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  • Writer's pictureDeb Zahn

Protecting Your Life Balance While Consulting Part 2: How to Eliminate Work Vampires and Zombies

In Part 1: What Work Vampires and Zombies Are, I explain what different types of work vampires and zombies are. In this blog, I’ll cover how to get rid of them.

If you let work vampires and zombies take over, you will pay for it with your life. Non-productive work will suck up your time, energy, and focus and eat into other areas of your life. And your life is worth defending, isn’t it?

The only solution is to kill them. Hunt them down and kill them. Does that sound extreme? It isn’t. It’s about learning to consistently make choices that protect your life balance!

But how do you do that? I’ve been working at this for a few years and can share my favorite hunting and killing techniques.

That said, there’s no precise formula for how to do this. Ultimately, you have to find what works for you. The point is not to become rigid and inflexible. It’s about not letting vampires and zombies take over just out of unconscious habit. The point is to make deliberate choices. Choices that enhance your life balance in the ways you want and that work for your circumstances. The tips I offer here should be considered a menu, not a recipe. Pick a couple things to try and practice them for a while. Since this is about changing habits, it will take a while—maybe a few months—until it feels normal and natural.

For both vampires and zombies…

Get Curious, Pay Attention, Experiment, and Practice

One of the most powerful techniques I know is to:

  • Get curious about and pay attention to what your vampires and zombies are now

  • Then experiment until you find what works for you to get rid of them

  • Then practice your new behavior until it becomes a habit

Don’t be judgey or harsh on yourself in this process! The first step is about objectively diagnosing what you do now so that you can make a deliberate choice about what you want to do. For example, I am in an unhealthy, long-term relationship with multitasking. So I got curious about why I am drawn to multitasking even though I know it causes me stress and makes my work day longer. I watched myself when I was working on a report. Any time I paused, got stuck, or felt a little bored, I felt an immediate desire to switch to something else instead of staying focused on what I was doing. At first, I didn’t try to stop myself. I just watched and paid attention to how it felt. What I saw was that my big triggers were email and text message alerts. Not only would I read the emails and texts instantly, but I would switch to whatever task they were related to. Every. Single. Time. And what was really interesting was that switching felt addictive. Like it gave me a quick hit of satisfaction. (Loving my dopamine fix.) It was sucking my time and energy away and yet I got something out of it. So the first thing I did was turn the email and text alerts off. (More about that below.) But I also wanted to feel good when I was working and that was tough on some projects. So I scheduled a couple of 15-minute “play dates” with myself during the day where I could distract myself to my heart’s content. Those did the trick, but then I started to stretch them out to 20 minutes then 30 minutes, etc. So I experimented. I set a timer on my phone for 6 minutes. Why 6 minutes? Because I never met a snooze button I didn’t like! I hit snooze and get 9 more minutes. I even I felt like I was getting something extra. I preset the timer every morning around meetings I have scheduled, and I do it every day. The repetition is what will make it a habit.

Top Tips for People Vampires

Recognize one when you see one. These are people who make it all about them, are not interested in solutions, and don’t really care about you. Generally, you feel drained after each encounter with them.

Give yourself permission to say no to them. Remember, vampires are only interested in themselves and what they want. Choose your life over letting them suck your time, energy, and focus dry. It can be difficult to do, especially if you are a compassionate person. Like anything, it takes a willingness to do it and repetition and practice until it gets easier.

Avoid them as much as you can. Don’t be on teams with them. Avoid engaging with them, especially in person or on the phone where dominating is easier. If you have to engage with them, do so by email or text so you can better control how the conversation flows and ends.

Do not indulge them or let them prey upon you. Don’t offer them your neck! If they start doing whatever their version of vampirism is, tell them you are not available, change the topic, tell them you have to leave, don’t react…anything that makes it unsatisfying for them. The more unsatisfying you are to them, the less likely they will be to seek you out.

Top Tips for Distraction Vampires

Turn off all alerts. Seriously. That was the single most important thing I did. Alerts are biological and psychological triggers. They are difficult to resist. So take the temptation away. Turn them off. I did it and the world did not come to an end!

Make it harder for yourself to engage in the distraction. Get rid of social media apps on your phone. Hide the remote. Do whatever you can do to make yourself have to take extra steps to indulge in a distraction. You are less likely to engage in the distracting behavior if it is more difficult to do. I took the Facebook app off my phone and it was lifechanging. After a month, I thought I could handle having it back on my phone. I was wrong! Within a day I was back at it in the same way I was before. Why? Because forming and solidifying new habits take time. So I’ve committed to not having it on my phone unless I’m on vacation. Otherwise, I have to go to my personal computer to use it, and I leave that at home or in another room from where I work.

Batch and schedule. Dedicate time for certain work activities you do regularly. Like emails! You do not have to open every email you get as soon as you get it. There are a lot of other tricks that productivity jedi’s use, but the one I found most useful is to set 2 to 3 times a day that I check and respond to emails. And first thing in the morning isn’t one of them! That’s when I’m at my freshest and ready to rock so I save that for work that requires the most energy and focus. I check my emails at 11:00 and 4:00 pm. If I’m working on a more of a fast-paced project, I add 2:00 pm. That’s it! And, again, the world did not come to a screeching halt because I did that. During non-email times, I got so much more done! And when I did reply, I was more thoughtful in my response than if I was trying to do it on the fly.

You can do the same thing with other regular tasks, such as administrative work. I know consultants who set a day and time for doing administrative work like invoices and revenue projections, and that’s the only time they do it. For example, Thursdays at 3:00 pm. And they pick times when they are not at their peak performance so that they can save their peak performance time for tasks that most need it.

Top Tips for Zombie Meetings

Reduce or eliminate meetings. Part of being a consultant is having meetings, but for a lot of consultants and clients, it’s just a default setting to have a meeting. As if that’s the only way to share information, develop solutions, and get stuff done. The best tip is to ask the question (heretical as it may be): Do we need to have a meeting? Suggest alternatives like 15-minute phone huddles or emailing so people don’t just feel like work will stop absent a meeting.

Reanimate meetings you can’t eliminate. Don’t do or accept business as usual. For each meeting, create or ask for an agenda with specific topics and clear objectives for each topic. I do this with my colleagues and clients all the time. If they can’t come up with topics and clear objectives, then I suggest we do not meet.

If there is a reason to meet, the topics and objectives should dictate how long the meeting is. Don’t set the meeting until you know what the topics and objectives are. Meetings do not have to be an hour long! Many topics can be tackled in 15 or 30 minutes. Some take longer. There is no standard. It works with clients too. I had a client that had senior leaders who were overworked and burnt out. It was a major morale problem and got in the way of fixing problems and innovating. One of the things I suggested was to reduce all meetings by 25%. Either eliminate zombie meetings or reduce them from 60 minutes to 45 minutes. One of the leaders said, “But that’s arbitrary!” I said, “Yes, but so is having 60-minute meetings for everything.” My advice for them and myself was to make deliberate choices instead of defaulting to some made-up norm.

Top Tips for Zombie Travel

Develop your criteria for travel. Before you commit to any travel—or write it into a contract—establish criteria for when you will travel. Having set criteria before you commit to anything allows you to have a more deliberate way of evaluating travel decisions and to make sure that the choices you make not only support the needs of the client but also support the life balance you want to have. The criteria should include criteria that focus on value for the client and value for your life. Examples include:

Does the engagement include specific travel requirements?

  • Sometimes a contract specifies that they want you onsite in a particular location for a certain number of hours or days. That said, if you answer “no” to the next question, you can try to negotiate with them.

Is the travel essential for achieving the outcome?

  • For me, if it is a new client, I often want to be in person for the first meeting so that we can get to know each other better and establish some trust. If I have to facilitate a tricky dynamic or strategy, it works better if I’m there. Otherwise, I may not need to be there in person.

Is there an alternative that achieves the same outcome?

  • Technologies like webinars, video conferences, and even the trusty telephone have given us more alternatives to face-to-face meetings or work. It isn’t always a viable option, but it often is.

Does the travel make my life harder or less enjoyable?

  • If it throws off your life balance or creates significant difficulties in your life, it is usually not worth it. Try negotiating no travel or less travel.

I would suggest develop specific criteria that work best for you. And you may also want to rank or weight some criteria higher. As examples, being present as a parent and getting regular sleep may have more weight than other things. And they should!

Set expectations in contracts. Contracts are more than just a document that seals a deal. They are a critical tool for managing client expectations. Given that, any and all expectations about travel should be clearly articulated in the contract scope. That way, you are being upfront with your client about what travel you will and won’t do. And you will have something to manage against if they start asking for more travel. See my blog How to Use Contracts to Manage Client Expectations for more strategies.

Top Tips for Zombie Proposals

Know thyself. If you haven’t done it already, take the time to develop a clear understanding of what knowledge and skills you have to offer a client. Know what’s a perfect fit for you as well as what else you could reasonably apply what you know and can do to—in a way that adds value for the client. Identify if there are other things you need to learn to be able to do more or other consultants you can partner with to fill in any knowledge or skills gaps you have. Knowing your “zones” before you assess or pursue work will help speed up the decision-making process and reduce the chances of you spending your time doing things that aren’t going to get good results. If you need help assessing what you can do for clients, I’ve got a tool that can walk you through it step by step. Know Your Zone: The Consultant’s Guide to Describing What You Can Do.

Assess opportunities honestly. Be ruthlessly honest with yourself about whether an opportunity is a fit for you. What are your chances of winning a competitive proposal given what you bring to the table, who the competition likely is, who the potential client tends to work with, and what your prices are? If you don’t have much of a chance, do not do it. Because the time you spend creating a proposal can be spent pursuing business you are a fit for or doing other things in your life. If you are not sure, get any intel you can. If there’s a bidders’ conference or you can submit questions, ask questions that help you determine if you have a solid shot at getting the gig.

Keep Protecting Your Life

These are just some of the techniques other consultants and I use to ensure we are consistently making choices that create and protect our life balance. It’s your life! Do what you can to protect it. Let the undead stay dead. And if they won’t, you know what you need to do!

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