Hitting Pause or Stopping?

Sometimes it’s hard to know when to let go… of a creative endeavor, a personal goal, or a work project that requires effort and commitment. It’s not always clear when to quit it or when to stick with it. It’s not easy to choose between hitting pause (to get back to it later) and stopping (to perhaps never get back to it).

I have random questions come up when I’m at such a crossroad. How do I sort through what matters most? Does the dream of completing a particular project serve me or is it toxic to hold on to it? When is it more critical to rest and reflect, than to work harder and hustle more? 

In 2019, I took a long hiatus from blogging on personal productivity. This took a back seat to running my thriving law practice, writing commentaries on U.S. immigration topics, and coaching lawyers on legal ethics and wellness issues, as well as cultivating better sleep habits, connecting with friends, and spending quality time with my family (which now includes two very young kids, a 1st grader and a toddler). 

It was not until last month that I finally got around to publishing articles again on dyanwilliams.com. Besides this one, there are two more: Staying Solo Successfully and When to quit (or stick)

When I launched the blog in July 2012, I wrote and published a lot more regularly, sometimes up to four articles per week. Back then, I was not a parent, I did not have a solo law practice, and I had way fewer responsibilities. Those were the days when I practiced yoga for an hour and savored tea in the morning. Now I’m lucky if I get 15 minutes of yoga time before my kids wake up and a quick gulp of tea before we start the day as a family.  

Currently, I run three blogs. The Legal Immigrant is a lead generator that significantly establishes my authority, attracts ideal clients and ranks high on search engine results for U.S. immigration solutions. The Ethical Lawyer is convenient for housing articles that accompany presentations and talks I do on legal ethics and wellness issues for lawyers, which is a secondary practice.

The personal productivity blog is the one I hit pause on the longest because it’s more of a creative endeavor. And like most unnecessary creating projects, it often gets overlooked while I’m dealing with daily necessaries and things that pay and have target completion dates or strict deadlines.

Over the last couple years, I’ve thought about shutting down the blog. Or just forget about updating it with fresh content. But around this time of the year (fall season or the fourth quarter), I begin to really miss writing for the blog. Then I’ll put out a few articles and say to myself that I’ll be more consistent next year.

Unless I commit to a regular blogging schedule or somehow monetize the blog, there is unlikely to be weekly or even monthly publishing. I do, however, expect to keep posting articles here as long I have something helpful to say to subscribers and readers and I enjoy sharing my thoughts, ideas and observations through blog posts. Truth be told, I find this more fun and rewarding than binge watching Netflix shows.

In his first book, The Accidental Creative: How to Be Brilliant at a Moment’s Notice, Todd Henry discusses the value and importance of Unnecessary Creating. He writes:

“It’s tempting to resist this technique because we think it will add stress to our lives – yet another thing we have to cram into our schedule. But the experience of those who incorporate this practice is quite different. They find that it actually clarifies their thoughts, makes them more efficient, and reintroduces a level of passion for their on-demand creating. In addition, our Unnecessary Creating is often the best source of new insights for our on-demand creative work.”

As I write this article, I’m getting close to celebrating Thanksgiving Day and will soon begin planning for 2020 (the start of a new decade!). While there are work projects left undone and personal goals still unmet, I appreciate the deliberate choices I did make and the meaningful work I did complete. 

There are limits on your time, energy and attention. From a survival standpoint, it makes sense to prioritize the time-sensitive projects that pay the bills. But to truly flourish and thrive – after basic needs are met –  there has to be some unnecessary creating. Otherwise, you risk facing unbearable boredom or complete burnout.

You might not have a full hour every week to engage with your creative endeavor. But you can always carve out at least 15 minutes a day to get small doses or to make tiny progress. Or start with one minute and see where that leads. And don’t beat yourself up if you don’t make time for it right away.  You’ll eventually experience creative stagnation and will act on that not-going-away awesome idea, one way or the other.

When unnecessary creating draws you away from daily necessaries and serious projects, you put it in sleep mode rather than shut it down. You can hit pause for the time being instead of stop it altogether. Just get back to it, even if it’s only once or twice a year when you could really use a creative boost.

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Photo by: adonyig

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 or any in-person meetings. I charge for my authority and expertise in (usually complex, low-supply, high-demand) 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 all of that. While taking these steps could boost your revenue and make your business seem more “legitimate”, they come with a higher cost and possibly more stress. Building a bigger business won’t necessarily create more time for sipping mai tais on a tropical beach, going on a yoga retreat, or taking solo “think weeks” in a cabin in the woods (like Bill Gates).

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?

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, delegation 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, has multiple physical locations, 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