I have a follow-up opportunity -- and the obligation that comes with it -- on my "to do" list right now. This client offered me work when I needed it and that was tremendously appealing. It was a stretch opportunity: a chance to do something I'd never done before. More than a year has passed since that job, and the client has now followed up for a second round, as they said they would. It's a similar assignment. Only, this time, it's far less appealing.

In the year in between, my life has changed. My business has evolved and the pace of my family life has picked up. Today, it feels more difficult to pull away and pursue this piece of work that doesn't totally align with where I'm going. It's no longer "right for right now." Travel is required which adds complexity. Plus, the romance of a new challenge is gone. I've been there and done it.

I feel ungrateful for thinking and writing these things. After all, these clients are lovely people. They took a chance on me and gave me work when I really needed it. But now, I don't want to go back.

This is the kind of dialogue I have running in my head on a pretty regular basis. As an independent consultant, I'm constantly trying to find the balance between too little and too much work. That's the life. This feeling of actively managing your workload -- like driving a car down a busy highway with your foot constantly moving between the gas and brake -- is the self-employed stress that keeps so many people in steady corporate jobs. The variability feels too great for some. But, I shouldn't complain, right? I knew this challenge going in.

Yes, complaining is useless. But I wonder if there is something else I should be doing to minimize the angst. I want to feel like I'm driving towards a goal and not just keeping the car moving.

To do that, I need to clearly and confidently be true to myself. I have to acknowledge that what was right a year ago doesn't have to be right for right now. And if I'm being honest, there are other things on my "to do" list that are entirely wrong for me. I took them for the money. And every time I see them, I recognize my fear that one day I will really need the work and will be sorry I didn't take every job that came my way.

With all of this swirling, I came across a simple exercise intended to help sort my opportunities and obligations. It begins with this question:

What projects do I have that I know without a doubt are right for me?

To do this exercise, I created a table with three columns, nothing fancy: right, right for right now, and wrong. I then went line by line through my client and project list.

Once I completed my table and identified what is absolutely right for me, right for right now, and wrong, I needed to do something with that insight. As with many aspects of directing our own careers, the follow-up actions are simple but not easy.

  • Of course, I'd like to do more of everything in the "right" column. The entire point is clearing the clutter so I have more time to focus there.
  • Right for right now is great, but... I celebrate these things because they're providing income, access, or a chance to develop experience today. However, I know I need a longer-term exit strategy as they start to move the towards "wrong" category.
  • And, wrong? I wish I could just get rid of them without fear. That's going to be the challenge for me. I need to have faith that I'll exit these in a way that preserves the relationships and creates opportunity for someone else.

I'd always assumed that you needed someone else at your side to help with exercises like this one. The issue I anticipated was something akin to drinking your own bath water. How could I trust myself to be objective about all this work when I'd gotten myself into this situation in the first place? I won't know for certain, but I felt that I was able to sort activities into the columns and understand my rationale.

What helped was going back to my personal mission statement: "...to help others get the outcomes they want at work and in life by seeing their potential, focusing their efforts, and managing their time." If you don't have a personal mission statement -- I didn't until very recently -- look and listen for a pop of energy you feel when you get excited about the possibilities as you do this exercise.

This isn't a one-time exercise. Knowing myself and the nature of my business, I'll need to do this every three months or so. The ten minutes to complete sorting items into categories will be worth the increased self-awareness and ability to steer myself towards my biggest goals. You can do the same.

Published on: Aug 14, 2017
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.