After 10 months as a solo practice owner, I decided to take the big leap of starting a group practice. I was on an entrepreneurial high—seeing opportunities, calculating risks, making big decisions, and full of ideas. Exciting times! I was transforming a vision into reality.
Getting stuck in
Using a giant marker board one night, my husband (who is also my business partner) drew a blueprint of our new office space with full diagrams of furnishings, budgets, dream pieces, possible locations to buy furnishings, prices, and measurements. We had three weeks to fully furnish three therapy offices, a reception area, a waiting area, and a bathroom. I was also in the thick of hiring my first independent contractor therapists, consulting with my attorney and my accountant and changing my contact information with each insurance company I work with. During those early months, I looked for the best advice and found Allison Pigeon’s advice on starting a group practice and hiring to be unbelievably helpful.
Running at full tilt
In a few weeks, we built a website, set up a marketing campaign, and set up a networking plan. I fielded every call, answered every e-mail, collected insurance information, and set up intakes. And: I was still seeing a full load of clients with more referrals than I could handle.
I went from having a fairly normal work-life balance to working like a maniac and problem-solving in my sleep. To be clear, I didn’t have the most happening social life prior to starting my practice. However, I spent regular time with my spouse, attended services with a faith community, hosted potlucks and girls’ nights, and made playdates happen for my kids. I enjoyed running into people in our small town as my way of keeping up with their lives.
It all happened so fast
Nearly overnight I was consumed by the responsibility of the new practice. I told myself I was “temporarily” taking a break from all social gatherings. Despite being an extrovert and fairly socially adept, my brain was so overloaded that I struggled to talk with other parents at school pickup. When others asked how I was doing, I just went blank or lapsed into that over-used status report we all use: Things have been crazy busy. I started to avoid people I knew for years because I didn’t know how to relate. I stopped inviting friends over for the occasional bonfire or BBQ. My phone was buzzing constantly for work, but socially, I felt alone and isolated. I hadn’t invested in my friendships and they seem to have gotten the hint. People more or less quit calling and texting.
Luckily, my spouse and I formed an awesome business partnership, accomplishing many things in a small amount of time. However, our conversations started to trend toward work and our personal relationship drifted. We couldn’t afford to take the time to go out for dinner or the occasional movie. My faith community was unbelievably supportive, sending me referral after referral, making me feel loved and valued. However, my experience in that community changed and I found myself surrounded by clients in what I felt needed to be a very personal space. Furthermore, my clients didn’t always enjoy seeing me no matter how discrete I was. They needed to worship without being reminded of their problems. I further isolated, putting my need for a faith community on hold.
Of course, any serious scale-up is going to bring temporary periods of intense work. I know that this intensity is to be expected. However, I also know that as entrepreneurs, we can start to normalize these seasons as a new way of life, a “new normal.” A few months ago, I added walking back into my routine and used this time to ask myself these questions: Who do I want to be? What kind of friend do I want to be? How can I re-connect with those I have distanced myself from?
And this is how I went from feeling socially isolated to finding a meaningful connection again
1. Hired help
I hired a great administrative assistant to take some tasks off of my plate and made sure to hire someone I could be “real” with, a person who will let me be myself, not just “the boss.” Taking some things off of my plate started to give me space and mental energy to re-invest in my family.
2. Goal setting
I set the goal to go on a one-week vacation without answering phones or communicating with clients. This meant that I needed to make sure that systems were in place for things to work smoothly without me. I remember listening to Joe’s interview with Mike Michalowicz on the Practice of the Practice Podcast. I ordered his book Clockwork immediately and read it in a few sittings, making up my mind that I would build a business from ground zero that can start to operate without me. Also, I took my vacation, and it turns out that I’m not as “necessary” as I thought because I have a great team and systems in place to manage referrals, intakes, authorizations, and ongoing client needs. I took the time to build the system—and actually did a pretty good job—but was so maniacal about working that I almost forgot to test it out.
3. Train for a half marathon
I decided to train for a half-marathon. After listening to Kelly Higdon on the Practice of the Practice Podcast: How to Calibrate your Year, I realized that I need to curb my tendencies toward workaholism. So I found a hobby! Certain activities help each of us to clear our minds of clutter and process emotions that stagnate in our bodies as therapists. Running is my go-to. Yours might be sewing, kayaking, or walking your dog. I use my running time to practice mindfulness and don’t take calls or check e-mails on runs. It’s my break away from the world. At first, I struggled to get a mile in before resting, but then began to rebuild my endurance. I’ve been surprised to find that running has allowed me to clear my mind enough to engage in small talk again and to make an effort to connect with the friendships I experience as life-giving. This year my husband decided to join me in my training.
4. Prioritize relationships
I made a list of priority relationships to focus on. I might not be able to volunteer at the elementary school or coordinate play dates; however, I’ve identified some core friendships that I’d like to cultivate along with prioritizing my spouse and children. We invite friends over for take-out when we can and my husband and I have made it a point to put date night back on the calendar with the rule that we are not allowed to talk about the business.
5. Signed up for Killin’It Camp
I signed up for Killin’ It Camp this coming October and I’m looking forward to connecting to other practice owners who are facing some of the same struggles. We are not alone! I can’t wait to meet other therapists and business owners who are bravely chasing big ideas to make a difference in the world.
Light at the end of the tunnel
I was on a train headed to burnout after the start-up of my group practice. Work had taken over and seeped into every moment of my day. It was time to restore some balance and let go of my intense work habits. My social life is still small, limited to a few friends and a few activities. But I’m back on the track toward friendship and connection, setting myself up for a more sustainable future as a practice-owner and, more importantly, as a human being.
Susan M. Doak is a licensed professional counselor and the owner of Newberg Counseling & Wellness, a private practice in beautiful Newberg, Oregon. Her practice provides experienced support for people in seasons of change, teens and parents. When she is not with clients, she enjoys dancing with her kids, hiking, gardening and making pies.