Project Management

How to become a better consultant by doing less billable work


In most any profession, things seem to get added to your schedule faster than they get taken away -- so you tend to get progressively busier.  For a consultant, the effect can be magnified when work starts piling up during the "feast" portion of the "feast or famine" cycle.  You start to feel like you'll never get caught up, and that you should devote every available minute to getting all that billable work done.

But there are a couple of problems with that idea.  First, there's the potential for burn-out.  Even if you really enjoy your work, you can only concentrate on the same project for so long without a break.  How long varies by individual, but everyone has their limit.  You'll probably find that you're even more productive during your "on" time when you sprinkle in a little "off" time to keep you fresh.

Second, you can lose your edge.  Consultants may be hired for their expertise on a specific topic, but they're also expected to have a broad understanding of their industry and of the available alternatives for any solution.  That body of knowledge grows every day, and you need to keep up.  It's not only fun, it's important to your career to spend some time learning new things.  Yes, you can pick up a lot from the work itself -- but clients' requirements don't usually lead you into all of the subject matter that you should explore in order to stay current.

So, I recommend that you set aside time in your schedule specifically devoted to learning something other than what you're supposed to be working on.  Just as you're supposed to "pay yourself first" in your monetary budget, so you should make self-improvement a priority when budgeting your time.  You can think of it as similar to Google's famous 20% time -- although not everyone can free up one day out of five (or 20% of their potential revenue!).  You'll have to decide how much you can afford, but during that time treat yourself as your own consultant, contracted to improve your skills.

Make sure that what you choose to do with that time solves both of the problems I mentioned above.  It needs to be fun and interesting in order to provide a recreational benefit.  It shouldn't be anything too close to your active projects.  Rule of thumb: if your client would consider funding the activity, then perhaps it's too related.  On the other hand, it should be something that's within the realm of what you do generally -- or else it's a hobby that shouldn't be conducted during work time.  If you're a software development consultant like me, maybe you'll sit down and finally take a look at that language or framework that you've heard so much about, or you'll implement something for your own use, or contribute to an open source project.

What's amazing is how this recreational work does "recreate" you.  Taking a break and thinking along completely different lines often snaps you out of a brainlock.  It can have the same effect as taking a walk or a shower, but with the added benefit of learning something new.  And it's surprising how many times a seemingly unrelated endeavour will provide useful insights for your paying projects.

About

Chip Camden has been programming since 1978, and he's still not done. An independent consultant since 1991, Chip specializes in software development tools, languages, and migration to new technology. Besides writing for TechRepublic's IT Consultant b...

9 comments
smankinson
smankinson

I know to do this, but tell that to everyone else that is demanding my time!! But what you are saying is so true - my career has suffered since I did not have this habit 10 years ago.

Oz_Media
Oz_Media

Funny, consultants are usually seen as unemployed salesmen, in most fields; just like managers are former salesmen who earned too much commission until being stuck on salary. If a person goes out on their own to 'consult' (lol) they are in deep doo-doo if they don't know how to properly manage time already. Then again, if they had good time management skills, they'd still be salesmen I guess.

Oz_Media
Oz_Media

When you say 'your own time' I must wonder how you actually have any?!? When I was working for myself, I had NO time that was MY time. Now I am a BDM for another company, I have LITTLE time that is my own time because FREE time is spent studying, so there really isn't any of 'my own time' per se but time that is spent (as much as humanly possible) making MY career move forward.

Oz_Media
Oz_Media

Selling yourself is something I've urged so many to do here, when they are having issues finding work. At least a hat's off for drive. B-) Edit: oops, double post

Oz_Media
Oz_Media

Selling yourself is something I've urged so many to do here, when they are having issues finding work. At least a hat's off for drive. B-)

rscholz
rscholz

Oz, its apparent you're a prime example of that this piece is pointing out, if you're constantly feeling exasperatedly then you'll surly burn yourself out. Step back for a moment and free yourself from your drama you've created for yourself, make time to pursue something that is not specifically a "career forward" activity, do some yoga, get away from the computer, let go and try to live in the moment for at least a little bit each day. life is happening each moment of the day, engage in it now, don't wait until tomorrow for it.

Oz_Media
Oz_Media

I don't know anyone that has the same knack for letting go than I do. I have al the time in the world, because I MAKE that time. If i want time off, I take it, if I need recreation I have it. I make time for me because I understand how imperative it is now and will never marry my job again, as I did years ago. When I am not working I am ALWAYS at play, ALWAYS. If I have not had enough play come Monday, I will take another day to play. Not BS'ing the boss, I call in and explain I need another day off to take care of "MY things". But that doesn't mean that work is not an all encompassing duty, especially working for yourself. If you are starting out, DON'T expect to have weekends or evenings off, WORK, or else someone else who actually does work will pass you by. Belive me, I spend FAR less time actually working than the majority of people on TR and I have a great time doing it.