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?

As independent consultants, we have to juggle all our clients’ calendars, in addition to our personal priorities. On the other hand, we usually have greater flexibility in controlling when we work, so we can often move things around more easily to reconcile these conflicts. We just have to be smart about it.

Note: These tips are based on an entry in our IT Consultant blog.

1: Stay flexible

When a client approaches me with an urgent need, they’re often surprised if I tell them I can make time for them. I almost always have plenty of work lined up to fill my days, but I try to avoid nailing my schedule down as much as possible; this allows me to shuffle things when an emergency arises.

2: 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?”

3: 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. You have to take feelings into account as well. Who’s going to be more upset? Is there any way to make it all right with them?

4: Be open

There’s no reason to be ashamed of the fact that you’re a human being with a life. Enlist the help of your clients and your family in evaluating your relative priorities. Not that you need to air your personal issues to your customers — just say you have a personal or family issue that requires your time. 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. Make it clear how you feel, as well as listening to their point of view.

5: Put everything on one calendar

For a long time, my wife kept a separate calendar for family matters, and I kept only work-related items on my calendar. That was disastrous. I’d never remembered 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.

Puzzle pieces

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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