When things get busy

I’m in the middle of a two week period where everything has landed at the same time. I have three live projects at the moment, there’s a workshop for all of them, as well as a delayed presentation for a project that finished a few weeks ago.

Last week I was also in Sheffield helping take my Mum to hospital appointments and fitting in play dates with my three favourite small people. On Tuesday I got to the point where if anything else unexpected happened I would snap. We trapped the seat belt in the car door and swear words tumbled out of my mouth. I just started running through scenarios of having to take the car to the garage and not having time to do that. This turned out to be a minor inconvenience when my Mum charmed the parking attendant into wrenching the door back open. Normal service was resumed.

I’m quite good at managing the stress that comes with being busy, I got used to this working in agencies, and I do prefer to be busy. I prefer to have multiple things on the go at the same time because I enjoy the variety. But this does become a juggling act. One I’m still trying to manage, as when you’re freelance, there is no one to flag you’re too busy to. There’s also no one to pass extra work to if you take on too much. The key is managing the flow in the first place and being disciplined about how much you say yes to.

I guess you could say one of the problems here was I said yes to too many things but I think, for me, it’s more about how I’m planning my time.

Short term planning I’m pretty good at. My goal every week is to have my diary for the following week firmed up by Friday. This is becoming a pattern now. But something that’s also becoming a pattern is barely being able to plan more than a week ahead.

A collaborator and I were chatting last week about how this would be some people’s idea of hell! Not knowing what was happening more than a week ahead. Don’t get me wrong the coming weeks and months are not a complete mystery but dates are not locked in and things are still very movable. This would stress some people out but I think I’m ok with it as I’ve always been much more focused on short term planning than long term planning.

One of the things that makes planning difficult is doing a mix of direct client work and working through other agencies. In this scenario the work through the agency is likely to be the biggest job I have on. I’m then beholden to their planning and time management and have much less control over my own diary. Don’t get me started on if the agency makes me use a different diary software (that also makes swear words tumble from my mouth!). Sometimes this works out well if you get into a pattern of working set days with the agency but if it’s flexible and changes every week this can be difficult as I have to try and wrap my other work around something that’s not fixed. This can be stressful.

I much prefer having a mix of direct client work as I’m then in control of all the project timelines myself and, in theory, I can wrap projects around each other and control the ebb and flow of the work so that busy periods don’t collide.

However this is what I’ve got now and it’s still happened! So I’m wondering why.

Part of it is things get firmed up at different times and other constraints come into the mix like working around groups of people’s diaries or being given fixed dates for things. But I also think I could improve my practice by using better tools for planning.

I think one of my problems is I’m trying to do all my planning in my calendar. I do create project timelines in Excel for my clients but they are in different sheets and I don’t compare these timelines. While using Google calendar allows me to see clashes next week, I rarely plot the whole project into my calendar so upcoming clashes end up creeping up on me as they have now.

I’m wondering what tools everyone else is using to solve this problem? How can I broaden my horizons beyond my beautifully colour coded Google Calendar into something that’s fit for long term planning and maybe even considers the hours I have assigned to jobs. This is something that’s currently considered mainly in my head. And while I value my head as one of my top tools — I think it sometimes needs support!

I’d love your suggestions.

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Emma Parnell

Freelance specialist in user research, service design and brand development. designforjoy.co.uk Previously @wearesnook, @nhsdigital, @wearewithyou.