Small Projects are a PITA
Sarah posted in our group chat “Ok, I have to admit, I underestimated the budget for this project. They didn’t have many funds and the scope was reasonable… but the admin! I’m spending almost as much time doing admin tasks as I am actually working on the project.”
Yes, my dear Sarah. This is why small projects are a PITA (one of the only acronyms you actually need to know).
I’m not saying you should never take a small project, so don’t hit reply and email me in all caps just yet.
Small projects are often the ones that steal your heart.
They’re that local non-profit that you’ve always loved. They’re the scrappy folks, just like you.
You’re in solidarity. So you say yes.
Then you engage in the same tasks you have to do for any project, no matter the size, aka, the administrivia.
Administrivia is all the little stuff that isn’t directly about providing the actual service.
Filling out the time sheet.
Sending updates each week.
Getting into the vendor system.
Scanning receipts for reimbursement.
I’m allergic to administrivia.
And the thing is – it’s essentially the same for all-sized projects. Which means when the project is small, you spend a ton of time, relatively speaking, on the administrivia.
That’s usually the stuff we don’t account for when we’re looking at our calendar and thinking “yeah, I can take on that small project.”
The extra bonus sucky part about administrivia is that it isn’t the stuff that lights us up. Our hearts glow when we’re actually working directly with the client, not when we’re chasing down payment on the overdue invoice.
When we spend hours each week on administrivia tasks that we don’t love, we feed the resentment monster and put out the welcome mat for burnout.
I got an email from someone in response to my 5 Projects advice, saying she is *happy* to have 15 small projects at once.
I’m definitely not trying to call anyone out, so I won’t share any further details. You’ll just have to trust me when I say that the tone of the email was like this:
Her burnout was evident. Even if she truly loved each of her 15 projects.
Let’s say you’ve got 15 small projects right now and you need to find a way to reduce the effort while still fulfilling your scope with the quality you’re known for. Here’s what you can do.
Cut down administrivia.
- Reduce paperwork, like charge a flat fee instead of getting reimbursed and having to scan and email receipts.
- Be honest “The size of the budget for this project doesn’t allow for x. If you need that level of administrative oversight, we’d need to find more funding.” And sometimes they will! But often they’ll say “Ok no prob.”
- Is there a way you could turn this into a group thing? Like if you have several small projects and they all need a meeting about why you collect survey data in a specific way, can you get them all on the phone at the same time? If they all need a monthly update, can you schedule one 1-hour Zoom and assign each person a 15-minute slot? Can you negotiate to ditch the monthly update altogether? (After all, it’s easy to argue that a monthly update is administrivia.)
- Use this as an opportunity to build some systems. Are you writing the same messages over and over? What can you begin to copy/paste? Are you going for a 45-minute walk to psych yourself up for writing those emails asking when to expect payment on the invoice? Batch invoicing – write those emails all in one sitting.
- Start talks about phase 2 or contract extensions right now. Maybe you can turn this into a bigger package.
- Seek out the funders, who can support your technical assistance for lots of their small grantees, but under one funding umbrella.
- Aim for 1-2 big projects to replace a few small projects. That way you aren’t completely ditching your tried-and-true bread-and-butter. But you’ll get a better balance. I promise, you’ll find heart-stealing projects that are bigger, too.
What else could you do to cut down on administrivia and make small projects more viable? Any ideas? What’s your least favorite administrivia task? Email me.
It can feel scary to level up your game and start going after bigger clients. Can seem like you’ll lose your soul if you do. In Boost & Bloom, I’ll teach you how to grow with your soul intact. Enrollment opens February 1. I’ll open the doors early for people on the VIP list – and give ya a discount. Get on the VIP list here.
I Can’t Relate
It’s so freakin hard making friends as adults. Right? Is it just me?
I’d heard great things about a book on how to make friends when you’re all grown up, and I checked it out from my library.
You might resonate with this book, so I’ll link to it here. Spoiler alert: The author lives in the Bay Area. And in the introduction, talks about the dozens of meetups, potlucks, and events she gets invited to every weekend.
Cool for you, but I live in Kalamazoo, Michigan. We don’t have a dozen of anything around here. Except donuts. Because: Smaller town, midwest. So if you have trouble making friends in the Bay Area, what hope do I have?
I’m going to finish reading the book, because that’s my personality, but my skepticism is high and the author’s credibility has sunk.
In fact, two of the most popular people in the online course and coaching space (where I spend a lot of time) pride themselves on being (1) lazy or (2) highly productive. They also don’t have children.
Neither of these modes of living are possible when you have children or aging family members to attend to.
I can’t be lazy when I have to pull in all the income for my household while helping my teen navigate his first experience in the job market and helping my grandma get her CBD pain relief sorted out.
I also can’t be highly productive at work for the exact same reasons.
It’s gotten difficult for me to hear advice about how to Do Life from people who have the ability to solely focus on work, instead of being split in a bazillion directions by all of life’s duties.
A realistic work day.
My reality is that I have to work (so, good thing I like it). And I have to be extremely thoughtful about how I work because my time is at a premium. And that’s the part we don’t talk enough about.
Realistically, I can only tackle 1 or 2 big things in a work day. Then my brain has quit and my kid is calling for me. I can sneak in a handful of smaller things around the edges but it isn’t honest or true to add more to my to do list or calendar.
In fact, seeing items on my to do list still there a week later only causes me more stress and pressure. That I brought upon myself. And that, my friend, is a bad mix for mental health.
Your schedule and productivity won’t look like someone who is kidless and carefree. Someone who doesn’t have elders to care for. Someone who doesn’t struggle with being neurodiverse. Someone who’s position in life makes it easy to fly to Costa Rica for a weekend spa trip.
Life is hard and I want to listen to people who acknowledge that.
I think that’s why this is my new favorite Instagrammer.
So my advice is to get honest with yourself about how much you can actually accomplish in a day. And then be ok with that.
Also – and this is a hard one for me to do – it’s ok to get help. Help can look like swapping childcare with another entrepreneurial friend so you both get some solid, quiet blocks of time. Help can look like hiring a personal assistant for a few hours a week so you can focus instead of prepping meals.
When I started my first business, I was so young and energetic and trying to do everything without monitoring my energy levels. In case you didn’t know, that’s a quick way to burnout.
I went to a gathering of other small business owners and beelined to a circle talking specifically about work-life balance. Right as we were being shushed to turn our attention to the main event, I whispered to my circle leader “Hey, I think I need help. Like, is it ok to hire someone to clean my house?”
I felt so weird asking that question. My roots are real humble and this seemed like a majorly bougie move.
She whispered back, “I have three kids. My housekeeper comes twice a week.”
I’ll never forget the relief she gifted me with those two sentences.
It still took me a while to get over my mindset stuff and realize that I could afford the housekeeper and then some if I was able to spend a little more time on cool work projects.
Point is, you don’t have to do everything. In fact, you physically (and emotionally and energetically) can’t do everything.
So choose what you work on carefully.
Go for high-yield projects.
Get help where you can.
Try not to compare your progress to other people you see online. That dude who somehow whips out a new book each year? Who’s feeding his children? How much time does he spend with his partner? When’s the last time he hung out with friends? (Does he have friends?)
I know you know it but I’m going to tell you anyway: Comparison is the thief of joy.
Which also means: filter where you get your advice. Listen to coaches who get where you’re coming from.
On that note, help me out here. Who are you listening to for business advice – and is actually relatable? Shoot me an email with a link to their social.
Or are you trying to navigate without a guide? If so, check out Boost & Bloom. Enrollment opens again in Feb. And in the meantime, email me and I’ll tell you who other people are listening to.
Your Limit is Five Projects
Breaking News: You can only handle 5 projects at a time.
New research out of University of Liverpool reports on analysis of 9,649 data points and it’s showing that when you get beyond 5 projects, you start to lose your mind and burn out.
Isn’t that incredibly helpful information?
Or am I the only one that finds comfort in being data-driven?
5 projects at a time. That’s it.
So here’s how I’m using this idea to plan for an ever calmer, more sustainable 2023.
As usual, I made my grid for the year, blocking out each month in a 6 x 2 matrix so I can plot out my projects and anticipated income.
In previous years, I’d just cram each month’s square with all the projects I committed to and their associated revenue so I could track my monthly dollars and see the balance of my work across the year, on one page. Helpful, to be sure.
But this time around I made an adjustment: Each month is now a numbered list, 1 to 5.
Each workshop I book will fill one spot. Each consultancy. When the 1-5 has been filled for a month, I make a little x to show it’s full. Then I tell clients “Oh sorry, May is booked. My next opening is in June.”
And when I can see the whole year like this, I can also plot out unpaid events I know I’ll have.
For example, here’s my Fall 2023:
Usually my massive conference is held in November, where I market and network and make new friends and clients and hug all my people. It’s the best.
It’s also a whole project. It typically takes up one spot for November.
But next year they’ve moved it to October.
Which means my prep will happen in September, when I’m getting my talks together and planning the parties I’ll host at the conference. Whew.
September is the same time I’m launching a course and prepping for the launch of another course.
Now I can look at September and recognize, months in advance, that I won’t have much time for paid work. I won’t overbook my September because I can only do 5 things and massive conference prep is definitely one of those things.
This means, if I’m following the 5 projects philosophy, that I have to take on one less paid project in September, in order to plan for one less paid project in October.
Gosh, that conference starts to take on a different sized budget.
Better make sure I’m working my ass off to get the most out of that conference experience.
The holidays take up one spot in December. Not even work-related but it takes up a whole spot. Because the more I thought about this five project limit, the more I realized it isn’t just about work.
Got a fresh baby? That’s one or two spots on every month until your kid is 3.
Dealing with an aging parent? Fill in a spot. Or three.
Old Stephanie would have scoffed a bit at this research. Like “oh yeah the average person can only handle 5 projects, but me? I’m freakin good at this. Bring it on.”
Old Stephanie burned out. Repeatedly.
Health is recognizing the limits of our capacity.
We can put a lot of pressure on ourselves (and each other) to be more, achieve more, ever ever more more. And even if we have wised up to the fact that ever more isn’t sustainable, you’re just left wondering, well, what is?
Now we know.
Ok, ok. One research study isn’t enough to warrant such strong words like knowing something.
But I’m going to run with this framework for a year and see how I feel.
Conversely, some students in Boost and Bloom, who are just starting out on their own, are struggling to juggle more than one project at a time. Like, your brain hyperfocuses on making sure this one project doesn’t go off the rails.
Let this research be an encouragement to diversify your portfolio a little.
Small projects count. The researchers point out that part of the burnout comes from the administrative time and energy to run a project, no matter its size, and the task-switching between projects that sucks your brain.
So for people who only have one project in their laser beam and need to broaden their scope, small projects count.
And for people, like me, who need to rein it in and lower their project number, small projects count.
May we see this restraint as freeing.
In January, my 5 will be:
- A two-day workshop with National Science Foundation
- Dashboard development work with the City of Chicago
- Coordination of a workshop with one of my staff for Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
- Prepping for the re-launch of my one-on-one data viz coaching program, opening in March
- Final prep for re-opening Boost and Bloom (I’m so excited!)
What are your five? Email them to me.