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3.5 Tips for Work/Life Balance for Consultants

As the leaders of small consulting firms, we’re entrepreneurial, ambitious and highly engaged in our work. That can easily slip into 24/7/365, always-on, workaholism. How do we establish some work/life balance?

3.5 Tips for Work/Life Balance for Consultants

No-Work Zones

For those of us who have home offices, it helps to clearly demarcate work zones and no-work zones. This is particularly important if you live with someone who participates in your consulting business. If your entire house is a work zone, you’ll start to feel like you can’t escape your consulting firm.

For those of us who work in an office every day, it still helps to have no-work zones at home. Our work is engrossing and it’s hard to mentally unplug at the end of the day. Nevertheless, your family deserves your attention when you’re at home. If you live alone, then your friends, pets and hobbies deserve your attention.

We have two, designated work zones in my house, and those are the only places work discussions are allowed.

Inviolable, Weekly Day Off

Set at least one day (24 hours) to be a no-work day and abide by that rule religiously. Even if you’re not religious. That means no exceptions ever. We’re consultants, not physicians. No one is going to lose their life or livelihood if we set our consulting firm aside for a day. Including us.

Your weekly furlough doesn’t have to be Saturday or Sunday (though those are easiest because clients tend to be off on those days too). Consistency is the key and, of course, letting your clients know about your no-work day. We’re independent consultants in solo and boutique firms. We get to set our own rules!

I close my office at 3:00 p.m. on Fridays and don’t reopen until late on Saturday at the earliest. I have never broken that rule. Not even once.  Has it cost me some speaking engagements at conferences that run over weekends? Probably, but that obviously hasn’t held my business back.

Non-Cancellable Vacations

Schedule your vacations well in advance and book non-refundable tickets early. Sure, it’s easy to tack a day (or five) onto a client trip and call that a vacation. As long as you treat vacation days the same as your weekly no-work days, that’s great.

For even better work/life balance, book your vacation time 3-6 months in advance and commit yourself by plunking down your cash for your flights, hotels, cruise, safari or arctic expedition.

Clients respect vacations as long as they have substantial warning. Their business isn’t going to disappear while you’re gone and, if you’re working on something truly time-sensitive, you can arrange for backup coverage.

I’ll admit to not being as good about vacations as I am about my weekly hiatus from consulting. Multiple days in a row away from work feels like multiple days without chocolate. Both absences make me twitch. Nevertheless, I’ve already booked my end-of year time away.


This is either half a tip or the master tip that rules them all. Train yourself to set your business aside when you’re not “doing” work. It’s not enough to curtail work discussions and email. You have to actually stop thinking about work.

Those of you who have practiced mindfulness meditation will recognize this. Only, as consultants our minds are always full, so mindlessness struck me as a better idea.

During a no-work day or a vacation when you notice yourself thinking about your consulting business:

  1. Recognize you’re thinking about work,
  2. Remember you’re in a no-work period,
  3. Remove the work thoughts, and
  4. Refocus your attention on something not work-related.

Initially, that process may grant only a three-second reprieve, and you may have to repeat it 100 times in a single day. With practice you’ll find that you’re able to douse the work fire faster, easier and for longer.

Those are only a few tips for establishing some work/life balance as a consultant. I bet you’ve used other approaches. Please share them below—I’ll respond when I return from vacation!



  1. Ted
    August 17, 2017 at 8:24 am Reply

    The no work zone – I’ll try that (it’ll be hard).
    Great idea though!
    I haven’t done the non refundable tickets for vacation, but sometimes book vacations with friends and family where I can’t practically back out.

    • David A. Fields
      August 21, 2017 at 9:30 am Reply

      Commitments to other people may work even better than non-refundable tickets, Ted. That’s a good addition to the idea. Definitely try the no-work zones and let me know how it works out for you. You may need to train your family to respect the new policy too.

  2. Ara Jeknavorian
    August 17, 2017 at 8:48 am Reply

    Dave, Thanks for your insightful advice on separation of work and personal time. Points well taken. With the old adage – “different strokes for different folks”- my consulting practice has succeeded by being available almost on a 24/7 basis to answer urgent customer questions – questions which their material supplier should answer. However, because customers cannot get needed urgent answers from large companies because of their cumbersome response systems, I pick up a fair amount of business though a quick phone call back or email. Two short examples. While on a short vacation, I get a call from a concrete producer who needs to discuss the max dose he can use for a certain concrete additive. I advised to him to contact the material supplier as opposed to charging him for a phone consult. He could not get a timely response from the company, and needed an urgent answer. In a another example, an overseas customer’s customer needed urgent advice on a concrete mix before placing the concrete for a large project. I interrupted a day off, provided the needed guidance, and scored good points with a valued customer. So, my point – if you can manage such a pace of quick response, it can give a consultant an edge.

    • David A. Fields
      August 21, 2017 at 9:28 am Reply

      One size or approach definitely doesn’t fit everyone, Ara. (That’s one problem with “best” practices.) Remaining available, even while on vacation, has worked for you. Many/most people struggle with boundaries, especially along the fuzzy edges–for instance, a 10-minute call in the middle of vacation. Is one of those calls okay? Two? Ten? Three every day? That’s where it helps them to have clear demarcations.

      Also, I wonder what would happen if you tried being fully turned off and unavailable for, say, two weeks. Yes, you may miss an opportunity, but you may find you gain more. Just as a restful, uninterrupted sleep is necessary for maximum productivity, you may feel more creative, energized and powerful in your work if you take a complete, uninterruptible vacation. Might be worth an experiment. If you do it, please let me know the results!

  3. Robyn Laing
    August 17, 2017 at 12:40 pm Reply

    Back in the very early 1990’s, before widespread use of cellphones, when I used to carry a pager, I went on vacation to a coastal area that was outside of the range of even the pager network. And the cottage where we stayed had no phone.

    I was 100% accurate when I told my boss that the only way for the office to reach me would be for someone to fly to the coast (450 miles away), rent a car & then drive 2-3 hours (100 or so miles on the old 2 lane highway) down to the beach town & then by foot go looking for me on the local beaches, wherever the waves were the best that day!

    So there was no way for the folks at work to bug me while I was on vacation – my boss had to “make a plan” for other people to cover & support clients in my absence – and that’s the way it should be.

    A vacation is not a vacation if you’re reading & responding to work e-mails, phone calls etc. Which is why I usually schedule my vacations (anything longer than a 4 day long weekend) well in advance (6-12 months ahead), so that everyone knows to work around the week(s) that I will not be available. Have had this approach for 20+ years, and it is definitely the way to go if you want your vacations to be “real vacations”.

    And it’s quite interesting…. occasionally I’ve had clients who have asked me to cancel or shorten my vacation to do an extra week’s work on their project. When I give them the price tag of the cost of my non-refundable air tickets/hotels/etc. or replacing an international business class mileage award air ticket with a paid ticket (in order to come home sooner), they decide that it’s not worth the extra cost to have me on-site those few days earlier or longer.

    At one point I also used to have a “Do Not Even Open the Laptop & Leave the Cellphone Off” day over weekends (to really disconnect from all forms of electronic interruption) – but that has kinda gone by the wayside, unfortunately. So much of what we do in our personal non-work lives is “online” these days, so it’s not that easy to 100% disconnect anymore.

    • David A. Fields
      August 21, 2017 at 9:17 am Reply

      Robyn, your comment makes me wonder whether it’s easier for those of us who did not grow up with the internet and cellphones to switch off access than it is for younger folks whose entire lives have been electronically connected.

      That said, while at a lovely B&B in France this past week I met another business owner my age who was vacationing. He said he was “away” from work, but he checked email every morning and night. Didn’t make sense to me. You can’t slow dance to the rhythm of vacation when the urgent beat of vocation is pounding at the same time.

      Your illustration of the 1990s vacation is great–thanks for sharing it. What about leaving work apps off if you have the laptop or cellphone open on your day off?

      • Robyn Laing
        August 21, 2017 at 7:33 pm Reply

        Funnily enough, I don’t get too many electronic distractions from work/clients over weekends – unless it’s project crunch time or post-go-live support of critical operations that run over weekends (and those “distractions” are expected under the circumstances – and it’s all billable time to handle them).

        But I have quite often ended up interviewing for projects & negotiating contracts while on vacation between projects – and I can live with that because a lot of the time that’s how the next gig gets lined up (there’s not a lot of notice/lead-time with most of the projects I do).

        I do think it’s more difficult for the “younger” generation to disconnect from everything because they’ve never really had to do it before & most haven’t learned to manage without being online 24X7.

        We’re getting pretty darn close to people never learning to read roadmaps (because they rely on MapQuest etc. etc.) – and then when there’s no cellphone reception or their battery dies, they’re totally lost & can’t navigate in unfamiliar territory.

  4. Ben Piper
    August 18, 2017 at 2:03 pm Reply

    Making a conscious effort not to think about work takes some getting used to, but is worth it. Great tip!

    • David A. Fields
      August 21, 2017 at 9:01 am Reply

      With practice, it seems to take a couple of hours to switch off work thoughts if you’re taking a 1-day break; a couple of days to switch off work intensity if you’re taking a week-long vacation; and a couple of weeks to switch off the working pace of life if you’re talking an extended reprieve. And, as you underscored, Ben, it’s always worth making that switch. Thanks for joining the conversation.

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