Overwhelm (it’s not the email)

You know that feeling….

It’s 4:30 on Friday you are just starting to timidly believe that you are going to get out of the office before 6pm, you start to allow yourself to get excited because you are meeting your law school friends for happy hour and your significant other will be joining you later and taking you out for dinner at your favorite restaurant. Finally, a fun Friday night with the people you love. It’s been a long week!

Then your office phone rings and it is your best work friend in the middle of a complete pre-working-all-weekend cataclysmic meltdown. Just as you are about to begin telling her not to quit, you can do this…. “that” partner darkens your doorway. You quickly get her off the phone, promise to call her back, and internally cringe as the partner asks you if you could take a look as these “few sections” of this Stock Purchase Agreement blah blah blah, “I just emailed you with a link to the diligence room”, hands you a 60 page SPA and promptly exists. You glance at his email and it asks for a response by tomorrow morning (Saturday for those of you not tracking…). Then your phone lights up, it’s your boyfriend asking you where the dog food is and could you make sure to put milk on the grocery list. Also, what should he wear tonight? As you are just starting to process what just happened, your paralegal shows up and jumps right into discussing a project you gave her a week ago that she is “struggling with” as she launches into a long and detailed explanation and plants herself in your office chair and you sit there, dumbfounded wondering what the heck she is talking about, how can I get her to stop talking without screaming…and what the F just happened?

Then it sets in.

For me, overwhelm feels like hot compression of my chest and a ringing sound, like after a bomb goes off and your ears are trying to adjust. It’s the worst.

We’ve all been there. In the moment, it’s easy to believe that all of these “things” happening to us are what is causing that sickening, tight feeling. The truth is that none of that is true. That feeling is caused 1000% by your thoughts. You are doing this to yourself.

The email saying “I need you to respond by 11am Saturday” is not making you feel that way. In fact, that circumstance alone is not particularly anxiety-inducing. It’s just words. On a page.

What is anxiety inducing is the thought “There is no way I’m going to get this done in time…I’m going to have to cancel all of my plans…I really needed tonight, I really needed this break, it’s been such a long week…I’m so tired of this BS…I can’t believe you did this to me, AGAIN!…I don’t have time for all of this…how am I going to get all this done?!…you didn’t even think to ask me if I have time!…

THOSE nasty little sentences are what get your heart racing. It’s not the events going on around you. It’s not the email.

Add to it, thoughts about the other circumstance “C’mon Karen, you have a meltdown every week, I don’t have time for this…if I don’t call her back when she needs me, I’m a terrible friend…I have to call her back, she is so upset…I don’t have time to call her back, I need to figure out what I’m going to do…I can’t deal with her right now…she is so dramatic…she is going to hate me if I don’t call her back..” and then the thoughts about the boyfriend “Seriously, why can’t he find things on his own?! I’m at work, I don’t have time to tell you where everything is, look for it yourself, GDI!…can’t you pick up some milk and while you’re at it, get the other groceries, why do I have to do everything!?

You end up with a ton of emotions racing through your body at the same time: fear, anger, guilt, anxiety, judgment, shame, indignation. These ingredients cause overwhelm, like a pot boiling over, your brain can’t handle the sudden influx of feels!

This cacophony in your brain is what is creating that feeling of overwhelm. It is not your boyfriend, your tearful colleague, the partner, or the email. You are doing it to yourself.

So how do we turn down the noise and sort through overwhelm?

First, recognize that it is your thoughts doing this to you. It is not the circumstances. That email does not reach out of the screen and make your heart palpitate. It’s impossible. So let’s look at the real cause: you have to get the thoughts out. This leads us to step 2:

Step 2: Exercise the demons.

If you had a bat in your attic, you wouldn’t simply close the door and continue to let it bang around up there. You would get it out and then figure out how the F it got in there. Take 5 minutes to breathe and write down every single thought that is banging around up there — get them out. Do not judge them. Do not censor them. Just get them into black and white.

Step 3: Look at them! Separate the thoughts from the facts. You are lawyer, you know facts when you see them. Cut out all the adjectives, adverbs and subjective statements and isolate the facts. Highlight them. Then look at all the lovely thoughts you are having about those facts.

Step 4: Lawyer them to death. Challenge each of those thoughts. Argue it. Question it. Present the opposite side. If you are thinking “If I don’t respond to that email by tomorrow at noon, I am going to get fired,” ask is that true?

Argue with yourself–If I don’t respond by tomorrow at 11am, I am NOT going to get fired and here’s why…. 

For each thought, ask “how is this thought serving me right now?”  Is it helpful for you to think, If I blow this off he is going to be pissed! What’s point?!

The majority of these thoughts are not serving you. Sure, some of them might be true but what is the upside of thinking them and focusing on them?! What is that getting you?

Is it helping you get the work done? Is it helping you triage the situation? I doubt it.

You don’t wander around telling everyone about that time you completely missed the deadline on that IRS filing for a client. It might be a fact but what is the point of carrying it around with you?

Just because it might be true, doesn’t make it useful.

Ask yourself “So what?

If I have to cancel my happy hour with my friends, they will be disappointed….so what? Will they stop being your friend? Can they handle being disappointed? Will it kill them to be disappointed? Will it kill you to allow them to be disappointed? Asking yourself “so what?” forces you to examine the worst case scenario and look at all the drama your brain is offering you. Stop with the drama and start really looking at the reality of the situation. Your friends will understand. They will get over it. They might be sad. They are grownups and they can relate. So what if your perfectly planned Friday night doesn’t work out? So what?

For each thought in your head argue the opposite. If you are thinking “I have to call my friend back, she was in tears!” Challenge yourself to argue the opposite. Do you really have to call her back? What if you didn’t? Do you really need to spend all night working on the SPA review? Can you make an argument that you can do it more efficiently (once you clear all this junk out of your brain)? Do you really need to cancel all your plans or are you just being dramatic?

Whenever we are feeling overwhelmed it’s because we have a series of competing thoughts in our brain that each are causing some form of negative emotion. Those thoughts and feeling converge and we lose our $#!+.

Stop blaming the circumstances around you for those feelings.

Own your role in this. Recognize the source of your feelings and get to work watching and questioning your thoughts. You are lawyer. People pay you to argue. Put that fancy degree to work and start arguing with the ridiculous statements in your head.

Don’t be a pawn to your own drama. You got this.

Whenever you’re ready, there are three great ways to take your work on your career and your brain deeper.

  1. Sign up for one of my 6-week programs that will take you from overwhelm to happiness.
  2. Sign up for a 12-week program that not only provides you with the tools to improve your happiness but more concrete tools to transform your legal practice.
  3. Sign up for free coaching consultation.

Learn more here.

Frazzled (the worst F-word)

My early years as an attorney at a corporate law firm, can be summed up in one word: frazzled.  The panic that set in when you saw an email at 5:59pm on a Friday from that one partner that always had a way of destroying your weekend plans. Or that feeling you got when you were at lunch with your parents who were in town visiting for one day and you got a call on your cell phone from the office. And my very favorite, when you were in the middle of putting out one enormous fire and you got an email from a more important partner who wanted you to draft a new document within the next hour. Ugh. That feeling of sheer panic is the stuff nightmares are made of!

There is no downplaying the pressure and the stress that comes with practicing law. Learning to answer to many masters and prioritize important projects is a skill and it comes with practice.

One of the things I teach my clients is how to juggle the load and strategize so that when all hell breaks lose, which it will, you can better anticipate it and adjust accordingly. So often, many of us in legal practice simply put our heads down and let the blows keep coming. We don’t take the time to examine what is on our plate because that would suggest that (i) there is time to do this soul-searching and (ii) there are options that don’t involve just doing the work.

Many times I found myself or young associates failing to take appropriate inventory of their projects and workloads and, by the time they realized they were overextended, the only option was to pull an all-nighter or do sub-par work. And, let’s be honest, overnighters only yield subpar work so there truly is only one option (and that option will cost you).

This behavior is usually driven by our belief that there is no other choice than simply doing the work. What I would like to suggest is that there are limits to your ability to produce and if you fail to recognize and address those limits appropriately, your career will suffer.

The first step to this process is simply getting organized. Schedule time once a week (I use Friday mornings) to go through your projects list, update your projects list and prepare a list of all other “to do” items floating around your head and taking up mental space. Write. Down. Everything. This includes: calling the plumber, updating your address with the bar association, ordering groceries, cooking dinner, packing for a work trip, meal prepping, going to the gym. Everything. Write it all down. I also use this time to plan my meals for the following week.

(Side note: An easy way to coordinate your meals for the upcoming week is to create a private Pinterest board where you can save recipes solely for the upcoming week. I have a private board entitled “This Week” where I save recipes I plan to cook in a given week. Then, when my Friday morning planning session comes around, I pull up the board and order the groceries for those meals, schedule my grocery delivery, and decide which nights I will cook which meals. Life. Changing. Added bonus: if you have kids, this will allow you to vet recipes with them and get their buy-in for your upcoming meals — kids like food pictures too!)

Once you have this list, prioritize it. This doesn’t need to be an overly formal process, you just need to know what items need to be addressed immediately and which ones can wait until you are standing in line at the grocery store. Be ruthless in this evaluation. Not everything can be a priority — that is the thinking that gets you into the all-nighter conundrum!

Now that all of the things causing momentary panic in your brain are down on paper, put them on your calendar. Schedule everything. Give yourself plenty of time for each item on your list and do not forget to schedule “free time” as well as time to eat, rest, and breathe.

When it comes to work projects, be sure to schedule prep time in anticipation of any upcoming meetings and schedule blocks of “reserved” time where possible to account for shifts in priorities or unforeseen projects. This is about giving yourself the space to ensure that you are able to show up as your best, every time. You don’t have to be faced with the choice of turning in subpar work because of your poor planning. You are better than that.

Then the best part: throw the damn list away. Burn it. Whatever floats your boat. Just get rid of it and breathe in the knowledge that you have all of those little nagging thoughts addressed and scheduled. Your brain is clear.

This tactic is not going to protect you from those chaotic, unpredictable moments that are simply a part of life but what it is going to do is provide you with a much better understanding of your capacity at any given moment. It will allow you to properly forecast how you can (or cannot) handle the new project that lands in your inbox in shouty CAPS! The goal here is to free up your brain to allow you to forecast where your energy is going and determine when priorities truly conflict.

When you get all those BS “to dos” out of your head, you will be much less likely to get frazzled. When you have allocated time for all of the things on your to do list, it is much more difficult for your brain to pile on and get sucked into the blackhole of “when am I going to have time to do that, I still have to finish that project for client Y, and I haven’t done laundry for a week, and I still need to get a birthday card for my mom, and oh my gosh, I don’t have any freaking groceries! what am I going to eat this week?!” The spiral is a waste of your mental energy and a distraction.

This approach will take some practice but if you can get into the habit of truly examining what’s going on in your life, finding time for all of those things, and committing to stick to your plans, this alone can transform your stress level.

Practicing law is difficult and sometimes you will have to reorganize your carefully laid plans or have some challenging discussions about competing priorities. It happens. Success is about learning to honor yourself and your abilities and not expecting yourself to tackle every single thing that comes your way. There are limits to your ability to handle it all. Getting organized is the first step to recognizing those limits.

Clean up your brain and throw away your to do lists, I dare you.

Dealing with Chaos

To say that life is significantly different today than it was last month is an understatement.

Last month, most of our children were in school. We were at work…in an office…wearing grown-up clothes…with other humans. We didn’t second-guess our toilet paper usage. We planned vacations. We didn’t obsessively track the stock market.

Life has dramatically changed for all of us.

People are scared and feeling lost.

Binging on Netflix

Drinking too much wine

Avoiding work

Ignoring your diet

Skipping workouts

Eating all the ice cream in the house

Any of these sound familiar?

We are struggling. We are gaining weight, we are ignoring our best laid plans, we are skipping workouts, overeating, overdrinking and feeling blah.

Lately, my clients have been coming to me and they want help to stop these behaviors. They want to work on getting focused and motivated. They are pissed at themselves for “falling apart…falling off the wagon…letting themselves go” they are irritated that they aren’t sticking to their plans, that they are unwinding everything they had been working for, why can’t they get it together, GDI!?

As a coach, my job is not to help you learn how to control yourself. My job is to help you understand yourself.

When you are busy beating yourself up and trying to force yourself or guilt yourself to change or stop eating all the things, you are ignoring the dis-ease. You are focusing on the symptom.

In order to truly stop these behaviors, you have to stop berating yourself and look at what is really going on!

Are you avoiding work because you are afraid you are going to lose your job so your work today won’t matter?

Are you drinking that bottle of wine because it feels good and you’re scared about what will happen to your aging parents?

Maybe you are skipping your workouts because you just don’t care how you will look in a bathing suit during quarantine? It’s not like you will be going on vacation anytime soon!!

Are you binging on Netflix because it allows you to escape the news and ignore what’s going on outside?

Would you yell at your best friend for diving into a box of Oreos after a horrible breakup? Of course not! You would empathize with her. You would love her. You would understand why she was feeling terrible. You would be compassionate about her efforts to self-soothe. The last thing you would do is tell her she needs to stop it immediately and explain to her how she was ruining her diet and needs to get it together.

Extend that same compassion to yourself.

Life is getting real right now and it’s kinda scary.

Instead of getting angry at yourself because you are not acting like you are “supposed to”, explore what is really going on. What are you thinking when you turn off the work computer and zone out on Netflix? What is going through your head when you decide to bake that cake?–for yourself, of course.

We are all experiencing some pretty ugly thoughts these days.

What if my parents get sick and I can’t be there with them?

What if we have to quarantine for several more months?

What if we run out of diapers?

What if I get sick?

What if I die?

What if I lose my job?

You have every right to be afraid and upset and worried. Stop beating yourself up for trying to feel better. Stop being such a harsh critic.

It’s okay to be scared and it’s okay to worry about what our future holds. It’s okay that you are grasping at straws to self-soothe. That is human nature.

Life is meant to be 50/50. We are living in the 50% that sucks. Pure and simple. Stop trying to talk yourself out of feeling those rotten feelings. You are a human. That is part of the deal.

Recognize that you are struggling and have some compassion for yourself.

Once you can see how your actions are merely attempts to make yourself feel better and to buffer the discomfort, you can start considering how to shift out of those thoughts and create a new result for yourself.

You can start recognizing when you are feeling freaked out and seeing how your biological reaction is to seek pleasure and soothe yourself. Once you see that, you can start looking for other outlets for those emotions. You can’t do that when you are busy telling yourself you are a terrible person for eating all the Doritos!

The bottom line is that beating yourself up for acting out during times of grief and panic is counter-productive. Have some compassion for yourself. Just as you would do with your friend: let yourself have a good cry, a good ice cream binge, a night on the couch. Recognize the feelings driving those actions, then gently work with yourself to find a healthier outlet for those emotions.

The goal is not to find a solution to erase those feelings. The goal is to recognize that those feelings are PART OF LIFE. They are okay. And it is okay to experience them. They won’t kill you.

You can keep moving forward while feeling all the feels. That is how life works.

See the emotions fueling your destructive behaviors. Acknowledge them. Experience them. Learn to make better choices, despite the feels. Carry those worries with you but keep. moving. forward. consciously.

Now more than ever, people need support. Email me if you need a free session, I would love to help you move through this chaos.

What Are You Planning?

Lately, I’ve been reading a lot from Esther Hicks, AKA Abraham. I am loving the synchronicity between what Abraham teaches and my work as a coach. I am a firm believer that so much of the great wisdom in our world represents different spokes on a wheel, all leading to the same place just through different paths. Abraham’s teachings are just another valuable spoke on that wheel.

One of the things that resonated with me and my work as a coach is her explanation of how our thoughts create a vibrational frequency that ultimately attracts our results. She says:

“Whatever you’re thinking about is literally like planning a future event. When you’re worrying, you are planning. When you’re appreciating you are planning…What are you planning?”

Whether you believe in the law of attraction and the vibrational energy underlying our every action and thought, we can all appreciate the basic premise: our thoughts craft our feelings and everything we say and do and create is a direct reflection of those feelings. The net result is that your thoughts create your results and ultimately, your life. Each thought generates emotions within you that propel you to act (or not act) in a certain way. Those actions are the building blocks of your life and your present state.

I recently had a client who explained to me, very logically and rationally, that she never finishes anything. She explained to me that she just wasn’t any good at following through on things or keeping promises to anyone or herself. She made these statements as if they were absolute truths. Like they were the basic facts of her life. She then went on to tell me about the things she dreamt about accomplishing in her life but she wanted to explore how she could start creating those things.

When we started working together, she did not see that she was carrying around some pretty heavy thoughts that were responsible for her inaction. Her thoughts about her inability to finish things were not facts — they were simply choices she was making. Those choices were not serving her or her dreams.

When we explored the impact of her thinking I never finish anything, we discovered that whenever that thought occurred to her, it made her feel apathetic and unmotivated. From that space she was taking small actions, never really making any big efforts or changes, she just wasn’t really motivated to do anything massive to pursue her dreams. It was not shocking to her that a feeling of apathy was not motivating her to action. Rather, apathy was creating inaction and proving to her that she never finishes things. She was constantly in a state of struggle against herself because on the one hand, she had all these goals but on the other hand, she was clinging to beliefs about herself that made her goals seem ridiculous.

Like her dreams were simply a lost cause, better suited for someone else.

Like Abraham says, when you think I never finish anything it’s as if you are deliberately planning to never finish anything. You create a self-fulfilling prophecy about your life.

Her inaction wasn’t responsible for her lack of results. It was her thinking. Luckily for all of us, our thoughts are 100% within our control.

The next time you find yourself swimming through some crappy emotional fog, sit down and consider the thoughts driving those feelings. What are you choosing to think and what impact is that having on your actions and your results?

The first step is becoming aware of your thoughts. From there you can craft any future you can imagine.

How to Build Your Practice

When I was mid-level associate, I was recruited by another firm to build and chair a new practice group in my specialty. It was a huge task and brought with it some pretty monumental challenges. After a period of 6 years, I had successfully created a thriving practice group with three partners, an associate, summer clerks and a paralegal. Small, yes, but we took the firm from zero to millions of dollars in revenue in that practice area in just a few years. Because of that experience, young attorneys often sought me out for advice on how to build their own practice or niche.

The following are my ramblings for building a thriving practice. Take them as you will. Everyone’s experience will be different.

Network with everyone you know. Everyone.

You never know where these people will end up. From personal experience, I will tell you that once a person finds themselves in a position where they could actually send you legal work (e.g., in-house counsel at a Fortune 500 company), they are not amused when you suddenly call to buddy up to them after all these years. We all know what that call is really about.

Maintain true relationships with people so that when they do find themselves in a position to hire you, you are already top of their mind. Don’t try to force relationships to better your business position. People will sense it and shut. you. out.

Who to keep in contact with? This list is endless but here are a few ideas:

  • Schoolmates who live in your city.
  • Law school class mates.
  • Current and former coworkers.
  • Friends of your family members.
  • Relatives.
  • People you meet at networking events.

You get the picture. Do not discard anyone because they aren’t currently in a position to hire you as an attorney. You will be amazed at where people end up. Develop the relationship. The business will follow.

Join something. Anything.

Don’t overthink it. Just do it. Expand your reach and you will be amazed at where it may land. Examples of where to look:

  • Chamber of commerce.
  • Legal associations.
  • Alumni associations.
  • Affinity groups—dogs, plants, baking.
  • Leadership programs.
  • Toastmasters.
  • Women’s organizations.
  • Nonprofit guilds or boards.

Not only will this make you a more well-rounded and likely happier human, you might meet some people who can introduce you to future clients. If nothing else, you have something to put on your resume or discuss during an interview when someone asks, “What do you do for fun?”

Don’t like this line of thinking? Read Bowling Alone or The Happiness Project to learn why social interaction is so essential to our communities and our wellbeing.

Play the long game and postpone the elevator speech.

Business development is all about relationships. Pure and simple. If someone knows you and likes you and trusts you, they will do what they can to support you and see you succeed. That being said, cramming your elevator speech down their throats is not going to get you business. It’s probably going to annoy them. Save that for a later opportunity, when your new friend tells you about a business challenge they are having or asks you about your firm or your practice. Wait until they want to hear about it or until they need your advice. That, my friends, is when you present it. Wait until you know what problem they need solved and then present them with how you intend to solve it for them.

Meet with as many of your coworkers as possible.

Print off the employee roster and start making the rounds. Tell them you want to hear more about their practice or would like some insights into their work, the firm, or a particular client. Whatever. Just get those meetings/coffees/lunches scheduled and make it happen.

The goal: Learn from them and about them and allow them to learn about you and your practice.

These people will not only have clients that they might want you to support but they might have clients that NEED your support and they just don’t know it yet. Furthermore, these people will have invaluable insights in the firm, its people, and its politics. Schedule the meetings and start taking notes.

Examples of things to talk about:

  • What do you think sets our firm apart from the others?
  • Where do you see the firm going in the next 10 years?
  • How do you think the firm has changed since you joined?
  • What brought you to the firm?
  • Tell me more about your story and how you ended up in law school and this firm?
  • What are some ways you have found success in getting clients and developing your business?
  • Tell me about your work and what you offer to our clients?
  • What is your ‘target client’ and how could I help you with those clients?
  • Are there areas you think I should learn or develop some additional knowledge that might help you or your clients?
  • Would you like to hear about my practice area and how I support our clients?

This rule also applies to your peers at the firm. Fast forward 10 years into your practice–who do you hope will be sending you referrals or collaborating with you? Those peers are just as important as the partners and the clients.

When I left my first firm, I kept in touch with a few of the other female attorneys and partners I liked and respected. Years later, one of these friends recommended me for my current position. That friendship and connection paved the way for opportunities several years down the road. Had I lost contact with her after she left the firm, who knows where I would have landed.

When I got to work drumming up clients for my new practice group, I met with every partner I could pin down. I asked them to introduce me to their clients and others in the firm who could support me. Those meetings are where I built my practice. Those relationships plugged me in with clients who didn’t even know they needed my specialty.

Do your homework.

When you meet with a client (or a partner) for the first time, do you legwork. You should know about the company and have a general sense of their business. Review any governmental filings you can get your hands on. Review the internal files. Show up to that meeting already invested in that person and that client. People like to feel important. They like to feel special. By doing your homework you equip yourself with all the tools to let that other person know they are important to you.

When I was helping my clients interview and hire new service providers, I can’t tell you how many times we cut providers simply because they clearly didn’t know anything about the company and didn’t take the time to study my clients’ needs. Don’t be that service provider. Do the work.

Similarly, have your elevator speech ready if the opportunity arises. And never, ever, go to a meeting without a notepad, business cards, and marketing materials about your practice or a copy of the recent article you wrote.

Fill your calendar.

When you are newly hired, you won’t likely be busy right out of the gate. So, make sure your calendar stays full doing CLEs, meet and greets, networking events, reading relevant articles, preparing marketing materials or file memos on relevant developments. Offer to support partners in their marketing efforts or to track new legislation. Your calendar should be full. Get creative and find ways to fill it that will develop you, support the firm, and ideally benefit a partner or client. Sign up for speaking engagements, offer to speak at bar association events –force yourself to learn a topic and go speak about it. Too much for you? Offer to write a speech/presentation for a partner. Contact trade journals and offer to write an article or offer to support your partners in doing the same. If you spend your time trying to make your partners look good and make their lives easier, they won’t forget it.

Make yourself available.

This doesn’t mean that you always have to be 100% available and it doesn’t mean that you have to be at the office all hours of the day. Establish regular hours so people know when to expect you and feel like they can rely on you to be available when they need you. At a minimum, your hours should loosely track the hours kept by the partners you intend to support. Get people in the mindset of thinking of you as a person who is responsive and hardworking. Once they have that perception of you, studies have shown they will not likely change it, even if you change. Put in the time early on and become someone that others can count on.

Have a positive attitude and be open to anything.

You never know what will happen to the firm, your practice group, your area of expertise, or your mentor. Hedge your bets and be willing to learn and try new things for the first few years. Make yourself an invaluable and irreplaceable utility player.

Have your own back.

Make sure to keep diligent track of your marketing and development efforts. These tasks often go unseen by compensation committees and management. Do the work to track your efforts and advocate for yourself. If you don’t have your own back, how can you expect others to?

Struggling to implement your own practice development plan? Coach with me and learn from my experiences and create your own successful practice.

Triage versus Prioritizing

According to Mahatma Gandhi, “Action expresses priorities.” Unfortunately, this is often lost in legal practice where our actions are rarely tied to priorities.

For better or worse, most days spent in corporate legal practice start off with good intentions and big plans about all the things we will accomplish that day. Then the train derails and we spend most of the day “putting out fires” and ignoring all of those best laid plans. While some of this may be the result of real client emergencies, more often than not, there is no real emergency.

No one’s life is on the line and no one’s business is going to implode if you don’t immediately respond to that email.

While this approach to practice can certainly be productive and earn some goodwill with important clients or powerful partners, it is not a zero sum game. Making every hysterical email or phone call from clients or partners a priority, will ultimately prevent you from focusing on the projects that are a priority, like that presentation you need to prepare for that conference next week.

In the end, the only one who pays for failing to set priorities and establish boundaries, is you, your career, and likely your clients.

Countless times, I allowed frantic emails from needy clients or intimidating partners derail my plans to focus on other, less exciting but important projects. Over time, I realized that there was part of me that was accomplishment driven. I craved the urge to please a partner or a client and I relished the opportunity to “make someone else’s life easier,” to be needed, to fix something, to alleviate someone’s stress, even if it was to my own detriment. I would spend an entire day running around with my hair on fire addressing every client emergency that showed up, all the while disregarding the new DOL regulations that sat on my desk. This was my job ,right, to help clients?! Not sit at my desk all day reading regulations? Then, inevitably, an important client or partner would ask me what I thought about the DOL’s new guidance and I would freeze, mentally abusing myself for not making time to read those damn regs.

We have all done this. Instead of doing the hard work (setting boundaries, reading those regulations, saying “no”) we choose the spotlight, we choose the emergency, we choose to pursue feelings of accomplishment driven by results. What we loose sight of when we do this are three critical lessons.

When you allow your client to dictate your priorities you create monsters.

There is such a skill as client management. Every client cannot be a priority and every client cannot expect you to drop everything for them all the time. Your time is limited and every single one of your clients deserves your focus and attention. Allowing the squeaky wheel to dictate your day is a disservice to your clients and creates unrealistic expectations. Once your client or partner is used to you being at their beck and call, they will expect it every time. They will never see you as a partner to them. You become much more like a high-priced pizza delivery driver—whatever they want, any hour of the day. That is exhausting.

Overtime, the enthusiasm that comes with pleasing that particular client or partner will wane and give way to passive aggression and shoddy legal work. So many times I saw young attorneys deliberately do crappy work just to get a certain partner off their back or to get a client to start using someone else.

In order to be a good lawyer (never mind an adult human) you need to be able to have open, honest and candid conversations with people, including the people who pay your bills.

By pretending you are comfortable with that imbalanced relationship and telling them you are able to help, when you really aren’t, is nothing more than manipulation. You are taking action in hopes of manipulating what they will think about you. You are hoping they will see you as reliable, dependable, responsive, smart, and necessary. You are acting dishonestly in hopes you can control what they think about you.

What would it be like to believe all of those things on your own? What would it be like to add honesty to that list?

In the long run, honesty will do more for the relationship than manipulation and bitterness. A good client relationship is not built around dishonesty and unwillingness to have the difficult conversations. It rarely ends well. Besides, if clients and partners see you as never busy and always able to jump on things for them, what message does that communicate to them about your value and skillset?

You are setting a dishonest precedent and setting your clients up for sub-par work.

When you are overwhelmed with work and that client or partner asks you Do you have a second or Can you get back to me on this later this afternoon or Can you get this back to me today and you say Yes…you are lying! Piling on more projects will not magically create more time to do the work. There are limits to what you can accomplish in a day. I’m not saying that you need to be rigid about your work schedule and refuse work left and right, my message is that you need to learn to be honest with those people who are depending upon you.

Be honest with yourself about your workload and your ability to meet all those expectations. Being honest with your clients and saying I have a conference call that is expected to take all afternoon, can I get it to you tomorrow morning is a perfectly reasonable response. Telling that partner I am on several deadlines today for XYZ client or ABC partner, I’m happy to reshuffle if they are okay with it but I would need to check is also an acceptable response.

Responding honestly, in this way shows your clients/partners that you are busy and in demand and are willing to problem solve to ensure they receive the best service.

So many times I agreed to do things that I didn’t have time for. When I showed up to the meeting or call, I was stressed, harried, distracted and bitter. That is not the appropriate space for providing great legal services.

Similarly, when I accepted too much work, the net result was that every project would get 60% of my effort and time because I didn’t have enough time to do it all 100%. The point is, if you don’t have time or it’s going to take some reshuffling to get things done, say so. By asking the question, you give your client the opportunity to regroup and reassess their own priorities. If you don’t ask, you end up providing hurried and frantic legal services to a client that believed you had adequate time to do it right. If it is rushed, they will know and your reputation will suffer accordingly.

I have heard so many clients and partners criticize associate work by saying They clearly rushed through this or They should never have accepted this project if they didn’t have time, which they evidently did not. This is not where you want to be. That trust is difficult to rebuild. Strive to be legal counsel that is honest and willing to troubleshoot with your clients to ensure they receive proper legal support. The best legal work does not occur at midnight after 10 cups of coffee; it happens when you give yourself space to be present and focused.

Consider whether you are using “emergencies” to distract yourself.

Many times when I was avoiding a particularly difficult project, I would catch myself creating emergencies and burying myself in more “important” things. If I was dreading those new regulations or delaying preparation of slides for a presentation, I would make anything else a priority. I would make ordering flowers for my secretary a priority – ANYTHING. I would take benign non-emergent client emails and dive into them as if they were multi-million dollar lawsuits instead of doing the work I had planned to do; the work I NEEDED to do but didn’t want to.

We all know the negative effects of procrastination so I won’t waste my key strokes, but here, the real issue is awareness. Are you even aware that you are manufacturing emergencies because you are avoiding something else?

As a grown human you are free to manage your workload however you see fit but don’t lie to yourself. If you are doing 1,000 other things because you are avoiding another project, be honest about it.

Don’t run around manufacturing fires, indulging in drama, and telling everyone how busy you are. Then when real projects stack up and the avoided project gets critical you fall apart bemoaning your workload and inability to meet your deadlines as you wallow in the mess that you created. Stop it. If you are deliberately avoiding something, own it and just know that you will probably regret it later. Don’t create drama around it and don’t act like you didn’t create this problem. Instead, consider what it would be like to flex that muscle that makes you sit down and do the hard things? I’m no soothsayer but I suspect that skill will get you much farther in life.

Instead of allowing each day’s emergencies to dictate your life, decide what projects or clients are a priority each day and stick to them. 

When something else comes up, ask yourself: Is this going to impede my ability to focus on my priorities? Is this going to yield as great of results for me and the firm as my priorities? What will I have to sacrifice if I say yes to this project? What negative consequence am I signing up for if I disregard my established priorities?  You may not always be in a place to control your workload but asking yourself these questions will help you to learn how to discern priorities from distractions so that when you do get the chance to control you desk, you will have honed that skill. It becomes even more essential as you grow to manage your practice as well as others.

In the end, the practice of law provides the opportunity to hone basic interpersonal skills. I support so many of my clients to hone these skills. Not only is setting and sticking to priorities a life-long asset but a byproduct of that skill is learning to be honest with your clients and coworkers and ultimately, yourself.

Need support setting boundaries and prioritizing? Schedule a free consultation with me and let’s start building that skill. Your mental health will thank you.

Commitment

I once had a friend who was complaining that she needs to eat healthier and whenever she gets home she’s tired and doesn’t have anything to cook so she just orders in. I asked her Why don’t you plan and prep your meals in advance so you can get out of this cycle of exhausted panic and ordering in? You can plan to have something healthy on hand and ready to cook instead of just deciding to order in and going down this rabbit hole every day? Her response? Because when it comes down to it, I know I won’t want to eat that. I will feel like having something else.

This logic is one of the most time-sucking, goal-derailing theories my clients subscribe to. And let’s be honest, we have all been guilty of it — I don’t FEEL like doing XYZ even though I said I would. I used to avoid planning my outfits for the week because I wanted room for creative liberties – because, what if I don’t feel like wearing a skirt that day?! So, instead I would waste 20 minutes every morning laboring through my closet and the I HAVE NOTHING TO WEAR AGONY before rushing out of my house in a sweaty, flustered, and grouchy tornado.

Forget that. Years later, I have gotten wise to my propensity to wear approximately 5% of the clothes I own. Why? Because those are the clothes I most often feel like wearing. So, two years ago, I decided that I will get rid of one thing every single day. Whether that is the extra can opener or those strappy pink sandals that I never wear, every day something has to find a new family. With respect to my clothes, this means that on Sunday, I take about five minutes to pull five work outfits and hang them in my closet. That’s it. Either those clothes get worn that week or they go. I either like them enough to wear them no matter what or they find a new home. This has been magically freeing (but more about that later). I have stopped allowing myself bask in fashion creativity. I force myself to be decisive and no longer give energy to what I feel like wearing. What does that even mean?!

Anywho, the point is, we don’t like to make decisions ahead of time because we want to allow ourselves to make decisions in the heat of the moment, guided by our feelings. The problem is that our feelings are fleeting and our feelings are often driven by our primitive brains. Our primitive brains want to keep us happy, safe, comfortable and warm. The primitive brain will seek safety and pleasure while avoiding resistance. That brain is NOT the brain that will help you climb a mountain or do anything that scares you. That brain is not a cheerleader for healthy choices or difficult workouts. That brain wants the dopamine hit from chocolate cake and takeout Chinese on the couch. That brain cannot be allowed to make any decisions, unless you are running from a tiger, naturally.

Instead, we must make plans ahead of time from our prefrontal cortex – the part of our brain associated rational thinking, cognitive behavior, and decision making. This is the brain that says go to the gym, do not face dive into the box of red velvet cupcakes. Unfortunately, this brain is like your silent partner whose solid advice is often drowned out by the rantings of a lunatic toddler (i.e., your reptilian brain). You have to allow your prefrontal cortex to make decisions ahead of time, when your toddler brain isn’t participating because toddlers don’t care about planning. Once those decisions are made, you have to stick with them. This is where the real work comes in.

Most of us would not deliberately stand up a friend at Happy Hour or bail on your friend for that 5am Zumba class at the last minute so she is left to suffer alone. But we don’t hold ourselves in that same regard. When it comes to commitment to ourselves, we are terrible, horrible, no good, very bad friends. We ghost ourselves on the regular. We make plans and then we skip them. We promise ourselves we will go to the gym and then we hit snooze instead. In those instances, we are letting our warm and cozy, reptilian brain run the show. We refuse to trust the earlier judgment of our prefrontal cortex. We refuse to honor those commitments and will expend all sorts of energy rationalizing our flakiness.

Stop. Doing. That.

Make decisions in advance and commit to yourself that you will do it. Make a meal plan for the week and stick to it. Decide which days of the week, you will have a glass of wine and honor it. Set benchmarks and tasks in furtherance of a larger goal and freaking do them! My clients ask me all the time, How do you accomplish so much? How do you have time for all of that? Here’s the secret: you just do it. There is a reason that Nike’s slogan is Just Do It. Anyone who has done anything hard knows that the only trick is to simply DO IT. There is no magical formula for motivation or progress. You make a commitment to yourself and you honor yourself. It’s time to start treating yourself as well as you treat your friends and the commitments you make to them.

Here’s the icing on the cake. So many of my clients want to feel inspired and motivated to achieve their goals. They don’t act because they are waiting to be moved and inspired. Sorry, people, motivation and inspiration are not synonymous with lightening. They don’t just suddenly appear. They are created by action. Action creates momentum, which creates inspiration and motivation on repeat. How to you take action? Honor your commitments to yourself.

It all starts with learning to make commitment to ourselves and respecting ourselves enough to show up for ourselves. If you can master that skill, you can do anything.

If you are interested in a practical tool to help you organize your life and start sticking to your commitments, sign up to get my free tool for Finding More Time.

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The BS of Busyness

Most of my clients have areas of their lives that they want to improve upon. Some want to eat healthier, others want to spend more time on their hobbies or with their children, yet others want to get back into shape or develop a meditation practice. I suspect that you, gentle reader, have a laundry list of things that you would like to spend your time doing but you can “never seem to find the time.” That is the most common explanation I get for these challenges –

I just don’t have time . . . I’m so busy . . . my kids are so consuming . . . my job consumes all my time.

So many of us blame Father Time for our inability to have the work-life balance we so desperately seek. Unfortunately, time is not what is really standing in your way. YOU are standing in your own way. The “busyness” that so many people use as a badge of honor is nothing but a cover story for being disorganized and not managing themselves properly.

Think about it. Time is the greatest equalizer. We all have the same amount. Rich and successful people are not given more time than the rest of us. Sure, having piles of cash lying around can allow you to spend your money to free up your time but that doesn’t explain how you were able to get there in the first place; it doesn’t explain how you were able to make that success that created your piles of cash.

So many successful people have commented in their bios how much they had to hustle in their early days to make things happen, to pursue their passion for writing, or their painting hobby, or whatever it was that lead to their success. They wanted to have time for those things and they made it happen. They didn’t magically buy more time.

They didn’t run around exclaiming about how busy they were and didn’t have time for their passions.

People make time for what’s important to them.

In order to have the life you want, you might have to sacrifice a few things. You might have to spend 10 minutes getting ready instead of 30 so that you can squeeze in a 20 minute meditation before you go to work. You might have to get up at 4:30am to spend some time writing or reading before everyone else gets up – this may mean you have to start going to bed at 9pm instead of 10pm and you miss the late night news. Guess what, you can catch a news podcast in the morning on your drive to work. No harm, no foul. It’s all about your priorities and choices.

Whatever you are wanting more of in your life is simply something you are choosing not to make a priority.

I see so many people that want that success, they want to be a published author or they dream about running a marathon but they are not willing to make it a priority and rearrange their lives in honor of that priority.

We want the glory but we don’t want to reach for it. We want that success but we aren’t willing to be uncomfortable to get there.

I have my clients work through a few different exercises to try and banish the busyness demon. For those clients who are convinced they simply “do not have enough time” for XYZ, I ask them to keep a detailed list of how they spend their days, every day, for one month, down to the minutes of every hour.

The results are always mind blowing – did you know you were wasting 1 hour every week night cooking dinner when you could spend 2 hours on Sunday meal prepping instead? The could earn you 3 extra hours a week during those precious week nights! Or did you know you spend 30 minutes in the shower every day? What if you spent 15 minutes and used the remaining 15 to read the paper every morning or start plowing through those piles of books you want to read? Twenty minute commute? Use it to learn that second language or listen to audiobooks.

The possibilities are endless. This can be such a freeing exercise and opportunity to truly look at your life – what are you making a priority? Take a look and approach the experiment with honesty and curiosity.

The second exercise is to practice diligence and commitment to yourself and your goals. This is done by careful planning ahead of time. Making your calendar your greatest friend and ally.

Making commitments to tasks in furtherance of your goal, putting them on your calendar and honoring your commitment to yourself.

If you want to start a business, break it down into bite-sized steps and put each step on your calendar. As the events come up, honor them as if they were a meeting with the CEO of your company. Do not reschedule them.

Commitment creates results and builds momentum but only if you let it.

After working through these exercises, I believe you will come to see that busyness is not a symbol of importance or productivity but rather an indication of mismanaged time and scattered planning. I hope you can use these tools get over “busyness” and make space for your true priorities.

Learning to manage you energy and honoring commitment is at the heart of the coaching relationship. Learn these skills with me and commit to your new future.