HM Insights

All work and no play – cultivating other interests

Stephen Vallance is a member of the HM Connect team at Harper Macleod, supporting high street and rural law firms throughout Scotland. Having set up and sold his own law firm, Stephen has gone on to be an entrepreneur, author, educator and all round guru in the business of law. Throughout lockdown, Stephen took the time to share some insights which could be of value in our businesses and lives.

Following on from my piece on the importance of good mental health, I thought I'd like to address the very real benefits of cultivating interests outwith the office. There are a number of reasons why I believe it's so important, not least of which it will allow me to talk about my current favourite subject, van conversions, before the end of this piece.


We all know the old adage 'all work and no play' but it doesn't only make Jack a dull boy it probably also stops him achieving his full potential. For many of us, work could perhaps be compared to exercising one small group of muscles over and over again, day after day. Imagine the cramps that would cause if all you did was one movement over and over for hours on end. Remember how exhausted we often are when our day becomes focussed on just a few repetitive tasks.

That may have been even more pronounced over lockdown as the distractions of client and colleague meetings have been substantially reduced. For most of us, at the very least, moving away from our home desks to make a coffee or to go for a lunchtime walk has become essential.

To continue the exercise analogy, for any muscle to grow it needs three things. It needs to be stressed, it needs to recover and it needs to adapt/improve. Working hard is great, but without the relaxation there is no recovery and in turn no improvement. Take it from a man who spent most of his 30s exercising to excess: that is an addiction not a road to excellence. The same is true for our careers; just working hard can often become an end in itself, driven simply by adrenalin. For some, opportunities to grow and improve are sacrificed due to a mistaken belief about how to get the best out of themselves. Learning how to really relax can make a huge difference, allowing us to return refreshed to our work and able to give our best performance.

There is another huge benefit of play; it develops our problem solving skills. Generally, plus or minus 10%, most professionals will do what they do in very similar ways. We are taught at university, we are trained at work, the end result being that we learn to think in a certain way. That's no bad thing except that at times those thought patterns can become fixed and, for some, they fail to see all of the potential solutions that may exist. When we 'play' we are often developing other skills requiring other thought processes. These in turn may allow us to see some of our work issues differently and to consider other possible solutions. I suspect on this I may be preaching to the converted as I am always amazed at how many talented artists and musicians we have within ranks of lawyers in Scotland.

Last but by no means least; as we move through our careers having gained expertise through those repetitions, we become what I like to refer to as "unconscious competents". It's why we often have to remind clients that the advice that we were able to give them in 10 or 15 minutes did in fact take us 30 years to gain. Being expert in that 15 minutes does not, though, always give us the sense of achievement that we seek in our day. It can but perhaps not in the same way as tackling something much longer and harder that we aren't familiar with would. Again, this is where 'play' comes in and is why a day weeding the garden or painting can often be as satisfying as completing a transaction.

So where does van conversions come into all of this? Well, from my own recent experience, it's been great to rediscover that no matter what your play is, find something that you can be passionate about.