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Home / Expert Testimony / Solo Contendere: Work and not-work – is it time for a hard reset?

Solo Contendere: Work and not-work – is it time for a hard reset?

The word right now is “madness.” It’s the kickoff (as it were) of the NCAA basketball tournament — an all-day, every day event through the weekend. Sixty-four (actually, 68) teams from around the country are competing to be college basketball’s No. 1, and that means that wherever you’re from, there’s somebody in the tournament that you’re rooting for.

Every year, employers note a significant drop in employee productivity around this time. The proliferation of mobile devices and streaming games has only boosted this trend. Even though the games started at 11 a.m., everyone is watching. Even causal basketball fans get into creating brackets and watching a few games, and for die-hards, March Madness is life.

I’ll be watching too, from home and from the office. I have Arizona, in case you’re curious, but it’s always nice to root for the little guy. That’s the best part about March Madness. Every year, there’s some young, upstart team who upsets a big name in college hoops. It’s that year’s “Cinderella Story.”

As a solo, I can relate. I like those storylines; seeing institutions upended by the scrappy team from wherever. Will it be Northwestern, in their first ever trip to the tournament? Possibly. Notre Dame? It’s hard to bet against the Irish on St. Patrick’s Day. But at a No. 5 seed, they’re hardly the underdogs. I don’t know who it’s going to be this year. But I do know that I’m going to be watching.

The same news story that runs every year through multiple outlets always reports a drop in business productivity around this time, while in the same breath reporting the benefits of allowing employees to stream the games at work. Mostly, the coverage is about the boost to employee morale. Everyone’s going to be watching anyway, so allowing employees to watch some of the games at work (without worrying about getting caught) is a low-cost way for employers to improve job satisfaction.

Solo attorneys don’t have that problem. We have the opposite problem, really. One of the greatest benefits of being your own boss is the ability to set your own schedule, and if you like, stream the games in your office while you are working. Or stream the games in your office and not work. Or don’t go to work entirely, and watch the games from the comfort of your couch. But the greatest benefits also come with the greatest drawbacks: we have the ability to stream games while working, or stream games while not working, or not go into the office at all.

The blurred lines between work and not-work has been one of the biggest struggles for me. It’s not so much the whole work/life balance thing, at least not quite. It’s not even about efficiency and the ethics of billing practices when you’re working with less than one hundred percent of your attention on the task at hand. No, the problem is that when your clients have your mobile number and want to call you up on weekends or at 10:00 at night, or when you can go into the office in gym clothes (or at 10:00 at night), work never seems quite like work, and home never seems quite like home. So it’s not so much work/life balance or efficiency as the problem that there is no real distinction between the two.

Don’t get me wrong. I love the fact that I can work from home in my PJs if I want, or take an afternoon off to watch a Saints game in the summer without asking anyone’s permission. And when the job requires it, I’m happy to work through the weekends or late at night. I’m less happy, but still willing, to take calls while I’m out with friends or even on vacation. It’s the yin to the yang of those summer afternoons off. But it does take a toll.

There are plenty of people who believe that, to keep your mindset right, everyone (even solos) should keep regular office hours, in the office, suited up. I understand that philosophy, but I’m not one of them. On the days when you’re just holed up in your office for 10 hours reviewing the latest batch of discovery or drafting a summary judgment motion, I think artificial constraints on time and dress are counter-productive. Maybe you want to keep working on something late into the night, because you’re on a roll and don’t want to lose the rhythm of your writing. And maybe you would feel like being in a suit when you’re just going to be researching all day would just add to your discomfort and distract from your work. I’m okay with that. But I think the professionalism principle behind the suited-up, office-hour ideals is not wholly wrong, either.

Work should feel like work. A Saturday should feel like a Saturday. So it’s OK to go into work on a Saturday even when you don’t have to, simply because you want a start on a busy week. And it’s OK to stream the tournament at your office, if you don’t have too much other work to do. But if the two are starting to blur together, it’s time for a hard reset. Take a week or two and go into your office by 8 and leave by 5. Wear a suit even if you’re not meeting clients, and set your phone down when you leave even if it’s a valuable client. Remind yourself that whether or not they are balanced, work and life are two different things. The office is work. March Madness is life.

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