A few thoughts in the aftermath:
It's hard to believe that suddenly, as a result of the checkride, I'm actually allowed to fly approaches to minimums in IMC. A 200' decision height on even a familiar ILS is scary enough under the hood in VMC with an instructor sitting impassively in the right seat, but single pilot IFR in IMC? No way. It's tempting to impose at least an airport's highest circling minimums on myself for any approach to that airport in actual, regardless of what's legal; I certainly wouldn't fly a non-precision approach in IMC to anywhere close to minimums (except in an emergency). Perhaps the only ILS I'd fly to close to minimums would be Oakland's 27R, an approach (and surrounding terrain, etc.) that I'm utterly familiar with -- but even here I wouldn't want to go below (say) 500' in IMC (and, luckily, probably would almost never need to, given Oakland's weather). And I doubt I'd do any serious IMC flying without a certified GPS for positional awareness at least. And a decent single-axis autopilot would help too...
As both John and Mr Batchelder have said, I need another bunch of hours just flying the system and getting better at everything without the unreal stress of checkrides and instruction before I attempt any real sustained flying in actual. I guess I already knew this, and plan on flying IFR in the system -- with or without the hood -- pretty much wherever I go for the next year or so anyway (I have a long-planned trip to LA (KSMO or KBUR) sometime April or May which will be ideal for this). And then a slow transition through small amounts of coastal stratus actual to the real thing. I'm actually looking forward to this, with a whole long Northern Californian summer full of coastal stratus just about to start.
As with the private pilot certificate, basically nothing went wrong -- so once again, this isn't a Triumph Against The Odds sort of story, just a rather more realistic diary of trying to get an instrument rating in Northern California while also trying to keep a full-time business going. I didn't experience any major existential crises, any real problems in understanding procedures, any problems at all with disorientation in actual or under the hood, etc. -- i.e. nothing that would make this diary / blog really interesting.... The main problems were (predictably) external: getting time away from my business, and, towards the end, having to be ruthless about my finances. Nothing insurmountable, but if you're committed to getting the rating, having a life that's constantly changing around you probably isn't the best way to arrange things (understatement).
Was the rating the hardest thing I've ever done? No, not even close. Nothing has so far been harder than the honours year of my undergraduate degree, or sustaining some of my relationships over the years. Even the checkride wasn't as intense as doing the honours exams (oral and written), or as difficult as the stand-up graduate studies interview in front of the committee at the LSE all those years ago. But both the checkride itself and the year or so of training were definitely draining and difficult, and a fair bit harder in some ways than my initial private pilot license experiences.
The rating took pretty much the amount of effort and time I expected it to -- I'm no prodigy or over-achiever, and didn't do it in minimal time -- but I'm a little disappointed not to have been able to get it all over and done with last year before I had to go to Australia. No big deal, but it would certainly have made the last few months a lot easier by not having to cope with the rating as well as a new job, growing business, etc. etc.
I'm glad I did the past few months mostly in 2SP -- the combination of a stable, well-rigged and powerful (180HP) plane with a GPS and autopilot made it a great platform for learning some real-world IFR. I thought that maybe I was biting off more than I could chew, or that maybe a DE would mark me down for having all the extras that any Real Pilot would do without. Quite the contrary -- Mr Batchelder said he cut me some slack for turning up in the sort of plane that you really might fly single pilot in IMC, and for knowing how to use the GPS and the autopilot on the fly and with changing clearances (he has a gentle rant about some of the planes he's seen being used for instrument checkrides and the unreality of learning in something like them). The extra effort and time to become at least somewhat fluent in both was definitely worth it, and I'd recommend it for anyone out there wondering about the issue.
And finally -- my choice of instructor turned out to be excellent. I'll have much more to say about John in a separate article, but for now, let's just say I've generally been blessed with good instructors, and John's obviously the main reason I got through it so smoothly.