Is it possible to have a balanced life as a consultant?
I’m happy to say that the answer is yes. However, let’s be honest. It is really easy for work to take over our lives—whether we are consultants or not. It is more difficult to get all the aspects of our lives in the proportions that we want. Most of us probably couldn’t even articulate what the right proportions are. Often, we just say, “I wish I had more time!” Or we rush through or skip things in our lives that bring us joy or meaning because we’re working or we have to get back to work.
When I used to get really busy and overwhelmed, I noticed that I didn’t ask people what time it was. Instead I would ask, “How much time have I got?” That was my cry for help! I always felt like I was on a timer and never had much time for anything but work.
When I became a consultant, I had more flexibility, but once I built up my client base, that flexibility usually just meant I could decide when to overwork. It was not flexibility to feed other aspects of my life.
But here’s the thing: It doesn’t have to be that way. Unless you work at a firm that expects you to meet a ridiculously high billable hour target, you can generally make a number of choices that create more of the life you want. But you have to make those choices and then get into the habit of making those same choices over and over again.
You’ll notice that I don’t use the term work-life balance. Why? Because that implies that you have work and then you have a life. They are different and you just have to keep the seesaw balanced, right? I don’t think so. I think you have a Life—with a capital L. Work is part of that. But it may not be 50% and that may not be the goal. Everyone has different circumstances and desires and those usually change over time. I don’t expect that someone in their 40s raising two teenagers is going to have the same life proportions as someone in their 50s who sent their kids to college and is eager to get reinvigorated about work. Life proportions would be different for someone who works part-time and takes care of a parent or a ton of animals than for someone who is single and loves their work. Everyone’s lives are different so their version of a balanced life would look different. The key is to figure out what you want and what you can do within your particular circumstances.
How can I have a balanced life as a consultant?
As a consultant, life balance gets easier if you maximize what you do in the time that you are working. One of the best ways of doing that—and I would argue the best first step—is to eliminate work vampires and zombies. What on earth does that mean? Stay with me…
Vampires are things that suck away your time, energy, and focus and add no value to you or your client. There are two big types of vampires that consultants face:
People Vampires. Often when experts write about vampires in work situations, they describe people who are energy or emotional vampires. Those are people who suck up your time, energy, and focus by the things they do or say. They are often trying to get some type of emotional payoff like dumping their stress on you or getting your attention. These are payoffs for them that have nothing in it for you and are not based on having a real relationship with that person. In consulting, this could be a colleague who always vents and complains to you and isn’t interested in your experience or figuring out a solution. They just want to take your time, energy, and focus away.
Distraction Vampires. They are everywhere. They are lurking on your computer and television and hiding in your pocket—waiting to pounce. In consulting, distraction vampires include anything that grabs your attention and distracts you from what you are doing. They include the never-ending stream of emails and the seductive social media accounts, texts, and instant messages that we get or send, and the associated alerts that go off throughout the day. Don’t forget about YouTube and other video sources. (Maybe I’ll just watch one video—or 5 or 10. Wait, what time is it?) Music and television can also easily suck up our time or divert our energy and attention, even if they are just in the background. Why do we do it? We’re bored. We’re frustrated. We want a dopamine hit. It’s a habit. Whatever it is. We trade our focus for a fix and lose time in our lives that we can’t get back.
Multitasking is an especially luring type of distraction vampire. Now it’s true that many consultants juggle more than one project or task at a time or have competing deadlines to manage. In response to that, we multitask—that is performing more than one task at a time. At least, that’s what we think we are doing. We think we’re handling a whole bunch of things at the same time. But we really aren’t. Our brains don’t work like that. Biologically we can only do one thing at a time. So really we are just rapidly stopping and starting a series of things. And each time we switch to something else, our brains have to reset and focus on the new thing. The resets are not instantaneous and have a cost. Every time we switch, we lose time and focus; increase our stress levels; impair our memories; and, as some research has shown, lower our IQ! Yikes! And if we keep doing it, it catches up to us and saps our energy. And let’s also be honest with ourselves. Often it is less about really trying to get everything done at the same time and more about giving into or actively seeking distraction.
WHAT IF…You like checking Facebook all day. Cat and puppy videos are awesome. Not checking emails within 30 seconds will create a disturbance in the Force. Sure, I get that. But all choices are relative choices. So the question is not, “Do you like doing those things?” The question is, “Do you like doing them more than other things in your life?” Do you like working on Saturday because you went down an Instagram rabbit hole on Friday more than you like spending time with your family or cooking or kayaking or whatever else brings you joy and meaning? Because your time, energy, and focus are finite, the deal is that if you say yes to one thing, you say no to something else—whether you are conscious of doing that or not.
There are other types of vampires too. Getting or making food, chatting, folding laundry, online shopping…all kinds of time-sucking distractions out there! But there are other monsters too…
Zombies are the living undead activities that you just keep doing over and over again even though they add no value to you or your client. Common zombies for consultants are:
Zombie Meetings. You know the ones. The meetings with colleagues or clients that don’t produce anything of value but keep happening over and over again. All they seem to do is eat everyone’s time and energy. And they often have a half-life because you have to try to reanimate yourself afterwards before you can jump back into real work again.
Zombie Travel. Sometimes your clients need to see you, but depending on what you do as a consultant, they don’t have to see you in the flesh all the time. But you keep going even when you know you can do something just as effectively without being in person. Even if you get paid for traveling—and you should—travel still has a cost. For consultants like me, travel is exhausting. If I drive 2 hours each way to see a client in a single day, I have less energy and a harder time focusing the next day. That means I get less done and need to take time from other areas of my life. If I have to travel and spend the night, I have to spend time and energy making arrangements to make sure my animals get taken care of. Many consultants don’t get full rates for travel. So we or our firms lose money when we travel. The truth is that the costs of traveling just are not always worth it.
Zombie Proposals. Also called Hail Mary or Panic proposals, these are proposals you write to try to get gigs that you are not a fit for and have little to no chance of getting. Sometimes we do it because we are not being disciplined or honest enough with ourselves to know that it just isn’t worth doing it. Sometimes it’s because we panic and fear that we don’t or won’t have enough work. So we spend our valuable—nonbillable—time writing proposals that have a high likelihood of going nowhere. I see new consultants fall into this trap and get their time, energy, and focus eaten over and over again. Even though other types of business development activities would likely yield greater returns on our investment
There are many other types of zombies that we fall prey to or create. For example, I’ve seen people spend hours and hours developing and using elaborate business development or client tracking tools that do not do much, if anything, to help them get business or manage clients. Unless their favorite hobby is creating gorgeous tools, and I know for some it is, consider it a zombie that needs to be put down!
Now that you know what work vampires and zombies are, let’s talk about how to eliminate them! Check out Part 2: How to Kill Work Vampires and Zombies.