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True confession: sometimes I work from Hawaii. Or Santa Cruz. Or Crystal Mountain Ski Area.
Self employment allows me to largely control my own schedule and afford to do things outside of work that make me infinitely happier and more productive. Work-life balance, for me, isn’t a carefully pre-measured daily dose of a gym machine crammed into the evening after finally busting free of the I-5 slow crawl home. In my practice and life, it looks more like busting my butt on work projects for a few days, followed by a well-timed mid-week surf day, or two days skiing.
A recent article on Inc.com cited a study that found that a long commute makes people dumber. This is unsurprising. Google around, and you’ll find reports of the perils of sitting too much, the financial strain of a long commute, and the true cost of having a job (the wardrobe, the transportation, the eating out, the retail therapy, etc.)
It is also well-documented that Americans work a lot more than their counterparts in other Western countries, with sometimes less to show for it, especially if you include physical health, peace of mind and solid relationships in your assessment.
Self-employment with a low overhead – we can even call this the “perfect head-high practice”— neither too gnarly nor too tame – is my personal work-life balance formula. Consider it a basic recipe that you can adapt for yourself if you love your career and also want to remain healthy and sane. My field is law, but this should also work for other service professionals such as counselors and coaches. Here are my guidelines for your consideration.
Work for yourself. This is obvious. You are your own boss. Yes, sometimes that person is a tyrant, and dawn patrol is answering discovery requests instead of first tracks in the Northway Bowl pow, but the rewards for your discipline are greater than the sum of their parts. You are not only rewarded with the mid-week ski day; you are rewarded with additional discipline to really step on the gas and focus on your work when that is called for.
Don’t commute. Sign up for virtual office with a quality conference room within a very short drive from your house – or better, walking or biking distance from your house. You will give yourself 1-2 extra hours per day to get work tasks or life administration tasks done, or you can use that time to meditate, exercise, hang up your clothes to dry and save on utilities, cook a nice meal, or keep track of your airline points so you can craft a well-timed plan to work remotely from a lanai in Hawaii for a few weeks for less than it costs to bumble around your home city.
Don’t buy fancy crap for your practice. That’s right. If you are spending full retail on downtown class-A office space, that could be one extra case or client per month just to pay for the place to go every day even on days when you are not seeing clients and you’re sitting there in your flip-flops and a stained shirt. And for those readers who have been practicing a while – think about the clients and cases that made you want to bang your head against a wall every day, the kind you vow you’d never take on again? You don’t need to take work you don’t want just to pay for the office space. Same goes for expensive subscriptions – practice management software, research tools and the like. If there’s something that is worth its weight in gold to you, keep it! But don’t sign up for everything just because you feel like it “might help.” (Especially if you don’t have time to learn how to use it!) Ninety-nine percent of the time, I do my research with Google Scholar, and most everything else I do in Excel. And since 2011, I also have used a program called Harvest to keep track of my time from the phone or desktop app, which makes billing and fee petitions a breeze. (See below for my disclosure regarding Harvest.)
Oh, and large document projects for those times when you can’t e-file and e-serve the whole enchilada? You can use specialized legal document printers instead of spending an arm and a leg on a fancy printer/scanner that sits half the time. I have found legal document printers in more than one city to be prompt, smart, professional, and a great dollar value. I like to be frugal, but the $10.00 used inkjet printer from the thrift store is likely to choke and die an hour before you need to get in the car with your three sets of documents.
Carefully consider whether you need to hire assistants and shoulder the payroll of another person all by yourself. I get it – some practices that are higher-volume than my particular practice area, you do need help (or at least someone with more patience than yourself to answer the phone). But often, you only need it sporadically. Instead of hiring an assistant, paralegal or associate to come in every day, price shop remote answering services, and use independent contractors.
Maintain a hobby, especially one that gets you in fresh air, challenges you and gets your heart rate up. Surfing or skiing might not be up your alley, but hiking, cycling, jogging the 3-mile route at the park or whatever works for you is going to make you a smarter, calmer person and you will likely spend less money on other things. Cities are fun but they aren’t natural environments. Lawyers are rarely completely location-independent because we provide an essential human service, but if you are smart about it, you can build in enough flexibility to get outdoors, travel, and provide excellent service to your clients.
Maintain a capsule wardrobe so you can look sharp at work, and still afford nice outdoor gear. This tip is especially helpful for women, who are more often victims of the “tyranny of choice” and “decision fatigue” and sometimes need warmer (read: more expensive) outdoor gear. Even if you are in court every day, if you keep your wardrobe to basic, classic, and neutral items, you will save money, and not be one of those poor souls who wears the atrocious getups to court (we’ve all seen them). Inexpensive clothes in neutral colors don’t look as inexpensive as loud prints, investment pieces in neutral colors will last for a decade, and you won’t waste as much time figuring out what to wear. You don't need to buy a designer handbag to look like you have your act together. Invest in a long-lasting briefcase; the ones made by Filson right here in Seattle are durable, American made and look hip. I can even carry my scanner in mine -- I've had the same Fujitsu s1300 for five years and it is still going strong. Then if you need a nice wetsuit or properly-fitting boots that will make your outdoorsy time fun and save you a lot of cold complaining misery, you can get it without feeling guilty.
Don’t feel guilty about the time you spend on yourself, or compare yourself to the people who brag-complain about their 80-hour week and worry if you are doing something wrong. Review the concept of “diminishing returns.” If you are mindful about your work, your health, and your spending, you really do not need to work that much every week of the year to make a great living and stay sane.
In summary, a low-overhead solo professional practice, done mindfully and with some discipline, can be an excellent way to create balanced success in more than just one area of your life. Questions for me or tips of your own? Please find me on twitter @lawyerhutch or at the top of the Northway chair.
Footnote and disclosure: After six years of being a happy Harvest customer, I am now affiliated with the Harvest reseller program. SE Coaching, LLC earns a small commission for the first year of each customer’s subscription who signs up with the code HUTCH. If you sign up with the discount code HUTCH, you receive a 50% discount off your first month with Harvest. You can also give it a trial run for free to make sure it's for you. https://www.getharvest.com/features/time-tracking