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Nothing But the Ruth!

Working on Not Being a Workaholic

By Ruth Carter

Nobody becomes a lawyer to work themselves to death. Breaking workaholic habits isn’t easy, but it can save you from burnout or worse. Here are seven steps for working smarter.

No one lays on their deathbed wishing they could have worked more hours. Their regrets are about the things they didn’t do, trips they didn’t take, and loved ones they didn’t spend more time with.

Left to my own devices, I will be a workaholic. I have trouble saying no to opportunities, which often are a setup for an avalanche of work and unachievable goals, all of which I brought on myself.

Doing the Work to Save Me From My Workaholic Self

I’ve learned from a recovered workaholic lawyer that this lifestyle is not sustainable, and I’m taking steps to save me from my workaholic self.

1. Work Smarter, Not Harder

I’m an entrepreneur in an eat-what-you-kill work environment. I’ve learned the hard way that my billed hours are less important than the collected accounts receivable. It doesn’t matter if I bill $10,000 if the client doesn’t pay their invoice.

In July 2022, I set my financial goals for the remainder of the year, and they included a goal for how much I wanted to bill and how much I wanted to collect. (It’s the same amount for both!) As a result, I’ve become diligent about tracking who’s paid last month’s invoice, and if they haven’t, I only do work that’s absolutely necessary (like forwarding documents received as my client’s statutory agent) until their bill is paid. If they don’t make a payment for more than 30 days, I start charging interest.

I’m done working for free (except for my pro bono clients, of course). We teach our clients what behavior we will accept, and mine are learning where I stand on their payment.

Don’t worry, I’m not a completely heartless bitch. My delinquent clients know that I’ll waive the interest as long as they pay something every month and I’ll work with them to create a payment plan.

2. Work for My “Enough” Number

Entrepreneurs Jason and Caroline Zook taught me about the Enough Number. This is the number of how much you need to bring in each month to sustain your life. Your Enough Number is more than the minimum you need to cover basic monthly expenses. It can cover things like eating out, doing things with friends, contributing to a retirement account and saving for a vacation. The Enough Number is personal to you and based on your short- and long-term goals.

I know my Enough Number (well, close enough), and it doesn’t require me to work myself to death every day. To achieve this, I broke down my financial goal for the remainder of the year by month and divided it by the number of days I’ll be doing client work. I have the minimum I want to bill each day and give myself permission to stop working once I hit that amount. Of course, I’ll work longer if there’s a deadline or it makes sense to work a bit longer and knock out a task that’s nearly done.

3. Work Without Distractions

Early on in my career, I learned the best way for me to be productive is to put my phone where I can’t see or hear it. That way I won’t be distracted by calls, lights or notifications. I’m like a dog every time it lights up or makes noise – squirrel!

One of the best things I did to manage my stress recently was to remove email notifications from my phone. I can still check my email — when I decide to open the app. It’s much easier to review my emails a handful of times each day instead of feeling compelled to see what’s there whenever the icon pops up.

4. Work Without Guilt

In late September, I made a declaration that no one could schedule a meeting with me for the next week. I was feeling overwhelmed by client work and needed to take control of my time and my calendar.

Looking for validation, I asked an online lawyer community if they have a rule about scheduling. One of the first people to respond said, “No … because I want to be responsive to my clients and colleagues.”

Ouch. That made me feel guilty.

Then I thought, “No. This is what I need to do to take care of myself and my current obligations. They can do what works for them, but I need to do what’s right for me.”

Heading into the last week of September, I had no client meetings. If someone asked to meet with me, I said my earliest opening was in the first week of October. No one complained or seemed to mind. Setting that boundary gave me the space I needed to get caught up and work without major interruptions.

5. Work With a System

It turned out that first response was the outlier. Other lawyers responded that had systems in place regarding their time and availability. One said they never schedule meetings on Friday afternoon or on a Monday. Another said prospective new clients cannot schedule an appointment for at least seven days after contacting the firm for the first time. Others block out time on their calendars where they’re solely working on client matters and unavailable for meetings.

Thank goodness I’m not the only lawyer who needs to set hard boundaries in their professional life!

Many of the lawyers recommended using Calendly where clients can book meetings with them, and they can customize their availability.

I’ve used a variety of systems over the years to help myself be organized and productive. There was the two to-do lists per-day system that helped me set reasonable expectations for what I could accomplish, and of course, there was my infamous Wall of Pain.

Since my car accident last year (and resulting memory issues), I’ve traded tactics for a comprehensive spreadsheet. It lists all of my open matters, where I left off the last time I worked on it, the tasks that need to be completed, and any hard deadlines I need to meet. I put an asterisk next to clients who are more than 30 days late in paying their invoices, so I know not to do more than what I’m ethically obligated to do until they pay. 

6. Work Is Not an Excuse to Neglect Yourself

It’s easy to see the value in client work: do work, get paid. It’s difficult to remember that not working on myself is a form of self-neglect.

Since gamifying my life seems to work for me, I’ve declared Get Your Sh*t Done November. I made a list of 30 tasks that I’ve either been putting off (like balancing my checkbook) or historically have difficulty doing (like writing blog posts). None of these tasks are client work.

I don’t have to do one task each day. They just have to get done by the end of the month.

7. Less Work, More Play

It’s been 11 months since I started volunteering every Monday at Aimee’s Farm Animal Sanctuary and limiting client work to four days a week. I love this farm. It’s a healing place for animals and humans alike.

When I’m at the farm sanctuary, I get a complete break from client work. I can’t think about my clients because working around farm animals forces you to stay in the moment. Farm chores can be hard work, but it comes with a lot of laughter. It also comes with the satisfaction of knowing that what you did mattered that day (like cleaning up the goats’ pen where, every morning, it looks like they had a frat party the night before, or standing guard so the timid pig can eat his breakfast without other animals pushing him away from his bowl).

Work to Live, Don’t Live to Work

Brene Brown says, “If you don’t want to burn out, stop living like you’re on fire.” This has become a mantra in my life. Whenever I start to feel overwhelmed by the number of things on my plate, or if I hear of an opportunity that would be fun but I don’t have the bandwidth to take on, I remember this quote.

It takes work for me not to be a workaholic, but making these changes is essential to prevent the next burnout or worse. I didn’t become a lawyer to work myself to death. I did it to have the freedom to live the life I’ve always wanted.

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Ruth B. Carter Ruth Carter

Ruth Carter — lawyer, writer and professional speaker — is Of Counsel with Venjuris, focusing on intellectual property, business, internet and flash mob law. Named an ABA Journal Legal Rebel, Ruth is the author of “The Legal Side of Blogging for Lawyers,” as well as “Flash Mob Law: The Legal Side of Planning and Participating in Pillow Fights, No Pants Rides, and Other Shenanigans.” Ruth blogs at UndeniableRuth.com and tweets @rbcarter.

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