Being a consultant is a pretty demanding gig. You’ll spend a lot of time on the road, you’ll frequently have to adjust to the expectations of new clients, and you’ll often work late into the night, staring at your computer screen and creating a multitude of Excel and PowerPoint documents. How do consultants do it all and still stay sharp?
Here’s the secret: We don’t do it alone. Most consultants rely on several tools to get them through their busy days. So, if you’re looking for ways to make your life easier, check out these apps, products, and tools that have all but saved my life in the last three years working as a management consultant.
1. A Travel Sized Wireless Mouse
It sounds kind of silly, but hear me out. On your first day as a consultant, you will be gifted with your laptop—which will soon become your life—and, if you are lucky, a mouse. I was not so lucky. When I started, I was quickly put to work on a project that involved working long hours on my computer, and, thanks to my touch pad, I developed an acute pain in my index finger (seriously).
After that project (and a consultation from my physiotherapist), I sought out a mouse. I started by getting a cheap, wired mouse that was a pain to travel with before finally coughing up the cash and discovering the power of a good quality wireless mouse. I now have a lightweight mouse that actually snaps flat when not in use, making it perfect for throwing in my pocket when running between meetings or stashing in my carry-on. But most importantly, it allows me to work for hours without pain.
2. Smartphone with Tethering Capability
As a consultant, you never know where you are going to be working, and therefore you can never be sure you’ll have reliable internet access. There have been countless times when I’ve arrived at a client site and had difficulty getting connected to the corporate network, or when I’ve been at airports with limited or expensive WiFi access.
To make sure you can get your work done when you need to, add tethering or hotspot capabilities to your smartphone. This will often involve an additional charge on your monthly phone bill, and you may need to invest in a slightly larger data plan to be able to use it regularly, but the investment is worth it to not be stranded without internet when your boss or a client is expecting something. (A portable WiFi device like a MiFi will also work, but I feel like it’s just one more thing to remember—your phone is already with you wherever you go.)
3. Microsoft Outlook Delayed Outbox
How many times have you hit send on an email, only to realize that you forgot to attach a document, copy everyone who was supposed to be included, or proof for mistakes? If you’re a busy, sleep-deprived consultant like me, more than once.
So, one of the things that I use (and tell every new hire I work with to add) is a “Rule” in Microsoft Outlook that delays sending by a certain amount of time. I currently have each sent message delayed by one minute unless I add a “High Priority” tag, at which point it leaves my outbox instantly. The rule is easy to add (the Microsoft Office support site has a great tutorial for how to set this up) and has saved me from making an embarrassing mistake many times.
If you’re a Gmail user, add the Undo Send Gmail lab for a similar capability. It won’t give you quite as much time to realize mistakes, but it can still be a lifesaver when you realize right after you click send that you spelled the recipient’s name wrong.
4. RSS Feed Reader
Consultants are expected to be well-versed on world issues, industry trends, and thought leadership. But we’re busy people—it’s hard to weed through the paper every day when we barely have time to eat and sleep outside of work!
What’s helped me more than anything else was setting up a feed reader (I use Feedly) where I subscribe to publications that cover specific topics related to my job: world newspapers, business publications, industry blogs, news about my current and past clients along with their competitors. Then, when I get into work every day, I devote some time to reading through my feeds. This has helped me stay aware of changing industry conditions, but has also allowed me to understand more about my clients and have meaningful conversations with them.
If you don’t already have an RSS reader, get yourself set up on one and come up with a system for when you’ll make time to actually read it. Many have mobile apps as well, so you can get up to speed on your daily commute!
I know, it sounds like another basic, but I’ve met too many early consultants who really take this search genius for granted.
Think about: Consultants are often expected to have all the answers, but we often don’t! Whether you’re trying to figure out some complicated Excel technique (how do you add an Excel Macro?) or need to quickly get up to speed on a new industry you’re working in (what are the latest trends in healthcare?), some solid Google search skills can really come in handy in making you look like you’re on top of everything.
It’s not enough to just know how to type into a Google search bar—you have to know how to search right. Some of my favorite tricks include searching by file type (enter "filetype:" and the three-letter file abbreviation), searching in all languages—which is especially important for cross-border assignments (click "More search tools" then select "Translated foreign pages")—and browsing Google’s public data directory for important statistics.
Also try asking Google “What time is it in [city]?” when planning meetings around the world, entering your flight number into Google’s search to quickly find out the status of your flight, or typing in your client’s ticker symbol to get its current stock price. For more ideas, visit Google’s Tips and Tricks.
Consultants—tell us what tools you wouldn’t be able to get by without!