5 Secrets To Surviving Your First Consulting Job

This week, we have a special treat for you. This sage advice comes to us from Coleman Collins, author of the forthcoming The Road Warrior: A Practical Guide to Maintaining Your Health, Productivity, and Sanity While Traveling for Work and the related Road Warrior Blog.

He spent five years at a boutique tech and strategy consulting firm, but is here to talk about a different part of succeeding as a first-time consultant than we normally discuss here: maintaining your health and productivity.

Without further ado, Coleman’s 5 MC-endorsed tips for surviving your first consulting job!


Believe it or not, it’s quite rare for unqualified folks to be hired at top consulting jobs (shocker, I know).

The applicant pool is large enough and the hiring process rigorous enough that if you’ve found yourself in one of these prestigious roles, you almost certainly have the raw talent to succeed. You wouldn’t have gotten the job otherwise.

But if that’s true, why do so many people quit, burn out, or end up in the dreaded “out” pool of their firm’s “up or out” policies? What causes them to underperform after the hiring process said they were capable?

There are two main reasons:

  1. Many folks just don’t make the turn from brilliant analyst to brilliant consultant.
  2. Just as many folks shoot themselves in the foot by never conquering the business travel lifestyle.

If you’re struggling with the first one, MC’s 3 Month Mastery is a must. I’m here to talk about the second reason.

Traveling to a client site for 4-5 days a week for months on end is one of the hardest parts of consulting, and no one ever talks about it! All that travel can easily ruin your health, kill your energy, and just as critically, tank your productivity and mental acuity. Yet almost everyone ignores it.

I’ve seen it happen dozens of times. No matter how smart or capable you are, if you can’t conquer the jet lag, the poor food, and crunching into an airplane seat for ten hours a week, you will not succeed.

Don’t take my word for it — in a study run by Mark Rosekind, PhD (a former director of NASA’s Fatigue Countermeasures Program), business travelers were shown to have a 20% drop in productivity, simply because they were traveling for the job.

Critically, this 20% drop was not self-reported by the study participants. When asked to self-rate their performance, participants didn’t think they were underperforming at all. It’s like they were skipping work every Monday, forever, and then wondering why they kept falling behind.

Other studies show similar (or even worse) effects. In his paper “A Darker Side of Hypermobility”, Scott Cohen of The University of Surrey’s School of Hospitality and Tourism Management shows that 70% of business travelers show symptoms of faster aging, diminished immune function, higher risk for obesity, and an increased risk for mental health issues.

Other researchers have shown a 15% increase in perceived stress, a loss of as many as eight hours of sleep per week, a higher incidence of distracting chronic low-back pain, a higher chance of deep vein thrombosis, and exposure to pathological levels of germs and radiation; you name it, and business travel either causes it or makes it worse.

In short, if you are not worried about about what regular travel is going to do to your work performance, you need to be.

There is some good news, though: all of these issues are preventable and avoidable with the right strategies. What follows are five simple secrets that will start you on the path to business travel mastery. Follow their guidance, and you’ll be a hard-charging high-productivity road warrior in no time.

Fall In Love With Checklists

One of the critical tricks to mastering business travel is avoiding avoidable stress. All stress acts in the same way on your brain and body, and while some stress is unavoidable — like the physical toll flying takes on your body — most can be prevented.

Being unprepared is horrifically stressful. It’s also super avoidable. Imagine having to double back for an ID or laptop or other critical piece of forgotten information. Imagine getting to a new city and realizing you don’t have any underwear. Imagine chatting with a friendly person in the cafeteria at your new client only to realize days later that it was the president of the company. No bueno.

The solution? Use a checklist (or several checklists) to automate every piece of preparation that you do consistently—packing, unpacking, research, even your morning routine.

It may seem boring, but that’s the point. Boring beats stressful every time.

By making these repeated tasks as simple as checking the boxes on a piece of paper (or in an app), not only are you reducing the odds that one of these things will be forgotten, you’re also freeing up a massive amount of time and mental space to worry about other things, work-related or otherwise.

Remember: You Are Still In Control

“You have power over your mind — not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.”

When he wrote this, Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius was also “traveling for work.” He was leading armies in a war, thousands of miles from home. Constant defense of Rome’s borders was one of the many problems that plagued his reign. Yet he was known both during and after his life as a cool, collected, and effective “philosopher king”.  

If this mindset can help an Emperor stay calm on the front lines, It can get you or me from Chicago to Cincinnati without tearing your hair out, too.

It’s no secret that travel is unpredictable, that airports are soul-draining, or that people are rude. You can’t change the weather, airline delays, an overbooked flight, a missing car reservation, or a lost bag. You can’t change how the flight crew or the TSA or your fellow passengers act. These events are outside of your control.

Here’s what you can control: your reaction.

Stress might not seem like a choice, but it is — it’s your reaction to the world around you. You choose to become overwhelmed and frazzled by events on the road. You can also choose to be not frazzled.

When you feel the stress coming on, take a moment. Ask yourself: “what do I stand to gain by freaking out about this?” If the answer is nothing, take a deep breath and choose to stay calm.

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Take Care Of Your Body

You may think of your “mind” as something separate from your body; you may think your physical form has little to do with your mental output.

This couldn’t be farther from the truth. Your mind lives inside your very physical brain, and even small biochemical shifts can have outsized impacts on your energy, focus, and total output. Seemingly tiny things like sugar crashes, caffeine withdrawal, stress hormones or endorphins can totally ruin an afternoon’s work.

Taking care of your body is taking care of your mind, and your performance—the Rosalind study mentioned above showed that people who exercise during trips perform a whopping 61% better than than non-exercisers. High-intensity exercise triggers your brain to produce BDNF— Brain-derived neurotrophic factor—which protects and grows neurons. People who look like they exercise are generally treated better and exposed to more opportunities.

This should include at minimum: eating well most of the time, doing some amount of physical activity, and doing damage control (stretching, strengthening) against the horrible things that sitting in an airplane can do to your lower back.

You don’t need to spend hours every day to accomplish all of this, though. Even small choices — like taking calls while walking around or skipping that drink with dinner— can add up to major health and energy benefits.

Build A Location-Independent Morning Routine

As a consultant, you’re going to be a lot of different places, with changing colleagues, locations, amenities, and demands on your day.

Your morning will still be yours.

Developing a bulletproof morning routine that you do the exact same way, with the exact same items, at home or on the road, can make sure you have everything you need to win the day.

Not only does it guarantee that everything gets done, it creates a consistency and stability that isn’t tied to a physical location. This creates calm and focus.

Chain everything you need to do in the morning, like hygiene, work prep, exercise, and eating, into a sequence of events that never varies and can be performed with minimal extra equipment. Start with how you get out of bed and end when you walk out of the front door. You’ll be surprised how valuable it is in making the day a successful one.

Don’t Wait Until It Hurts

The challenge with all of these secrets isn’t actually knowing them — many of them are probably elaborations of things you’ve heard before.

The challenge is getting ahead of them before you need to.

If you wait until you’re already approaching burnout — whether it’s from unnecessary stress, poor prioritization, or poor health — it gets much, much harder to come back from being maxed out.

Every issue you face on the road compounds on every other one. If you don’t have enough time in the day, you can’t think about how or when you should exercise. If you’re constantly stressed by packing and air travel, you’re never going to have a calm moment to actually make a packing list.

Be proactive about it. Make figuring these things out a priority, or your aching low back and tanking energy levels will make them a priority for you, and at that point, you’ll be digging yourself out of a hole instead of setting up systems for success. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

A Final Thought: Put On Your Own Oxygen Mask First

Airlines tell you to put on your oxygen mask before helping others for a simple, practical reason: you cannot help anyone with anything if you are unconscious. The same goes for your professional and personal life — if you don’t help yourself first, you’ll rapidly lose the ability to help or even productively interact with others.

Prioritizing your own time and well-being in a world like consulting can feel selfish or career-hindering. Folks who don’t do it tactfully may even get accused of not being team players.

This comes from a common misconception in all business circles that busyness is the same thing as productivity; the idea that more time you put in, the better your outcomes will be. This is not true, and believing it is an advanced form of laziness.

It’s lazy because saying no is hard. Consultants—especially analysts and junior associates—are often overworked because they’re avoiding hard conversations about what their role is, or are so eager to please that they say yes to everything, when they really should be asking critical-but-difficult questions about what’s truly important.

They’re afraid that asking these questions will make it look like they’re not a team player. Don’t be afraid. Be smart. Strategically putting yourself first is how you create a work environment that lets you succeed and gives you the space to look out for others as well.

Saying no (and knowing when not to) is difficult, and requires tact, but it’s a necessary skill for you to learn if you want to make it long-term.

If you fill your day with nonsense, you won’t have time to focus on what’s important. This includes which work request you should put on top of your list, but it also includes the time you need to exercise, de-stress, and sleep enough.

The type-A folks — myself included — who gravitate to the consulting lifestyle want to squeeze the most out of every minute of every day. It’s in our nature. The problem comes when we only optimize for squeezing the most “work things” out of the day. You may think of “work things” and “non-work things” as separate categories, but they all come out of the same bucket: your time and energy.

You may think you’re getting ahead by staying up late, working over dinner, and responding to every email right when you get it. In reality, a few hours of focused work—away from email and “quick requests”—on the right thing probably produced a majority of the positive outcomes in your entire week.

You are not being selfish or mean by looking after yourself, by turning down a team dinner so you can go to the gym. You are being a better colleague. You are being someone who can survive the lifestyle long enough to make partner.

Many people looking to get into consulting think that trading exhaustion and overwork for career success is part of the deal.

This is only true if you let it be — you are already showing a massive amount of initiative and effort in shaping your career simply by being on this website. If you put that much effort into shaping your environment, your health, and your entire travel lifestyle, it doesn’t have to be.

Need More Help?

Knowing what to do is considerably different from knowing how to to it, and these secrets admittedly cover a lot of what but not a lot of how. Explaining the how for each one of those things would take an entire book, and I want to respect your time and attention.

If you’re ready to take the first step and want some help deciding what it should be, or how to go about it, have a look around over at the blog.

But remember: what you do is ultimately less important than doing something. Choose anything, and start working to make it better. A good plan combined with diligent, intentional action beats the never-executed perfect plan every time.

Filed Under: life as a consultant