A Consultant’s Guide to Work Life Balance
The battle for balance between work and life is one that anyone with a demanding career can relate. Being successful takes work, but balancing family and other people’s expectations also takes effort. You can really enjoy your job, but one may find balancing that part of your work life, along with the expectations others to be challenging.
This article will impart what I have learned over my 20-year consulting career and provide some strategies to help you find your balance. I am writing this article from a consultant’s point of view, but we all struggle with these priorities and expectations as an employee or entrepreneur. Also included is a simple methodology to help measure your work life balance and assist in determining where your time is going. The example I provide here represents how I felt my year went in our FY17 fiscal year from June 2016 to July 2017.
We all juggle various tradeoffs to be successful, not only at work but with other people in our lives such as family and friends. I have divided these priorities into 5 expectations; Client, Work, Family, Learning and Personal. Each of these priorities changes as you go through the year, life and career. Each set of expectations listed below are not mutually exclusive but provide a different perspective on activities you balance.
As a consultant, I view working with customers separately from other work activities. Working with clients will vary in intensity depending on the phase of the project, the number of projects you have running concurrently, and their location. These expectations are something that we cannot necessarily negotiate. We get paid for a job, and the expectations are that we do our best to meet or exceed those expectations.
Work expectations such as; expenses, corporate training, HR, IP creation, pre-sales, bi-weekly management meetings and the like. I see those as separate from client expectations as they are usually done after hours and not on billable time. It is important not to take these work duties for granted. For example, if you have 2 hours of corporate training each month and a bi-weekly half hour management meeting, that is almost 40 hours a year just in those activities.
These are things you do with your family. Spending time with your family, holidays, dinners, home repairs or anything that you do that has nothing to do with work.
As a consultant, or indeed any profession, you have to spend time on your craft. Updated software, techniques, upgrades and actually just keeping up to date are getting harder to keep ahead of. Certifications and exams also fall into this category.
Personal expectations are the items that you want to accomplish; Physical fitness, volunteer work, reading, hobbies, really things that you do for yourself.
A Typical Year
Your goal is finding a balance that works for you! The key is to determine what your balance is now and how that makes you feel. The following example is one way to determine your best work life balance.
Scoring a Balance
Each expectation gets a score of 20 and over the 5 expectations for a total of 100% each month. The chart on the left shows everything in balance, the proportions you are happy with. Not that you spend equal amounts of time on each, but that you feel the total balance that you have is good for your goal balance.
As the year goes on, you score each expectation with how you believe each balanced that month. Some months you find more time spent on your client activities and less on your family. You would score each activity on how the balance compared to your optimal month.
The following charts show how my work life balance was measured and how it went.
The graph on the left shows the starting point, which represents the optimal balance between each of the expectations. The graph on the right is what I scored on average for the year by month. The year was heavy on the client side as I scored the year. In retrospect, this was true, as I had a project with a fantastic team with a tight deadline and lots of effort to get over the finish line. The next highest was the learning component which consisted of a new skill set I was coming up to speed on and a certification exam that had a May deadline.
In looking at each month over the year, you get a sense of how the ebb and flow of your work life balance played out.
Year at a View
The following graphic below shows the detail from the year. Access to the report is available here, and I will also provide the PowerBI workbook so that you can track your balance.
As you can see, there is an ebb and flow to the year. Some periods such as the go live during the summer of FY17, the work and client category was heavy, whereas October was very heavy on the personal and family as that was when I took holidays. As the exam deadline came up, the learning took over, however, work did not decrease dramatically as I was juggling multiple projects.
Can’t Really Negotiate Client/Work Expectations
As the chart shows, consumer activity is the majority of the time spent in the year. Being a consultant, this is not a surprise. In discussions with other consultants, the work life balance is really skewed toward the work activities which can cause issues in the overall work health scores of not only the employee but the group as a whole.
Finding Your Balance
The best way I have found to change the balance is by being more productive. If you are more productive, you can complete work tasks quicker, better and allow yourself more time for other priorities. I have found a couple of key learnings over the years have help in achieving balance.
Have a workspace that is clutter free
Does your work area look like a rummage sale? I found the best boost to my productivity was to set up a separate work area that I can close off when I am not working. This area is clean, organized and clutter free which provides 2 key benefits.
- The space is organized which allows me to focus on the activity at hand.
- The area is one that I can close it off and can leave when I am finished work. If you work at the dining room table, you always see your job which does not provide a break.
The adage is true if you fail to plan, you plan to fail. I use OmniFocus and Trello as my planning tools which help organize and prioritize my tasks. OmniOutliner is also a great tool that helps me generate and organize your ideas. These tools also have reminders so that I can see all my tasks and deadlines as a group to get a bigger picture and set up my work activities.
Stay Focused, Stop Procrastinating and Get the Job Done
Making your time count is so important. I have been on projects that go from meeting to meeting, coffee break to coffee break. You need to concentrate on what you need to do to get the job done. I have found that there are days that if I spend an extra hour or two doing an activity for the simple reason that I would not have to worry about it tomorrow, can do wonders.
One of the best bits of consultant advice I received was “work like a dog during the week, party like it’s 1999 on the weekend”. The key takeaway is to set aside time for work, and work! When you have a break, take a break. When I find that I feel overwhelmed with work, I fall back on the Pomodoro Technique. The technique is used to separate work activities into manageable slices, traditionally 25 minutes in length, separated by short breaks.
Share Your Journey
Going through the activities above helped me analyze where I was and where I needed to improve. I am reasonably happy with my work life balance although I can always improve. Let me know what you think and anything you have found that helps you maintain your work-life balance. The PowerBI workbook and an Excel version are available here
There are 2 resources in the GitHub repository for this article. The excel sheet is one in which you can enter your own values and see where you come out. The second is a PowerBI book that I used as to do the visuals and in a set of tutorials. Feel free to try them out and let me know what you think. The exercise really helped me get a feel for where my year went.