You’re planning to open your own practice, or already made the jump. Congratulations!
Opening my own consulting practice instead of taking another job was the best business/financial decision I ever made.
In 16 years as an employee (after graduating with my PhD), the small financial progress I was able to make was solely due to serendipity, despite making a very nice salary at my last job. Just making ends meet while raising young kids was hard enough.
The serendipity I mentioned?
First, my dad shared a small bequest from his older sister with my sisters and I. That bumped my net worth (slightly) off the zero mark.
Years later, I sold my first house which had doubled in value over the 5 years I owned it. Most of that gain went into the house we moved into.
Both events were completely unpredictable and out of my control, and neither provided life-changing results.
Then, I opened my own consulting practice and gained control over my results. I could now market my services instead of counting on my employer to find paying work for me. I could also set my own rates, and reap the full benefit of the value I create by helping my clients.
In the 11 years since, I built a very successful practice. My clients appreciate my help, and my bank account appreciates the much higher income.
How Should I Plan My Time? A Deceptively Simple Question
It seems like such a simple question, but it hides others you need to answer first. It reminds me of my favorite version of Murphy’s law, “Inside every small problem is a bigger problem struggling to get out…”
What are these bigger questions struggling to get out?
- What are your financial goals?
- Do you want a solo or group practice?
- Do you want a private-pay-only practice, or do you plan to take insurance?
If you want to pay off student debt, build an emergency fund, save for your kids’ college education, buy a house, and save for a comfortable retirement, you need to build a profitable enough practice to cover your business expenses, taxes, and personal expenses, and still have enough left over to fund all those important goals.
This requires either a large(ish) group practice, or if solo then a successful private-pay-only practice.
Other questions you need to consider have to do with whether you want a full-time practice or one that leaves lots of time for other commitments, and whether this is true just now or ongoingly.
- Are you keeping a full- or part-time job while building your practice and potentially beyond then?
- Do you have other business(es) to run?
- Do you consult/supervise/mentor others?
- What non-work activities do you do (e.g., family, volunteering, leisure activities, etc.)?
Building a Schedule Step by Step
I’ve met clinicians who didn’t blink at the thought of a 9- or 10-session day. In my opinion that’s a highway to burnout, and doesn’t serve your clients either.
Step 1: Don’t Burn Out
Your first step in building a successful schedule is to acknowledge that you’re only human.
Plan on at least 2 (and preferably 4) weeks off per year. Then, if you’re building a full-time practice, take into account that you need to work on the business, not just in the business. Taking on 30 billable hours a week should be your absolute upper limit, with the possible exception of short sprints of more hours for no more than 2-3 weeks.
Personally, I’ve worked on contract proposals that started at full time and went north from there. In one instance, a tight deadline required my working 93 hours in a 4-day period! However, such instances are rare, and must be considered a sprint, not a marathon. Don’t work 60+ hour weeks for months on end.
Also, when you work that many hours on client work, set aside other tasks as much as possible. Paperwork? Put on hold. Marketing? Set on pause. Returning non-emergency emails and phone calls? Wait for a slower time. If you’re sprinting all-out, that’s not the time for a casual conversation.
If you need to work lots of non-billable hours running and growing your business, maintain your sanity by limiting your client hours.
Step 2: Balance Your Schedule
Your second step is to plan your schedule with an eye to balancing different types of effort and using less-draining tasks to recover from draining ones. Here are some crucial dos and don'ts:
- Don’t schedule more than 7 sessions in one day (5 or fewer is better).
- Don’t schedule more than 2-3 back-to-back sessions.
- Don’t schedule more than 2 new clients in one day.
- Do schedule less emotionally draining tasks between sessions (e.g., writing notes, going through your physical mail, answering emails and text messages, etc.).
- Do schedule in time to work on your business, not just client work.
As they say, variety is the spice of life. It’s also helpful to not over-exert your emotional/mental “muscles” before letting them recover.
Once you reach capacity, budget 10-20% of your time for working on the business. This may be higher (up to 100% if you let it) if you manage a large group practice, or smaller if you have a solo consulting practice with one major client and a few smaller ones like mine (I spend about 3-5% of my time on this).
Step 3: Don’t Try to Do It All
As soon as your business budget allows, outsource low-expertise work to admin assistants and/or virtual assistants (VAs). Some tasks a good assistant can take off your hands:
- Answering the phone and returning phone calls
- Bringing in the mail
- Paying the bills
- Shopping for or ordering supplies and setting them out in the waiting area
- Scheduling intake sessions
- Posting on social media
- Research in support of writing blog posts and turning your brief notes into blog posts
There are also specialized tasks you should outsource to professionals, so make sure you budget for them:
- Drafting contracts and forms (pay an attorney, don’t copy from other practices)
- Bookkeeping and accounting
- Payroll processing
- Billing (if you take insurance)
- Office cleaning and maintenance
Step 4: Set Time Aside for Non-Work Tasks
We’re all human. Each of us has the same 24 hours in a day, and we all put on our pants one leg at a time. This means you have to make sure you can take care of non-work stuff, just like everyone else.
- Pick up the kids from school and get them to their extra-curricular activities
- Make sure they do their homework and chores
- Walk the dog
- Clean the house and take care of the yard
- Get the oil changed in the car
- Shop for groceries
- Be at home to let the exterminator/cable guy/electrician/handyman in
If your work schedule requires it and your finances allow it, you can outsource a lot of these too (preferably not the first two). Try to schedule light days or days off from the practice to take care of as many of these as possible.
The Bottom Line: Putting It All Together
After considering personal tasks, other businesses, and/or consulting/supervising/mentoring activities, decide how many weekly hours you want to and can dedicate to your practice without burning out.
Budget 10-20% or so of those hours for working on the business to ensure things continue to run smoothly, and new clients continue to call. For example, if you want to work a total of 30 weekly hours in and on your solo practice, target a maximum of 25 weekly client sessions.
When you’re just starting out, your caseload will be much lighter than your (e.g., 25-session) target. Use all those extra hours to grow your practice by, e.g., networking; crafting and refining your profile on Psychology Today and/or other online directories; posting on social media; creating Facebook, Google, and/or Bing ads; building and improving your website; booking and executing speaking engagements; etc.
As your caseload grows, gradually ease back on non-client hours, but keep that 10-20% of practice hours for working on the business.
If you build a group practice, shift the balance toward more managing and supervising hours and fewer client sessions. Invest your time in building systems, developing processes, and training your assistants (virtual or in-person) and associates.
That will let you offload low-expertise tasks and most client work so you can concentrate on growing the business, including continued networking, planning your marketing, and developing overall strategy for your staff to execute.
Business coaches will tell you that your goal should be to “fire yourself” from your business. If you can create robust enough systems and technology, and hire reliable enough staff, your practice will keep humming along without you there. The closer you get to this goal, the more freedom you’ll have. Conversely, fail to do it, and you’ll remain a slave to your business.
This article is intended for informational purposes only, and should not be considered financial or legal advice. You should consult a relevant professional before making any major decisions.