Productivity tip: How to avoid overextending your resources

Productivity tip: How to avoid overextending your resources

As a small business owner who has discussed the issues of small business at length with lots of other small business owners, it seems as though there comes a time when you either let yourself be driven to the edges of insanity by overbooking your human resources (often a single person), or you start turning business away. Either way, it gives one pause to reflect seriously on the future of a business, and to articulate personal goals in a whole different way. I mean, when you're turning away business, you turn away good money that could go to better salaries, equipment or dance dance revolution machines in the office. You better have a dang good reason for saying no.

While I consider most self-help books to generally be exaggerated, overly-simplified and painfully drawn out, I'm still kind of a sucker for one now and then. One which comes to mind when considering this problem of bottlenecking is "The E-Myth." The big underlying lesson of the book is that most businesses fail not for a lack of skill or perseverance. Rather, it's a lack in the establishing long-term goals based on foolproof systems that are meant to work properly without your constant intervention. One of the many examples was a client of the author's whose life had been swallowed up by a pie-making business. After integrating the author's principles, the client set out to develop a system so that she could hire and train people to make the pies, instead of doing everything herself. If you have a good system, it can be extended by others so that you can develop streams of income from franchising your business. That's the idea, anyway.

When the cookie cutters don't cut it

There are some kinds of businesses which don't fit as obviously into the assembly line structure. My job, for example, slides neatly into a niche that defies extensive systemization. I can't just hire anyone to do the work clients hire IBD to do, it has to be people with experience in the field and a knack for design. Growth in human resources is of necessity slow because there isn't a huge pool of talent to draw from.

Some people also prefer to work for a living, rather than manage other workers. Work is (or can be) satisfying, you get some finite tasks to complete, instead of being forever overwhelmed by the vista of potential many entrepreneurs thrive in. Thus, some folks find solice in work as freelancers.

So for these people, who have limited human resources, what do you do when you get too popular? How do you keep from running yourself into the ground, or going postal and losing all your clients?

Use a calendar to track commitments

I have a number of projects that are assigned exclusively to my care, so this system should work well for any freelancer who spends a significant amount of time with their nose to the grindstone.

The conventions are simple, but it's done me a world of good:

I use Thunderbird as my e-mail client, and have Lightning installed, which works a lot like Outlook's calendar. Both Outlook and Lightning allow you to have multiple calendars, and you can color them differently, so you can, say, look at your personal and professional calendars side by side to see if they're overlapping at all.

1. Set up a calendar just for your projects

Easy enough.

2. Establish a system for estimating work and delivery times for your products / services

This one is hard if you're just starting out and don't have a lot of experience to draw from. But, if you're in a business where you have clients, it won't be long before you have to give estimates on how long it takes to do stuff. Clients are, of necesity, time-centric, and if you don't work with that you're begging for trouble.

Be generous in your time estimates. If something comes up that you didn't expect, it's important to have some buffer zone. As a freelancer, it's better to underbook than overbook. Hotels and huge hosting companies can overbook because they can work with odds. The freelancer is gambling with high risk when they overbook, so my advice would be don't.

Once you've established a way to estimate work hours for projects, figure on dedicating a specific amount of time each day to each project. In my case, I slot 2 work hours for each project every day until they are complete. If a project will take 20 hours, I slot them for 2 weeks (taking the weekend off).

One easy way to input projects is to use a repeating event, and repeat it for every work day you have for a specific number of days. In the previous example, I set up a 2 hour event for one day, and set it to repeat every M, Tu, W, Th, and F for 10 times. Easy peasy, beans-n-cheezy.

Figure out when, and how much you want to work

As a freelancer, it can be nice to play it by ear when it comes to setting your work schedule. But for most folks, eventually a lack of a work schedule will begin to eat up your life. If you're good at what you do, you're going to get busier and busier until a lack of boundaries prove more enslaving than empowering.

So, establish how much you actually want to work and when. 4 hours a day? 4 hours a week? Set something you can stick with and that makes you happy to be a freelancer and not a peon.

3. Look at your calendar in week view

Week view in Thunderbird's Lightning: Week view in Thunderbird's LightningWeek view in Thunderbird's Lightning: Week view in Thunderbird's Lightning

The full month view isn't terribly useful to see how booked you are. So take a look at your calendar in week view. If you have overlapping projects for your current week, drag them to another time in the same day until you have them all in a row. The idea here is that you can't be working on more than one project at a time. Fit your project blocks within your established work schedule. Can you? If not, you're overbooked. If you can, and there's room to spare, you have some free time on your hands to work on your business (not in it), and you know, with certainty, that you have room for a new client. It feels good, believe me!

Now you can move forward weeks to see when another slot is available. You can also book future clients and know beforehand where there might be a conflict with an upcoming vacation.

4. The fringe benefits

This is the system I've been using for a couple of months now, which I established after running into a serious bandwidth bottleneck. When you've become an established business, it's important to be able to guarantee responsiveness to your clients, and you can't do that if you're getting in over your head.

Since using this system, I feel much more confident taking on new projects, and enjoy knowing that if I plug away consistently every day, I will meet all my commitments to clients.

As another, unexpected bonus, I've had a number of potential clients be impressed that I'm booked a month or two out. "That must mean you're good" they say. It doesn't guarantee me the job, because sometimes they need it done in the next month and I'm just not an option, but it might leave an impression. I know there's a name for using this kind of technique more strategically to induce a sense of urgency on the part of a potential customer, but I wouldn't say I was busy if I wasn't. There's still bills to pay!

There you go, one secret of psychological success in this small business owner's life.

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