What to do when you have overcommitted yourself and are buried in client work

Sent by Jonathan Stark on February 8th, 2020

Folks who have been running a service business for more than a few years have probably experienced the pain of the “feast famine cycle”.

If you haven’t heard the term before, here’s a definition I cobbled together from Google:

The feast famine cycle is the alternation of being super busy and then tumbleweed slow. Feast or famine happens when all the work comes at once, deadlines stacked on deadlines, and you get so busy that your whole life is consumed by client work. Then everything dries up, and you’ve got nothing to do, and have no prospects for new business. Money gets tight, your confidence falters, and you start to wonder if you should just give up and go work for someone else. 

After going through this cycle enough times, business owners can naturally adopt a “make hay while the sun shines” philosophy, which is a saying that comes from farming:

Hay harvest can be spoiled by wet weather. It is important that farmers seize the opportunity of dry weather for haymaking tasks (cutting, drying, gathering). Especially in medieval times, when forecasting the weather several days in advance was more difficult, it was all the more vital.

What this means for folks like us is that the fear of the famine phase of the cycle encourages us to say yes to every opportunity that comes our way during a feast cycle. This attitude makes sense when the opportunities are few and far between, but what if you start getting opportunities consistently?

When you combine a “make hay” mentality with a decent pipeline of leads, you end up saying yes to every opportunity that comes through the door. Eventually you burn out because the famine phase never comes.

Burnout is extremely costly. It’s hard to recover from. It can lead to some very bad decisions.

The best way to deal with overcommitment is to not overcommit yourself in the first place.

In other words, get better at saying no.

The way to do this is to have a clear long range objective for your business, commit to a strategy that you’ll use to achieve your objective, and then ruthlessly vet every opportunity against your strategy to check for alignment.

If the so called “opportunity” is not aligned with your strategy, then it’s not really an opportunity at all. It’s a distraction.

But none of that helps if it’s already too late and you’re currently buried in client work, so…

What to do when you have overcommitted yourself and are buried in client work

Here are three tactics you can try to dig yourself out of an overcommitted nightmare.

1. Be Honest

When you’re overcommitted, the most straightforward thing to do is to be honest with your clients and see if you can reset expectations, schedules, deadlines, etc. You might find that some of your clients are perfectly happy to stretch things out or take a short break from the project for internal reasons.

How can this be? Well, it has been my experience that a certain personality type in the service business will put more pressure on themselves than actually exists from the client. i.e., you treat everything as an urgent request, when in fact the client isn’t in that much of a rush at all.

NOTE: If you’re scoffing at this suggestion, you might be the personality type in question ;-) It never hurts to be honest with your clients… it’ll draw the good ones closer and drive the bad ones away.

2. Drop Someone

Another option is to hand off your least favorite client to another provider. Again, just be honest with them. They aren’t going to like it at all, but you can ease the blow by transitioning them in a way that doesn’t leave them high and dry, AND connects them with someone who can be more responsive to their needs.

3. Get Help

Another option is to get help. Doing one (or all all!) of the following can help you unbury yourself:

NOTE: If your reaction to these options is, “it’d be faster to just do it myself,” or “It’d take me longer to hand it off than to do it myself,” then I want you to listen closely to me right now: You are being short sighted and it’s hurting you. Yes, maybe the first time it’ll take you longer to hand it off than to do it yourself, but what about the hundreds of times it’ll need to get done in the future?

Whatever you do, you better do something

If you’re overcommitted for too long, something’s gonna give. It’s just a matter of time. Get out in front of it with one or more of these approaches. Once you’re unburied, take steps to prevent getting overcommitted again in the future.

Yours,

—J