by Elaine Biech, author of “The New Business of Consulting: The Basics and Beyond“
Being a consultant can be a deeply rewarding career. But make no mistake: It can also be brutal. On one hand, you get to do the work you love while enjoying perks like setting your own schedule and traveling to exciting cities. But on the other hand, you must endure the punishing realities of your job: 4:00 a.m. flights, hours upon hours of work, poorly prepared restaurant food, and getting home at midnight after a long week.
Is balance even possible? Well, perhaps not fully. As the industry inside joke goes, “In consulting, you will always have perfect work/life balance. Your work will be your life, and your life will be your work. Perfectly balanced.” However, you can find a reasonable compromise between “perfect balance” and “working yourself to death.”
To thrive as a consultant, you’ve got to at least work toward achieving balance. If you don’t set healthy limits, work will take over your life, and eventually you will crash and burn.
Here are seven steps you can take to at least make progress toward balance:
1. First, identify the imbalance.
Without first laying out your life priorities, it can be hard to create a work/life balance. I recommend this exercise from mentor and consulting whiz Geoff Bellman: Identify the three things you value most in life. Write them down. Now scan your checkbook, bank statement, and calendar. Do your choices match the three things you value the most?
Next ask your spouse, a colleague, or a friend what he or she believes you value the most. Did that person choose the three things you chose?
Now begin to make real choices. What do you need to do to demonstrate the value you place on the three things you chose?
2. Make your own rules.
You started your consulting business so that you could be your own boss. You can begin by telling yourself what your hours will be. A business task takes creativity and energy, so draining yourself becomes counterproductive. Of course, sometimes you stay late or work a weekend simply to meet a deadline, but do not make that your standard way of working. Make a rule that helps to put your business in perspective. Tell yourself, for example, If it’s not done by 6:00 p.m., it will wait until tomorrow.
3. Remember to enjoy “the doing” of your work.
Don’t hurry through each project just to get to the next one. If you love what you do, you may be missing some of the fun! Much of the pleasure may be in the doing. Be mindful. Stay in the moment while you’re working. This may not curb the hours, but it will make them more enjoyable!
4. Take time off (even during work trips).
It is very important to take a break from your business. Go on vacation, even if it’s a week-long “staycation” spent at home. Invigorate your mind, rejuvenate your body, sleep late, relax, and read something that has nothing to do with work.
And these breaks don’t have to be planned ahead either. If you finish with a client early, or your plane lands in the middle of the day, go ahead and go for a walk on the beach at 2:00 in the afternoon to enjoy the flexibility that comes with your line of work.
5. Fill your life with other interests.
Just because your job keeps you busy, you’re still allowed to have a rich and rewarding life outside of your work life. So join a book club. Learn golf. Try embroidery. Fly a kite. Collect something. Visit an antique store. Try hiking. Shop Etsy. Solve a Sudoku. Learn to paint. Take a cooking class. Write poetry. Work crossword puzzles. Refurbish a classic car. Study your heritage. Go for walks. Take an online course. Develop your family tree. Write a letter. Plan a trip.
6. Take advantage of being at home.
If you work from your home, I recommend finding ways and times to get away from it all. Go for a walk at noon. Visit the gym a couple of times each week. Read the morning paper in your kitchen or eat lunch on the deck. Spend a few minutes playing with your dog or cat. If you’re exhausted, take a nap; you can always work a little later to make up for it.
7. Closely examine how you are spending your time. Where can you become more efficient?
To some extent, the issue of balance in life is really one of time management. Don’t mistake busyness for business. You must prioritize deliberately, based on what you want out of life. We can’t really save time, but we can shave time. My book offers a wealth of time management tips. Here are just a few of them:
Work on several large projects rather than dozens of small projects.
You invest a great deal of time moving from one client to another, getting up to speed, flying from one coast to the other, reminding yourself of all the personalities, and remembering names. This is why repeat business with the same client is good.
Prevent scope creep.
This occurs when a project slowly grows larger than the original intent. It’s one of the greatest ways consultants misuse time. Unless you are paid by the hour, scope creep will erode your profits and consume your time. Prevent scope creep with clear, measurable objectives and specific, identifiable timelines and deliverables. Then stick to them.
Protect your time by scheduling calls and emails. Don’t deviate from the schedule.
Calls can interrupt your concentration. If you want to stay focused, accept or return phone calls at a specific time. Follow the same thinking with email. Select certain times during the day when you will check and respond to emails to avoid being interrupted every few minutes.
If you are just starting out as a consultant, issues of balance become even more acute. You will need to plan the entire transition. Focus on all the important areas of your life: social, family, spiritual, business, education. Identify how the balance might shift initially and determine how you want it to change and how soon. This helps you keep things in perspective during that tough initial push.
Things will get easier over time, as you find your groove. Or maybe you’ll just get used to a different way of living. To me the most important rule is to stay mindful. If you pay attention and get used to shifting with the rhythms of work, you can carve out time to relax and rejuvenate and connect with the people you love. Those are the true reasons we seek balance, and as long as we stay intentional about them, we can make them happen.
Elaine Biech is the author of “The New Business of Consulting: The Basics and Beyond“. She is a dedicated lifelong learner who believes that excellence isn’t optional. As a consultant, trainer, and president of ebb associates for more than 35 years, she helps global organizations to work through large-scale change and leaders to maximize their effectiveness. She has published 85 books, including the Washington Post #1 bestseller “The Art and Science of Training“.