How to handle work overload when you have too many clients at the same time?

Businessman get knocked  during working

When I enrolled in the “classes prépas” a few years ago, I had no idea what was awaiting me. It is a cram school that prepares students for the engineering schools in France.

They provide a two-year intensive program with thirty hours of courses every week. Additionally, evaluations and projects are completed every week.

To summarize the student experience in a few words: we were always overwhelmed and trying to catch up. The stress and the pressure were omnipresent.

But the worst was the guilt. Any time we weren’t working, we felt guilty because we always had something to do. This was especially prevalent during weekends. Even when we worked hard, our teachers were always there to remind us that we should work more and that we were lazy.

Does this sound familiar to you? So much work that you feel you can’t catch up and extreme guilt when you’re not working?

Most of the time it leads to burn out.

At school, we were lucky to have a lot of vacations. Yet, as a freelancer, you don’t. You have to decide to take them, and if you do it means no income and no catching up on late work.

Now, nobody wants to be burned out, stressed and anxious. On the opposite, think of the benefits you could get by achieving calm and relaxed work habits:

  • No stress, no pressure… Only peace of mind and enjoyment of your work.
  • More creativity. Let your brain some time to process information in a way that it can be seen in a new light, thereby enhancing creativity.
  • Increased productivity: Contrary to popular belief, putting more time doesn’t always equate to achieving more work, particularly when the number of hours is high and if your work requires a lot of creativity.

Yesterday, I was reading an article on Entrepreneur.com reporting that a CEO had been working 16 hours a day, seven days a week, without any vacation or social life whatsoever for two years! This means that only 8 hours were left to sleep, eat (probably not cooking and eating crappy food), get prepared, etc. Can you imagine that? Every day for two years!

In the end, the article reported that this person was exhausted, you can read it here: The Secret to Increased Productivity: Taking Time Off.

These kinds of stories tend to make us feel guilty and lazy, but we must remember that those stories are either exaggerations or that this guy was very unproductive for obvious reasons (no breaks, not enough sleep, likely a poor diet, no social life, etc.) It really doesn’t sound like much of a life at all.

Stories of people working 100+ hours every week without breaks are exaggerations.

At first, I wanted to be like the individuals in these stories, but didn’t understand why I felt so bad and unproductive (making the situation worse). After two weeks I ended up thinking I was lazy and must have had poor genetics. Of course, I couldn’t have been more wrong.

It was only far later that I discovered that work is not a marathon. That people who are proud of working all night aren’t heroes, but victims. And that there was another way; a healthy way that allows us to enjoy life while working efficiently, consistently, and without burning out.

Instead of running a marathon, run a series of sprints. This idea comes from the book The Power of Full Engagement (J. Loehr, T. Schwartz). The main point of the book is that, “Energy, not time, is the fundamental currency of high performance.”

The truth is, it doesn’t matter how much time you put in a project. Your clients don’t care. What does matter is if you achieved the work, if you did it well, and if you did it on time.

The idea behind running series of sprints is to have very intense periods of work followed by fully disengaged periods of rest.

In this article, we are going to talk about the disengaged periods of rest.

  • What benefits do you get from them?
  • How will resting make you more productive?
  • How do you rest? When? At what frequency?

All of these questions will be answered.

Rest as hard as you work: The power of taking effective breaks

If you want to work long hours and achieve a lot, you need to manage your energy efficiently. Otherwise, you will end up exhausted, making a lot of mistakes (that waste time) and burned out after a few short weeks.

Planning breaks is a very important aspect of time management. At first, you may think that you “don’t have time to take breaks”, but the consequence is to see your concentration and motivation decrease, while stress and exhaustion increases.

No matter how busy you are or how much pressure you’re under, you need to take breaks.

Let me tell you about the benefits you will get by taking highly-effective breaks.

Reduce stress. No exhaustion. No burn out.

I can’t emphasize this enough. How many times have you worked long hours for days on end, only to find yourself completely exhausted after a week or two, ultimately needing extra days of rest and feeling miserable?

Breaks help me manage my energy everyday to keep working steadily. At first, in the short term I felt less productive, but in the long term I achieved much more AND felt way better.

Take a step back, see the evolution of your work and have a new fresh look.

Did you already find yourself stuck on something, thinking you need to push yourself through it to get unstuck? It happens to me all the time. I’m trying to write something but can’t find the right words. I’ll write a paragraph only to cross it out. I try hard, but just can’t seem to convey the message clearly.

When this happens, I don’t try to force myself. I simply get up, leave my place and walk outside. I simply observe my surroundings and think about anything but my problem. During this walk, my brain processes all the new information that has been put in during the past few hours. That’s when I begin to feel unstuck.

Then I return to my desk, refreshed and with an entirely new look on my work and problem. It doesn’t always work so quickly, but more often than not it does, and it is still much more effective than just trying to force your way through.

Enhance your creativity.

You can’t force creativity. Creativity doesn’t happen while sitting at a desk for hours. It happens most often when doing mundane tasks, like doing the dishes, taking a shower, walking outside, and so on.

Give yourself some time for these routine activities. Performing such tasks during breaks can provide you with a form of active rest, while enhancing your creative potential.

Increase your productivity and deal with work overload more easily.

Sometimes we can’t be as flexible with our time and need to do something about the huge amount of work that’s awaiting us. However, even during these periods, I still take regular breaks! I simply take them less often for shorter periods.

If I don’t, then after a few hours my brain will desperately seek distractions. I will check my phone, give a look to my email inbox or Facebook… We’ve ALL been (and keep being) guilty of that. In the end, these distractions are like taking far too many micro-breaks that make you very inefficient.

On the other hand, if you take a proper 15-minute breaks, you will give your brain the rest it needs and it will help you to focus for longer hours. Even in the short term, it’s beneficial to take breaks, when adjusted for the situation.

You probably already knew that taking breaks was somewhat important, but we usually tend to underestimate them.

Breaks are not just important, they are essential!

Now let’s talk about the practical stuff. How to do it, when, and at what frequency. If you want tips and tactics, keep reading!

Discover the perfect break for YOU

There are many different practices for taking breaks. What works for you will depend on your personality, your work environment, the type of work you’re doing, etc. It depends on A LOT of factors.

For instance, if you’re doing very creative work, you’ll need longer breaks, but less frequently since you don’t want to interrupt your flow. Unless of course, you can’t find your flow, in which case you’ll want to take a break sooner.

If you’re learning something you don’t need long breaks, but frequent short breaks to renew your attention span and give some time to your brain so it can absorb new information.

If what you’re doing is hard, boring and tedious, frequent breaks can help to make the task a bit more pleasant. However, you’ll need to be careful not to procrastinate (so again it depends on your personality).

Despite these differences, you’ll find many methods that are reported to be ideal for everyone with any type of task: the Pomodoro technique (25 minutes of work followed by 5 minutes of break), the 52/17 method (52 minutes of work followed by 17 minutes of break), or any “X minutes of work and Y minutes of break” method.

The same is true when speaking about attention span and concentration. You’ll find answers from 8 seconds to 1 hour and a half. There is no such definitive answer.

If I ask you to count every letter “A” in my article, how much time would pass before you were distracted by something else? A few minutes? Now, how long can you stay focused watching a film? Likely hours!

So there may not be a definitive answer, however, we can draw general guidelines that will help you find a good starting point, and then tweak it to make it fit your personal needs.

Build Your Own Method

My general starting point is 90 minutes of work followed by 15 minutes of break time. This is very arbitrary and only based on personal experience.

Then, adjust it based on the following:

  • If the task is highly creative, work longer and take longer breaks. It will help to maintain your flow and then recharge your creativity more easily.
  • If the task is very systematic, work for shorter periods and take shorter breaks. It will reduce boredom and diminish the occurrences of mistakes.
  • If you know you procrastinate a lot, take less frequent breaks, so that you limit the number of times you have to get back to work.
  • If the task is hard, work for shorter periods and take longer break time. Sometimes I read very hard academic papers for 60 minutes followed by a long 30-minute break.
  • At the opposite, if the task is easy, you can stay on it for two hours straight.

These are only general recommendations, you’ll need to test the benefits and drawbacks of working more or less time and of adding or removing time for yourself.

From my experience, a general rule is to never work for more than two hours straight. I know that sometimes this is hard, you feel you are “in the zone”, but think long term. You’ve got to manage your energy for days to come.

Also, try to be flexible. While it’s good to have some rules in mind, re-evaluate for the situation, and even your mood. There are some days you won’t feel like working, so you’re already prone to be somewhat inefficient, finding yourself daydreaming and distracted. In such a scenario go for shorter intervals of work and longer breaks. Be easy on yourself, it’s better to achieve half of what you usually do than nothing at all.

Try to find small victories when working, it will help to sustain longer hours by maintaining your excitement to work and reduce boredom. When I’m coding, which is a creative task, I find myself working long time because I get excited every time I solve a small problem, which happens often.

Exercise: Consider one task you do often in your work and figure out what would be the perfect ratio of work/rest. You can write it down below in the comments.

The next step is to test your ratio and see how you like it. Give yourself at least one week and then adjust it according to your experience.

What to do during your break?

Do you know what you’ll be doing during your breaks? There are two ways of taking a break, a good one and a bad one. Let’s start with the bad one.

You stretch on your chair, with a smile on your face, proud of the work you’ve achieved, then take back your mouse and check your email inbox. There is an email from a client who asks for a few changes in his project. You sigh, quickly write an answer, and switch the tab to Facebook. You start looking at photos from your friend who’s vacationing in New Zealand, and realize too late that your 15-minute break approaches the 25 minutes. Oops! You get back to work.

Second scenario: You stretch on your chair, with a smile on your face, proud of the work you’ve achieved, get up and leave your work place. Since you work from home, you can take some time for fresh air on your balcony, then you chop a carrot to prepare a healthy snack for your next work interval. You make a quick stop to the restroom if necessary and get back to work after this 15-minute break.

Which one of these scenarios is the more refreshing and rejuvenating break? The second one, of course! Staying at your desk and browsing the internet is the worst choice you can make. It doesn’t give your brain any rest as it’s still consuming information.

Here are a few ideas of activities that make a break very effective:

  • Get up and leave your workplace. Do that and your breaks will be better than 90% of office workers (that figure is completely made up).
  • Get out, take some fresh air and walk a few minutes. Where I live in Canada, the weather is VERY cold in winter (-15°C on average). However, getting out is so refreshing that I still do it every day.
  • Check Facebook on your phone. Wait… No! Stay away from your computer and turn off your phone!
  • Meditate, relax, take a short nap. You can use www.calm.com to do a guided meditation in as little as two minutes.
  • Do any mundane task, like chopping food, doing the dishes, taking a shower. Your brain love these tasks where it’s not actively needed!

These are the activities that got me the best results. You can do tons of other things: stretching, doing pushups, calling a friend, cleaning an area of your home,… Be sure to not do activities that could extend your break time too long though.

Action Steps

  1. Figure out what would be the perfect ratio of work/rest for your most frequent tasks.
  2. Test it for at least a week and take notes on how you feel. Less productive in the afternoon, but better in the evening? That would be good to take into account.
  3. Make adjustments, until you find the perfect combination for your routine.

Let me know in the comments below:

How did you consider breaks until now and what are you going to change?

Want to know more strategies on handling too much work? I also wrote an ebook on how I saved 4+ hours every day! Having more time has definitely helped me to deal with these tough periods where I felt overwhelmed. It allowed me to achieve more while having more leasure time I spend with my friends completely stress-free. Check out the big box below if you want to get this free ebook.

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