Staying Solo Successfully

On October 20, I celebrated my fifth year as a solo lawyer at Dyan Williams Law PLLC. While purists might argue it’s not a real “law firm” — since it has no full-time staff and runs on a virtual office platform — I am staying solo successfully.

At this point, I still have no desire to hire my first employee, take out a business loan for growth and expansion, or rent an office space for clients and prospects to stop by and see me whenever they please.

I work with skilled, independent professionals who help me on a project basis without constant check-ins. I focus on a select group of clients instead of attend to the masses. I avoid lease payments for an office space by using technology to attract and communicate with clients who don’t need regular face-to-face meetings. I charge for my authority and expertise in (usually complex, low-supply) niche areas instead of bill by the hour (which punishes higher productivity and rewards longer work hours).

Although there are things I could do in my business to improve it or to stretch further beyond my comfort zone, I am grateful for the clientele it reaches, the flexibility it allows, and the income it generates. At least in today’s economic climate, I get to choose the clients I want to work with and the matters I want to take on.

On most days, I am making progress on projects and completing tasks that are my top priorities. I spend fewer days putting out fires and getting overwhelmed with distractions and interruptions. I enjoy working mostly from my home office, and occasionally at the local library or in a favorite coffee shop. And I have generated a sustainable income that has eliminated the biggest fear I had when I started my solo practice, i.e. becoming unemployable.

The setup I have is a dream-come-true. It is ideal for someone, like me, who hates daily commutes to work, prefers deep thinking over group discussions, and is more interested in having a higher take-home pay (with fewer expenses) than in generating a higher gross revenue (with bigger expenses.)

There is no shame in keeping your business small. Before you start expanding by leasing your first office space or moving to a bigger one, hiring more employees, increasing your client caseload, etc., think about whether you really want that. While taking these steps could boost your revenue and make your business seem more “legitimate”, they come with a high cost and possibly more stress.

Are you prepared to hire and fire people? Do you have the skillset or desire to mentor, lead, train and manage a staff? Do you want to pour more attention on building your ideal team versus serving your ideal client? Are you inclined to take on a wider variety of matters rather than niche down on your top areas of interest? Have you factored in how you will maintain cash flow with additional costs? Did you consider virtual assistants, automation tools, or other such options?

If you’re a solopreneur who thinks scaling up or achieving success requires rapid and unchecked growth, read Paul Jarvis’ Company of One: Why Staying Small Is the Next Big Thing for Business.  A company of one can involve teamwork and collaboration, have systems and procedures, and generate a high net income. You don’t necessarily need to grow your business to one that hires a full-time staff or can be sold in the end.

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While there’s nothing wrong with wanting to or striving to build a bigger business, it’s not right for everyone or right in any season or stage of your life.

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Photo by: jdesroc

When to quit (or stick)

Grit is essential to persisting in the face of challenges, sticking with your goals, and making your ideal future a reality. It is the best predictor of success, notes pioneering psychologist Angela Duckworth in her bestselling book and viral TED talk, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. But equally important is knowing when to quit and cut your losses at the right time.

Grinding away, putting in more effort, and exercising patience can be a waste of time, energy and attention. Sometimes you actually need to stop, step back, and head in another direction. Giving up when you can’t change unfavorable circumstances frees you to try other things that might work just as well, if not better. Rather than settle for mediocrity in a field that requires your weakest skills, you can strive for excellence in an area that demands your strongest assets and deepest interests.

Earlier this year, I read Seth Godin’s The Dip: A Little Book that Teaches You When to Quit (and When to Stick). I stumbled across this 2007 classic at the local library and finished it in one sitting on a Saturday afternoon. (It really is a little book.)

Godin says there are three types of curves in every endeavor:

The Dip is the long slog between starting and mastering. Pushing through, working harder, and increasing your effort when you’re in the dip – when most people would prefer to give up – lead to positive results. You become an expert by moving through the dip.

The Cul-de-sac is the dead end. These include jobs, projects, and activities that create no significant progress or meaningful outcome, no matter how hard you work or how much effort you invest. The cul-de-sac has no dip and is usually boring from the get-go.

The Cliff is an uphill curve with a steep plunge downwards. You move up with more effort and harder work, but there is a sudden drop-off at the end. The cliff has no dip and is exciting only for a while.

Godin writes: “Sometimes we get discouraged and turn to inspirational writing, like stuff from Vince Lombardi: ‘Quitters never win and winners never quit.’ Bad advice. Winners quit all the time. They just quit the right stuff at the right time.”

Here are 3 questions to ask yourself when deciding when to quit or stick with it:

Am I in a cul-de-sac or on a cliff or in the dip?

Giving up can feel a lot like failing, even when it’s necessary to achieve success or drop energy-depleting, non-essential activity.

Persistence can shift to pestering. Perseverance becomes delusion. Commitment turns to compulsion.

If something seems misaligned, too boring or too good to be true, take a pause and figure out whether you’re in a cul-de-sac or on a cliff. Research the industry. Talk to people you trust. Track your progress and review your results.

An example of a cul-de-sac is a profession where your core values and beliefs are incompatible with your work environment, rewards system or organizational culture that is firmly established or resistant to change.

A cliff is like a toxic relationship that can provide fleeting moments of fun and adventure, but is one you won’t regret ending once you have the guts to sever it.

If you stay too long on a dead-end path or on an uphill curve with a sudden drop-off, you end up with unnecessary failure and high sunk costs. Quit as soon as you can. And don’t continue an effort just because you’ve already invested tons of resources in it. Instead, consider the opportunity costs and tradeoffs.

On the other hand, if you’re in a dip, you need to avoid quitting just to relieve temporary discomfort or short-term pain. Abandon a worthwhile endeavor only when you have thoughtfully chosen to do so. Such strategic quitting is different from reactive or serial quitting, which is the root cause of many failures.

Am I willing to slog through the dip?

Becoming number one in your market, achieving a successful outcome or hitting your target goal means you will need to push through the dip. If you’re not willing to do what it takes to get through it, it’s wise to quit. You can always come back to the project when you are able to prioritize it, invest the resources, and make time for it.

Before the dip starts, think about how much time and energy you are willing to invest and how much discomfort and pain you will take on to move through it. If the actual levels surpass your expectations, weigh the challenges against the potential benefits and then decide whether to quit or stick.

Consider quitting when your current efforts are distracting you from what you should really focus on and master.

Am I doing this thing just for (or mostly for) fun?

Big successes come from moving through the dip and keeping the long game in mind. But the three curves are not a concern if you’re just trying something out and loving it. Start the creative project, take the next step, finish or fail, and learn from your mistakes.

The full-time accountant doesn’t have to shut down her Etsy shop just because it provides only a little extra income. The pianist who plays for fun doesn’t have to give up on composing and recording songs even if she will never sell her music. The weekend welder who makes tables and chairs for family and friends doesn’t have to become a top industry professional.

No one has to see it, buy it, or talk about it for you to have permission to stick with it. If it’s a hobby or calling you enjoy, don’t quit just because you can’t (or have yet to) make loads of money from it.

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It’s okay to accept mediocrity at the outset. To cut yourself some slack. To not be exceptional. At least in the beginning, most of us fall in the middle of the bell curve. With this premise, you will be more inclined to push through the dip instead of quit when you’re in it. 

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Photo by: Seth Godin

Why Analog Beats Digital for Focusing Your Mind and Getting in the Zone

When it comes to focusing your mind and getting in the zone, a paper-based productivity system is more effective than a digital solution. With so many digital apps to choose from in our high-tech world, it might be hard to believe that a paper planner or everyday notebook is all you really need to create your ideal day.

Among the popular productivity apps are Things, Omnifocus, Todoist and Evernote. Highly recommended web-based applications that facilitate team collaboration include Asana, Basecamp, Trello and Nozbe. Digital devices like your smartphone are also good for setting timers and reminder alerts.

A paper-based productivity system lacks certain features that make it hard to do away with digital technology. But putting pen to paper is a tried-and-true method for maximizing focus, staying on task, and taking steps toward achieving long-term objectives. For personal productivity, analog beats digital in several ways.

1. Reduces overcommitment 

According to Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, author of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, “Flow is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity.” Flow is complete absorption in what one does and is often referred to as being in the zone.

Digital apps – due to their sheer efficiency – make you more susceptible to overextending your to-do list and striving to do too much with limited time, energy and attention.  Work overload can lead to high stress, chronic fatigue, health problems, and burnout.

Having finite space in a paper planner and writing by hand create inconvenience that, in the long run, raises productivity. You need to prioritize well to fit your list of most important tasks and responsibilities on the page. Instead of pushing yourself to do more than what is humanly possible, you get to carefully choose what you can realistically accomplish.

The analog approach makes it easier to gain clarity on your goals and stay connected with your decisions. A smaller, curated list of priorities helps you to focus your attention and reach a state of flow.

2. Encourages deliberate review

While a digital tool can make automatic updates and allow drag and drop, paper planning forces you to manually migrate unfinished tasks to another day.  Analog tools increase your awareness of when you’re procrastinating or planning poorly.

Handwriting involves more conscious effort to postpone start dates, reschedule meetings and reallocate time slots for activities. As a result, the analog method prompts you to quit delaying tasks that need to get done or drop insignificant ones that aren’t worth your time.

An analog productivity system not only allows you to organize the present and plan for the future, but also keeps a record of your past.  Flipping through pages tends to be a more pleasant tactile experience than scrolling through to review your progress and accomplishments and reflect on struggles and challenges. Compared to swiping, tapping and staring into a screen, reviewing your paper planner is more relaxing and meditative.

3. Improves learning and retention

The physical act of writing down your priorities, goals and commitments on paper make them more real and memorable.  Recording your observations and ideas in a notebook brings calm, joy and presence that cannot be replicated when typing into a digital app.

Studies show that using pen and paper, not a laptop or tablet, helps you to amp up your brainpower, extrapolate thoughts, retain and interpret concepts, and recall key information. In their research article, The Pen is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking, professors Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer concluded that laptop note takers’ tendency to transcribe lectures verbatim rather than process information and reframe it in their own words is detrimental to learning.

If you want to be an active participant and mindful listener at a meeting, workshop, conference or lecture, you’re better off with analog tools than with digital solutions.

4. Blocks out distractions

Unlike digital apps, a paper planner cannot ping you with appointment reminders and to-do alerts. But this disadvantage is also what gives analog an edge over digital. When you get on your smartphone or computer to organize your day, you have ready access to online articles, videos, social media, text messages, emails, and other distractions that you do not have with analog systems. Navigating digital productivity tools often leads to distractions that fuels ineffective multitasking and reduces steady, focused progress on your most important tasks.

A paper planner encourages you to single task and stay with one important thing until you are finished or at least until you have made significant progress. The analog method doesn’t require special apps to block out time-sucking websites and social media when you need to think and work deeply.  It doesn’t come with inherent distractions to steal your time and attention whenever you feel frustrated or bored with a project.

Intense concentration on one appropriately challenging task gets you in the zone.  Analog tools encourage you to focus on one priority at a time, rather than switch from one shiny new object to another.

5. Provides simplicity

Different apps serve different purposes, such as calendaring events, scheduling appointments, and making to-do lists. There are hundreds of digital apps to choose from and updated versions being released constantly. You also have to be tech-savvy and patient enough to learn how to use the features.

With good old fashioned pen and paper, you spare yourself from the complexities involved in a digital productivity system. Paper planners provide a simpler, easy-to-use, multifunctional alternative. You could have one main notebook to serve all your planning needs. A smaller travel notebook may be kept for capturing information on the go.

You could try highly popular planners such as the Bullet Journal Notebook, LEUCHTTURM 1917, the Moleskine Classic Hard Cover 2019 12 Month Daily Planner, the Self Journal (13-week layout), and Michael Hyatt’s Full Focus Planner (90-day planner), or even the less trendy At-A-Glance Daily Planner – Plan.Write.Remember (which I chose for listing to-dos, setting priorities, tracking time, recording activities, and calendaring appointments, meetings and events in 2019).

Things that I look for in a planner are single-day pages that include an hour-by-hour calendar to record activities and events, a section to list my top priorities or to-dos, and space to make note of highlights and challenges. You might want different things, such as inspirational quotes, a designated area for goal review, or undated pages that give you more flexibility. Choose a planner that you will actually use and meets your specific requirements.

Analog to-do list systems that you can adopt include Ryder Caroll’s Bullet Journal Method, Chris Kyle’s Strikethru and the decades-old Ivy Lee Method. You may also create your own method or modify existing ones to suit your personal preferences and needs.

For instance, while I don’t subscribe to the entire Bullet Journal system, I like its use of symbols (e.g. events are marked with an open circle “O” bullet) and signifiers (e.g. priority is marked with an asterisk * to the left of the bullet).  Symbols visually characterize the entries and signifiers give them additional context (e.g. *O Call Tom to follow up on business proposal.)

Hybrid Approach usually works best, but full analog beats full digital for personal productivity

Digital solutions offer advantages that analog tools do not. They make information searchable, shareable, easier to organize and reorganize, and available for backup storage. They also provide automatic alerts on meetings, deadlines and other time-sensitive events.

A hybrid approach that combines digital and analog offers the best of both worlds. Personally, I use an online calendar and my iPhone to calendar events, set appointments and schedule meetings. I like to use them as backup systems with auto alerts. The information also goes into my paper planner, which I use daily.

To stay on track with daily must-dos, reserve time blocks for specific tasks, and make steady progress on big projects, I rely more heavily on the analog approach. If I had to choose between the two, I would go with full analog, not full digital, to plan a productive day.

A paper planner encourages you to do daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly and yearly reviews (purposefully), while digital information is more out of sight, out of mind. Digital apps also pull you toward mindless distractions and trivial options that waste your time.

Overall, analog beats digital when you need to focus your mind, keep on track with important tasks, and get in the zone while working on your highest priorities.

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Photo by: Nietjuh