Managing Overwhelm

Running a business as a solo consultant can be daunting in the early days. And even when you’ve been at it for a while, there are times when things threaten to go south, and you start to feel overwhelmed.
But there are a few basic, practical things you can put in place that will help.

There are days as a consultant when things are going wonderfully.

You’ve got a lot of work in the pipeline.

Your current projects are going well.

And you pat yourself on the back for making such a smart decision by making the move to consultancy.

And then a few things go wrong:

  • A project has been delayed due to an issue at the client end and now it looks like you have a clash of timeframes with another project.
  • Someone has alerted you to a problem with your website. It isn’t displaying, and you’re worried, but you can’t figure out how to fix it.
  • You realise it’s the end of the quarter and you still haven’t figured out a system for sorting out your finances.
  • You have to set up 25 separate appointments to consult with stakeholders, and it’s proving to be a very messy and time-consuming process and you’re starting to lose your way with it.
  • A report that’s due imminently needs a lot of complex formatting and you can’t afford to spend the time it will take you to do this.

So everything begins to collide, overwhelm starts to kick in and you panic as there’s no one to support you.

Here are my five tips for managing these and similar problems in your business so you can avoid getting overwhelmed:

  1. Tip one: Don’t be afraid to go back and renegotiate terms when timeframes shift because of an issue that’s beyond your control. In reality, there are often things on the client side of things that cause delays to a project. Sometimes the organisational wheels are just slower than everyone hopes they will be, and despite the best intentions, there are delays. If this happens, don’t just think you have to wear it all and go with the flow. Of course, you absolutely need to be flexible and do what you can to support any shifts in the project. But when those changes are going to impact on your other work, you need to renegotiate and give yourself some leeway. I know that when you’re new to consulting this can feel uncomfortable, and I see many people avoid it and just soldier on. But in my experience, the majority of clients are generally understanding and flexible and can accommodate some shifts in timeframes, especially when the root of the problem is at their end. So don’t just adjust and get overwhelmed, instead do some quick thinking and propose a modified project plan.
  2. Tip two: Get yourself a Virtual Assistant [VA]. When I was first consulting, there was no such thing, and as solo consultants we really had no choice but to do all the admin tasks ourselves. Now there is a world of excellent support out there, and these days I couldn’t run my business without Sharyn, my excellent VA. She lives in Queensland and we’ve met in person only once, but she does a host of admin tasks for me [and her other clients] every week as a freelancer. So, when I have a report that needs formatting, or a PP presentation to put together, or my website needs updating, or I want to have this blog post added to my site, Sharyn is my go-to person. It makes a huge difference knowing I have someone to rely on for all those admin tasks. If there is only one tip you act on from this post, make sure it’s this one – don’t try and do everything yourself, because overwhelm will set in; instead get yourself a VA.
  3. Tip three: Download an online scheduler to take care of all your appointment setting. Seriously this changed my consulting life! There are lots of them out there – I use Calendly. Last week I had to set up telephone interviews with around 30 key informants for a project – all of them very senior, very busy people. In the bad old days, this would have been a nightmare. But all I did was set up an ‘event’ in Calendly for that project, set the timeframes and appointment parameters, and then sent everyone an email with a link to my diary so they can schedule a time that suits them. [OK I lie – it was actually Sharyn who sent the email!]. Once they’ve done that, we both get an email confirming the appointment. All I had to do is sit back and watch the appointments come into my diary. Magic. These days, there’s no need to get overwhelmed with juggling your diary with the diaries of 25 other busy people; instead get an online scheduler to do the work for you.
  4. Tip four: Engage a bookkeeper to take care of all the financial administration side of running your business. A good bookkeeper is worth their weight in gold. Don’t be tempted to do all this work yourself – a bookkeeper will do it faster, better and cheaper than you [just think about your daily rate compared to theirs and the decision is easy]. My bookkeeper makes sure all my financial records are up to date, all the compliance boxes are ticked and works out my personal and GST liabilities every quarter. So don’t be overwhelmed by managing the business finances; instead get a bookkeeper and avoid that end of quarter panic.
  5. Tip five: Change your mindset. When you take the leap into consulting there can be quite a bit of anxiety involved. Even if you’re loving it, there is a lot of uncertainty compared to employment. And when a few things start to go wrong, it’s easy to start doubting yourself and question whether you’ve made the right decision. But you really need to take charge of your negative self-talk and back yourself. Yes, there will be hiccups along the way, maybe even the odd setback. But it doesn’t have to get the better of you. Remember the imposter syndrome loves overwhelm, but hates positive re-framing, so change your mindset and instead tell yourself that you have absolutely got this.

Running a business as a solo consultant can be daunting in the early days. And even when you’ve been at it for a while, there are times when things threaten to go south, and you start to feel overwhelmed.

But there are a few basic, practical things you can put in place that will help you to manage overwhelm, like getting yourself a VA and a bookkeeper and signing up to an online scheduler. You also need to step up to your project manager role when a project looks like going astray and renegotiate terms with clients when you need to. And finally, stay positive and don’t let the imposter syndrome win.

Jacq Hackett provides expert consulting services to public health agencies. And as a veteran of over two decades of consulting, she now provides coaching and development for other consultants. She is passionate about supporting the next generation of public sector consultants to become very good at what they do.

If you’ve recently made the transition from employment to consulting – or you’re on the cusp of making the move, enrol in my Public Sector Consulting Fundamentals program  – five video training sessions focusing on some of the essential building blocks of developing a successful public sector consultancy business.

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