Project Management

When calendars collide: Five scheduling tips for busy IT consultants

Juggling work and family commitments can be a constant battle for many independent consultants. Here are ways for helping your business and personal calendars play nice.

 One of the more difficult and persistent aspects of maintaining a work/life balance is managing schedule conflicts. "Family comes first," but only up to a point. You can miss dinner in order to solve an urgent problem for a client, but how about showing up late for your child's band concert, graduation, or wedding? Where do you draw the line?

In some ways, this is more of a problem for independent consultants than employees. We have multiple clients, each with their own list of priorities and scheduling issues. We have to juggle all of their calendars, in addition to our personal priorities. On the other hand, independents usually have greater flexibility in controlling when we work, so we can often move things around more easily to reconcile these conflicts. But we have to be smart about it, or we can easily spend all our time thrashing.

Here are some tips for managing your busy work and life schedules:

  • Stay flexible. When a client approaches me with an urgent need, they're often surprised if I tell them that I can make time for them. "Aren't you busy on anything?" they'll sometimes ask. Even though I almost always have plenty of work lined up to fill my days, I try to avoid nailing my schedule down as much as possible; this allows me to shuffle things when an emergency arises. Also, we geeks can sometimes be terribly predictable creatures of habit, laying down precise rituals for ourselves in order to stay organized — but we have to be able to give some of that up in order to be responsive.
  • Don't get pushed around. Even though you want to make time available when asked, you're still in charge of your own schedule. If you let them, clients will gladly set your deadlines — you want to resist that unless it's necessary. If a client says they need it now, it's okay to ask "Why?"
  • Prioritize. How important is it that this or that gets accomplished today? Evaluate the consequences of pushing each thing back versus the benefit (to your client, to your family, or to yourself) of getting it done now. Naturally, different people will feel differently about those priorities, so you have to figure their happiness or displeasure into the equation. Who's going to be more upset, and what will the consequences be? Is there any way to make it all right with them?
  • Be open. Don't hide the factors that make up your decision. There's no reason to be ashamed of the fact that you're a human being with a life; in fact, enlist the help of your clients and your family in evaluating your relative priorities. Not that you need to air your personal issues in front of your customers — indicating that you have a personal or family issue that requires your time should be enough information. Likewise with your family; they often don't realize how important an engagement could be to your business, and they can resent it when you choose work over family time. So you need to make it clear how you feel, as well as listening to their point of view.
  • Put everything on one calendar. For a long time, my wife kept a separate calendar for family matters, and I only kept work-related items on my calendar. That was disastrous. I'd never remember to consult her schedule before making commitments on mine. She still keeps her own calendar, but anything that involves me in the slightest gets put on my integrated calendar as well.

These lessons come from hard experience, and I'm still a long way from doing this right every time. It's too easy to slip into resentment when clients horn in on my family time, or family matters interrupt my work time. Instead of asking "How could they be so inconsiderate?" I need to focus on the shifting priorities that caused the situation. Then instead of an imposition, it becomes a puzzle that I need to figure out how to assemble — a puzzle made of calendar-shaped pieces that all have to fit together into one big calendar.

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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...

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