMT

Under Pressure: Why You Never Have Enough Time

Matt Heusser Matt Heusser Profile: Matt Heusser

Time Management

Stop WatchAs an employee, I never had enough time to do everything. When you think about it, that sort of made sense; management wanted to wring every drop of value out of me. If I was working on four things at the same time and could meet my deadlines, why not assign Matt a fifth?

That was a long time ago, back when projects worked in big batches, and you would “juggle” projects, with one that needed serious attention to code while another needed less in test and a third even less in requirements. I understood the thinking, and figured once I started my own business, then things would be different.

Then I started running my own business, and things got worse.

Let’s talk about why that is, and what to do about it.

The Consulting Landslide

Trade places with me for a moment and imagine you are running a consulting business. Unless you are relying on a life partner for income, the one thing you need to stay in business is revenue, which means work. Consultants need to be billable.

Imagine that you have done that. You’re booked for the next six months. In that case, you need to worry about the next six months after that, so you’d better start marketing.

Get that done. You’ve got a years worth of work, and system to generate more. That’s great, but the system will take some time to run. Better raise your prices, to free up some time to do marketing. In the short term, you’ll just work harder; longer-term, you need to find better clients. That’s more work too.

You also can’t always bill. Over time, the industry will move forward — you’ve got to invest in new skills. Take time away to train, and you’ll need to raise your rates twice (or just work more hours): Once for the time off, and another for the opportunity cost.

But okay, say you’ve done all that. You have perfectly aligned your time, marketing, running your business, and investing in new skills. Fantastic.

How long can that last?

Ward Cunningham, the co-creator of both Extreme Programming and The Agile Manifesto once told me the great uncertainty around consulting is that you never know what tomorrow will bring, so it’s best to “make hay when the sun is shining.” He went on to point out that the market for the consulting he was doing in the early 1990’s, helping companies transition to Object-Oriented Programming, no longer exists.

So you want to take a lot of work. Hopefully, you want to generate so much potential business that you can take the most valuable and interesting work. Still, you’ve got the Cunningham problem, so you’ll be tempted to find someone else to take over some of the work. Get that work assigned, and you’ll want to find more work. Do that and you’ll need more workers. Do that and …

As long as you can think of one more thing to try, one more person to call, one more way to add value, you’ll have work. Worse, a lot of it will be unpaid work.

Work expands to fill available space.

Give your job forty-five hours a week and it will ask for fifty. Give it fifty and you’ll be scheduled for fifty-five.

Of course, exceptions exist. Plenty of enlightened companies insist that employees go home at 5 PM; Jason Fried, at Basecamp, starts with that and adds four-day work weeks in the Summer.

We’ve covered burnout and multitasking enough to know that overwork is bad. For now, enough to that stopping new work, sorting the list of TODOs by value and creating a “cut-line” – that takes a certain kind of discipline.

It’s a discipline we could all benefit from having a little more of.

Let’s start talking about it.

2  Comments on this Post

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  • JenniferL
    I really like how you covered the issues that independent consultants face with time management since I would imagine that many of the readers will be employees who are looking to "be their own boss", but they don't understand the potential to be working even more hours than they do as an employee.

    A lesson that I learned with running different businesses (regarding time management) is you can't be a one-person band.  As you correctly brought up - in IT, the business runs in a "feast or famine" cycle, so you have to take on as much as you can to protect yourself from the 1-3 months where you have little to no work at all.  Not only do you have to do the long hours of work during the "feast" periods, but you also need to continue doing sales and marketing, accounting, legal, and administration to run your business.  If you try to do all of this on your own, you may end up wishing for those days of where you worked 60-hours a week for some company because you had more free time then! I now form partnerships with people to help alleviate the work, but for some businesses where being a a "one-person show" is better for my bottom line, I make sure you have the capital to outsource some of the work that aren't really my strengths.  Some of these services (like virtual assistants) are very affordable.
    20 pointsBadges:
  • Kevin Beaver
    Thanks for the write-up Matt. I'm starting my 14th year of being out on my own and have certainly discovered that it's one of the hardest things I've ever taken on....but I love it! Time management is most certainly the most difficult aspect of working for yourself - well, maybe a close second to getting clients to pay on time!

    I have a quote from Brian Tracy stuck to one* of my computer monitors that says "What's the most valuable use of my time, right now?" I always go back to that when I'm overwhelmed and it's really helpful. In fact, I study time management and related personal achievement stuff as much, probably more, than I study information security. It's what you have to do. Well, that and have several irons in the fire at the same time. That's what keeps the pipeline filled. If you do these things, you shouldn't have to go more than ~2-3 hours without there being billable work to do.

    Here's a new technique on time management that I'm going to start using as well - looks promising:

    *Studies have shown that more than one computer monitor can lead to massive gains in productivity. I doubled my income the first year I got off my laptop and onto a desktop with two monitors. Doubled it again when I added a third monitor, SSDs, and relied more on virtual machines for specific tasks.
    27,520 pointsBadges:

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