Balancing life/work in consulting – 10 tips to beat the rat race

My thoughts on this were triggered some months back when I got back from SAP TechEd 2010 in Las Vegas. I’d spent weeks on the road travelling around the world and living out of a suitcase. On the last night in Vegas I didn’t even have time to sleep and I went directly to a shower, hotel checkout and then back to the conference – before heading to the airport. I slept from takeoff to touch down.

Not long after, one of my colleagues left his job and whilst there were probably many reasons for his move, it prompted me personally to consider how it is that in the pressure cooker consulting world, we can hope to balance life and work. And this is my frank account of how it happened to me.

The Time Trap

To outperform our peers, we have to differentiate ourselves from our peers – who are our competition. The day job isn’t enough – we have to create a personal brand, which takes time and money – creating social media: tweeting and blogging and being personalities.

In the latter parts of 2010 I found myself often working until the early hours – and it became usual for me to have 4-5 hours of sleep. What you will find if/when this happens to you is that you will become more prolific in your output – but less strategic. Yes, you can do more technical work, and this may appear to be working harder and better, but it is a short term play.

To add to this it’s an unhealthy lifestyle that many consultants may recognise. The hours out the house mean too many meals in restaurants and takeaways at home, which inevitably means weight gain. This is the curse of the traveling consultant – how do you find time to exercise and eat healthily, when there is some other temptation?

The Time/Strategy Paradox

My observation at least is that the harder you work, the less strategic you will be. I tend to think of this as a left/right brain thing, and the left brain still seems to function pretty well when really busy. We can follow instructions, execute and  do basic reasoning, whilst being busy and tired. And this gives us the impression that we are functioning – especially because we don’t see the context when we’re tired.

But I at least find that my right brain functions go out the window when I’m tired or run down. Creative thinking, contextualisation and strategic thinking just aren’t possible. And this is the killer – in this fast paced world, we need to grow as people, to outpace the competition: not just work harder.

How can we beat the rat race?

My focus since that time (really, since December) has been to equalise the work/life balance. And during that process I’ve found a few things which seem to work; perhaps these will help you, if you feel that way.

1) Sleep. We need 7-8 hours sleep whether we like it or not. If we’re getting less, we need to pay attention to our body. There are lots of resources to help with this – take a look – but my favourites are ensuring an uncluttered and dark bedroom, not watching TV or computers before bed and exercise. Plus vats of chamomile tea.

2) Did I say exercise? Exercise helps with sleep and stress and lighter weight means life is easier all around. I’m about 15lb down on my December weight and I sleep much better. Doesn’t matter how you do it – it was mostly running for me, but it could be the gym, cycling or press-ups. Whatever works for you.

3) Doing less. This sounds really obvious and easy but it’s actually really not. When at first you do less, you just let people down. But if you were overworked, you were probably already letting people down because you didn’t finish everything, or if you did, you stayed up until stupid o’clock. But if you set lower expectations, you will learn to balance doing less.

4) Living more. I forgot what I love the most about life. And this year I’ve spent a week on a beach already and a week travelling around. I’ve been to the theatre, the opera, musicals, classical music concerts. I’ve run hundreds of miles and bought new inline skates. I’ve started a personal blog, that you’re reading now as a means of letting out what I think. I’m planning another trip to climb Mont Blanc next month.

5) Delegation. This was probably the hardest thing for me. I’ve barely logged into a SAP system yet this year, except as a user. But I’ve got a team of some 75 consultants and whilst I’m not all that bad at tech, there’s always someone smarter and faster than I am for a particular problem. And if they get opportunities, they will be better and faster again.

6) Spending time with reports. We’ve reorganised the team and I now have 5 direct reports – whereas before it felt like at times 75 direct reports. These guys have ownership of specialty areas and ownership of the teams. More than anything it feels like every hour spent with these guys gives me two hours of my life back. It is deeply rewarding and it creates scale of people who share the values and vision of the organisation.

7) Creating new contextual networks. I spent some time face to face with my Mentor last week and we talked about contextual networks. Or I thought I coined the phrase. Anyhow, the SAP consulting world is small and I am lucky enough to know a lot of people – and making connections between those people draws an enormous amount of value. Don’t be afraid to make connections to your network to strengthen other people’s personal networks. It will pay off.

8) Prioritise Relationships. We can’t do everything in life and when we let something slip, all we do is to prioritise relationships. Become introspective about this and self-aware of the effect this has – but do let things slip; just with relationships that can cope with it.

9) Be rigorous about downtime. My laptop goes down on a Friday night and I pick it up on Monday morning. There are times when this isn’t possible but it’s a rough rule. Your rule could be different – but create a zone between life and work and create artificial walls. It doesn’t matter what the rules are. I do the same for social media – I only update Facebook and my personal blog in evenings/weekends.

10) Find a relevant mentor. I’m lucky enough to have a mentor who pushes me and gets the business we are in. Every time we spend time together, I leave seeing life through a slightly alternate angle and it feels like it allows me to be more introspective and self-aware. Find someone that you empathise with and you feel empathises with you and stick with them. And when it’s time to move on – don’t be afraid – mentor/mentee relationships are supposed to be short term.

11) Don’t make knee-jerk reactions. I know I said 10, but in time honoured tradition here’s an 11th tip. If you feel that you’re in a bad place and that you need a big change to sort things out – be mindful that a big change may just put you in a different, equally bad, place. Instead communicate with the people you live and work with and try to dig yourself out first. This way you can communicate where your problems are and deal with them directly – and this offers you a much better chance of happiness.

Final Thoughts

I’m starting to feel the benefits of the above tips and it will be interesting to see what it means in the medium term: both to the success of the capability that I run, and how that balances against healthy living. More than anything I’d love to hear from others who have struggled with the same problems and how they have gone about resolving them.

Or indeed if this has helped you in some small way.

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8 Responses to Balancing life/work in consulting – 10 tips to beat the rat race

  1. John:

    what a great blog, full of good advise and eloquently written.

    It can be quite disillusioning when you read emails that you sent days early, when you were utterly exhausted, to see that they made no sense and are full of errors.

    The good thing is, that working less means achieving more in your work and private life, with achieving meaning: getting what you want. It’s unfair to a partner to work constantly and destroys many relationships or makes them shallow.

    Personally, as you know, I do a lot of yoga and meditate and it’s an oasis of tranquility in my crazy social media life (it’s so hard to get social media usage under control when it’s your job). But, I am still struggling to bring the mindfulness from yoga/meditation into my work life. Just switching off after work is not enough. I am working on it but have not fully figured it out yet; I assume that taking regular breaks would be a good start :-).

    Having a mentor is wonderful, and who says that you can only have one. On the same token, being a mentor is just as enriching. I have a life coach and he helps me to look at my life and my options in new ways, I highly recommend it.

    If now we can only stick to those wise thoughts in this blog at SAPPHIRE. It’s very hard to switch off at an event like that and keep up your workout routine, even though that’s when we need it most. Can I challenge you to see who of us can do it best?



  2. How do I subscribe to this blog?

  3. Rajeev Das says:

    Hi John,

    Looks like there is a dramatic change in your lifestyle now. Very well written.

    Regards, Rajeev

  4. Jarret Pazahanick says:

    I really enjoyed this blog especially how honest you were and work/life balance can be a real delicate balancing act for high performing SAP consultants.

    You really hit the nail on the head with this “To outperform our peers, we have to differentiate ourselves from our peers – who are our competition. The day job isn’t enough – we have to create a personal brand, which takes time and money – creating social media: tweeting and blogging and being personalities” as I think a lot of people underestimate the true amount of work it takes to do this. I also liked the fact that you mentioned the underlying competition that does exist but no one talks about.

    In my case I have a wife, two young kids so ensuring work/life balance is a very important topic for me and something that I revisit on a regular basis to ensure that I havent deviated to much to the work side. Some things I do religiously to help protect that:

    1. Stop work at 4pm on Friday and dont do anything until Sunday night (travel)

    2. One true weeklong family vacation each year with zero work (coming up in 2 weeks) 🙂

    3. Have a dedicated 45 mins for exercise 4-5 times a week

    4. Find clients that will allow me to work partially remote. My largest client expects 12 days a month on-site and I work 8 days remote. This is probably the most important peice of the work-life balance for me.

    5. When I am working from remote only have 10 hr days (6am -4pm)

    I will say that when I am working I am really working (remote/road) and when I am on the road I work ALOT of hours which I actually enjoy as I love my job. It is always a balancing act but I have seen to many consultants struggle with this not to realize how important and how much attention should be paid to it.

  5. Jamie Oswald says:

    I was with you right up until you said you had been to an opera.

  6. ub says:

    I like that smiley you accidentally made in tip 8. 8) I would be interested how many of the points you are still adhering to one year from now. Especially tip 9 sounds very hard to me for people with so much responsibility.

  7. David Merchant says:

    A great Blog, so much sensible advice that we often forget about.

    I have been in sales for around 20 years, when ever I have attended any sales training the biggest take-away is always being reminded of the basics, you blog is like that for howe should create some balance in our lives.


  8. Vivek banerjee says:

    Sequel Sequel Sequel!

    That’s all I can say!

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