The Accidental Workaholic

A thriving business can easily steal all the time you once devoted to other pleasures. You're robbing yourself if you let it

Jill Hamburg Coplan

Q: I have a solo-aquatics physical-therapy practice that's growing quickly. When people (mostly elderly) call to discuss my services, I find I have to give them 20 minutes-plus just to see if what I do would be appropriate for them. Time-consuming follow-up calls not only take me until bedtime -- they often don't even net me any new clients! How can I manage these callers and have time for the rest of my life?

---- G.S., Huntington, N.Y.

A: Before addressing your problem, Judy Feld, a professional coach in Dallas and the editor of SoHoSuccess Letter, wants to pat you on the back. "Recognize what is working well for you in your practice: Interested people are calling you, and that's a good thing," she says.

But how can you avoid being overwhelmed?

If your only problem is fitting the calls into a busy day, the answer may be no more complicated than improving your scheduling strategy. Feld suggests setting aside a few specific, convenient hours in your working week for these time-consuming get-acquainted phone conversations. So start by blocking out an hour for three calls, she says, and limit them to 15 minutes each. "This means when you first call people back, it's just to make an appointment, and that should only take about two minutes," she says. Voilà! Your nights are returned to you.

Another solution might be to develop a bare-bones Web site, Feld suggests. You could then direct callers to the site before your first phone meeting in order to familiarize them with your services. (If your clients are mostly elderly, they're less likely to be wired than younger people, so this may not be practical. All the same, more seniors are online than you might expect.)


  But could your problem be a little deeper than simple time-management? Katherine R. Hutt, owner of "virtual-communications firm" Nautilus Communications in Vienna, Va., and an expert on work/family balance, says it may be worth asking yourself why you've allowed work to creep into your home life. That personal time is too precious to sacrifice lightly, she stresses.

And wasn't the point of working for yourself to gain control over your life -- not give it up to clients all too willing to create chaos? Are these calls really urgent? Can they wait? Are you using them to avoid something at home?

What's perhaps saddest about working too much is the way it limits our range as human beings, says Kevin Sommerville, a PhD psychologist in Denver who runs Sommerville & Co., an organizational consulting firm that works exclusively with New Economy venture capitalists, entrepreneurs whose insular world is a breeding ground for workaholism.


  "A workaholic is a person who cannot get gratification from any other source except work," Sommerville says. "He or she becomes stunted as a human being because of the narrow and exclusive source of their pleasure." Eventually, it becomes "something over which they have little control."

I hope that doesn't sound familiar. But if it does, make a full-faith effort not to let recreation and relaxation disappear. Work can -- and will -- expand infinitely to fill the gap. Don't let the things that give you pleasure -- family, friends, and hobbies -- slip out of your life.

Jill Hamburg Coplan has covered work, family, business, and finance for the past decade as a writer and editor for newspapers, magazines, and wire services. She left Working Woman magazine, where she was senior editor, when her first child was born and now works solo from a home office in Brooklyn, N.Y. You can e-mail her at Jill Hamburg Coplan

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