Trouble Being Still?

As women and as attorneys we are really good at executing. We multitask, we take on more than we should, we always say yes and we are often uncomfortable saying no. Admittedly there is a part of us that thrives in the chaos of practicing law. The unexpected will happen. Things will fall apart. Every best-laid plan will implode. From a biological perspective, this calls us to spend most of our waking moments living from our primitive brains. We’re always in fight or flight. Putting out fires. Running from one drama to the next. And we are really good at it. We have flexed the chaos muscle for so long that sometimes I find my clients have forgotten how to simply

be.

still.

Once we decided that we wanted to be attorneys, the journey was not that difficult. There’s a list. There are instructions. There is a long checklist of things that must be accomplished and done in order for this dream to take place. Once we get our first job, the instructions become even simpler. Say yes to all the work that comes to you. Do a good job. Don’t make waves. Just keep executing and don’t ask questions. So we spend even more years continuing to live in this fight or flight mode where we just move from one challenge to the next. Inevitably, we come to a crossroads where we catch our breath for a moment and start to wonder

what’s next?

Many attorneys come to me for coaching support because they don’t know what to do next. They are overwhelmed with the possibilities for their life and they want to know how to figure out where to focus their energies now that they have come so far. Having a law degree affords us many opportunities as to what we can do with our life. We can go down the partnership track…. counsel track….teaching at a law school….go in-house….go into business…..start our own firm…. When we start looking at all the options available to us it can easily become overwhelming.

But when we find ourselves stressing about where are we “supposed to” go next, the more important question we can be asking ourselves is

Is there anything wrong with just being where we are without having a plan for what’s next?

I recently found myself in a coaching session with a woman who was overwhelmed with the possibilities for her life and the decisions that needed to be made at some point in the future. In the future. Not now. There was nothing pressing. Despite this fact, she was incredibly overwhelmed and uncomfortable with not knowing what her long-term plan looked like. After exploring various possibilities and trying to get a sense of what resonated most closely with her, I finally asked her what if nothing is wrong here?

At that moment everything seemed to click for her and she realized that this need to have a plan and this desire to know the end result was creating a tremendous amount of discomfort for her. She had spent her entire life and her entire career living in fight or flight mode getting things done and now that she had found some space to breathe, she was uncomfortable just being where she was. No pressing decisions. Nothing urgent that needed to be done. Just a regular job. No family matters to attend to. No drama. No chaos. The calm following the storm of chaos that had comprised the early years of her career was causing her a tremendous amount of anxiety. She was uncomfortable just being in this space and not having a plan. In that quiet space, her brain wasn’t accustomed to being still, instead, it kept telling her that something wasn’t right, it needed a plan…she should be doing something more.

All those shoulds are indicative of how we value ourselves. Those shoulds come from our historical patterns where achievements and checking things off the list meant that we were doing well. It meant that we were good enough and that we were successful.

But when the list runs out and the goals have been achieved, we are left in this open space where we have to reexamine our worthiness.

In that space and on those plateaus where our brain starts telling us all the things we should be doing, it reveals a need for us to reexamine our worthiness and where we place our value. It is not a time to create a new goal and a new plan and something else to strive for. There will come a day where you will run out of plans you will run out of checklists and you will only be left with yourself. Those plateaus and spaces between the items on our checklists afford us the opportunity to work on that relationship because ultimately, that is truly the only relationship that matters. Those spaces force us to stop running and take a look in the mirror and that can be terrifying.

(Sound familiar? Grab a free session now and get support during your times of plateau.)

When our brains are used to living in panicked, fight or flight mode, it can be difficult to understand WHO we are if we are not busy accomplishing. It can be difficult to recognize our value if we aren’t busy checking things off a list. What’s more, for many of us it’s been so long since we’ve had the opportunity to explore that aloneness. To really consider our relationship with ourselves. We have lost sight of that relationship and so when we have reached this summit and find ourselves alone with no one other than ourselves, we panic. We feel like we have to develop some other goal and something else to strive for so that we don’t have to sit here in this stillness and take a long hard look at who we really are when we’re not focused outwardly. It’s easier to have something to be striving toward; it’s harder to do the work on yourself. It’s harder to challenge that voice that’s telling you that you should be doing more you and that you should be wanting more.

That’s the beauty of coming to these plateaus.

That’s the beauty of the stillness.

It reminds us that we’re not a long list of things to do. We are not achievements and we are not defined by our long-term plans. Where are so much more than that and once our current plan reaches that plateau rather than jumping into a new plan I urge you…no, I implore you to take that time to be with yourself and learn how to be still. At the end of the day when the race is over the only person standing next to you will be yourself. Those plateaus afford us the opportunity to rekindle that relationship and learn how to see our innate worthiness, without all the fluff.

Sometimes it’s okay to just be where you are.

If you find yourself uncomfortable taking an hour to relax on the couch or uneasy that you don’t know whether or not you want to make a partner it’s an opportunity to ask yourself

What is wrong with just being where I’m at? What is it about this place that makes me so uncomfortable? What judgments am I lobbying at myself when I am not frantically achieving and checking things off my list?

That my friends is truly where the work begins.

Managing Overwhelm

One of the primary reasons that my clients struggle with the practice of law is that they often feel like their life is out of control.

Their time and their practice is completely out of their hands. There’s a general feeling of helplessness and overwhelm. As if every moment, every lull in workflow is just another calm before the storm where there is too much work and no room to breathe.

We want to believe that we don’t have any control. We want to believe that work overload just happens to us and we have no role to play in it.

But that is only true if you decide to make it true.

In every moment of every day we have control over ourselves and the choices that we make. We decide how to handle every task that comes to us. We choose whether to do the work or not do the work. Rationally, we all know this to be true. But when we are stuck in the midst of the chaos and struggling to keep afloat, how do we silence the chaos and harness our own agency?

When we are swimming in overwhelming thoughts about our workload, it can be difficult to see the forest for the trees. Given this, my recommendation is very simple:

Get brutally honest.

Write down everything that you are telling yourself you “have” to do. Make a long list of all the things that are overwhelming you. Next to each project write the deadline BUT only include true, factual deadlines. When a partner emails you and says “We really need to get this out today,” that is not a real deadline. That is a preference; a request; a hope. For purposes of this exercise, we note that project’s deadline as “TBD.”

Get all the facts.

For all of those projects whose deadlines are TBD, we develop a communication strategy with the goal being additional fact-finding. We need to determine whether this is a  real deadline or not and whether there is flexibility in how we prioritize this item.

This may require you to contact the partner or the client and express to them where this request falls with respect to your other factual deadlines. Let them know that you want to do a good job and give the project the attention it requires but, given your other deadlines, you are concerned you won’t be able to give it the attention it deserves.

Be honest and focused on the goal: you want to find a way to good work for everyone and you don’t want to give any project short-shrift unless there is absolutely no alternative.

Eliminate and prioritize.

Whenever we start to think “there’s too much work to do,” our brain simply piles on. That email you have been sitting on for a week is suddenly an emergency to your brain; it MUST be dealt with today!

We have to stop this avalanche of “to dos” right in its tracks. If, after completing your list in Step 1 and assigning fact-based deadlines in Step 2, you have a project that is still TBD or unclear, that project gets moved to a NEW list: the Wouldn’t It Be Nice list.

We all have those little nagging projects that we just put off and put off and once things get heated we suddenly make that project a massive, career-making or -breaking priority. Stop doing that. Do not let the overwhelm create an avalanche of tasks. Know what projects are not priorities in this moment and move on. You don’t have to do it all today. You can prioritize real deadlines today and prioritize your Wouldn’t It Be Nice list on another day.

Recognize your limits.

Do not allow yourself to believe that there is no way to get help or support. I often hear my clients tell me “there’s no one who is able to help….everyone else is super busy too…my paralegal isn’t any help…my secretary can’t do that.” Those statements only keep you stuck. They make you the victim to your to do list. Do not believe that any of those statements are true unless and until you have asked for and allowed in support.

You do not and should not have to do it all on your own. (Rinse and repeat.)

You will be a better lawyer and a better team mate if you learn to recognize your limits and ask for help when you need it. If you want to believe that there is no help available to you, I challenge you to investigate the truth of that statement. Maybe it’s true and maybe it’s not but my guess is that you aren’t even open to the possibility of asking to see if there is any truth to that belief.

If you want to believe there is no help available for you, prove it to yourself first. You owe it to your sanity.

An ounce of prevention….

Even before the workload heats up, there are things that you can do to take control over your practice. In order to do that you have to decide what you want your practice to look like–are there certain clients you don’t want to work with? Are there partners you want to avoid? Is there an area of law you want to focus on? Is there an area of law you want to move away from?

If you don’t know where you want to go, you allow yourself to be at the mercy of others and where they want your practice to go.

Early on in my practice, I had a partner who told me that she wanted me to work only on her projects, within her specialty. She didn’t want me to expand my work into other areas of the group; she wanted me to become an expert in her specialty and her clients. Not only did I not want to work exclusively for this partner for a variety of personal and professional reasons, I did not like her type of clients. I wanted to have a broad understanding of our practice area as a whole because I knew that someday I would leave that firm and I didn’t not want to set myself up for a hiring handicap by limiting my experience. I organized a meeting with the other partners in the group and the practice group chair and I told them what I wanted for my career–a well-rounded practice with full exposure to all of our clients and sub-specialties. And that is what I got. Had it not been for that moment, I would never have had the skillset I needed to move on and found my own practice group serving all areas of specialty.

Make a decision about where you want your practice to go and commit to it for at least a year. You can always change your mind later. Do not allow room for thoughts that this will limit you in the future. This is not only intended to allow you to focus your efforts but is also intended to insulate you from project overload.

When you identify where you want your practice to go and you voice that desire to your partners, you have established an order of priority for your work. You permit those partners that you WANT to work with to see you as their “go to.” It will be understood that they get first priority over your time and it sends a message to others to keep their “busy work” projects for other associates.

Rather than waiting in fear that you will get buried in work that you don’t want to do, seek out a stream of work that you WANT to do and continually work to keep that plate full. When your plate is full for a particular partner or client, you can better anticipate the ebbs and flows and practice defensively–keeping your plate full of work you WANT in order to avoid others filling it with work you DON’T want.

In the middle of work overload? Take advantage of a free session, and let’s get your head right.


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Too Much To Do

Would it surprise you to know that we make approximately 35,000 choices every day? Once you factor in the amount of time we spend sleeping, that means that we are making thousands of decisions every hour. It’s no wonder that we are  exhausted at the end of every day.

There are many ways people make decisions in every moment. What I find interesting is that so many of us are willing to hand over those decisions to others. Rather than making a conscious decision, we (subconsciously decide to) answer to whomever or whatever is immediately before us.

Part of being a skilled attorney is the ability to answer to many masters and juggle various projects all at once. But what I often see is that when those masters ratchet up the heat and those juggling balls become flaming wands, all decision-making goes out the door. Instead, in that instance, we hand over our agency, put our heads down, and just keep taking the blows.

In those moments, it may feel like you don’t have a choice. That this is just part of the job. But the truth is that you are making a choice in that moment–to answer the phone, to say yes to that new project, to respond to that email. You are choosing to allow whatever is in front of you to slide into the front of your priority line.

The nature of having various projects on your desk at any given time is that you are going to have to make decisions about which projects to handle first and where new projects fall with respect to your already strained attention. When we allow our project list and the demands of those around us to overwhelm us, we wear out our resolve. We simply run out of clear-thinking. At that point, we just keep drinking from the fire hose until it calms down.

What I offer is a different choice: put in the legwork ahead of time to minimize the decisions to be made in any given moment.

We make decisions ahead of time so that there is no decision to be made in the heat of the moment or, if there is a decision to be made, it is simplified. This means planning in advance from our prefrontal cortex (i.e., fully functioning, good decision-making adult-y brain) instead of allowing our primitive brain (i.e., a tantrum-y, capricious, toddler brain) to make any decisions whatsoever. With my weight loss clients, this means planning meals in advance. For my other clients, this means setting priorities and scheduling each of our to-do list items on our calendars.

We know that work is going to get crazy and we make decisions ahead of time what gets our attention that day; we don’t invite the toddler to the dumpster fire.

When we go into each month, each week, and each day, knowing our priorities, we can get to work the minute we sit down.

There is no need to agonize over the to-do list or make ANY decisions about what you are going to work on or when you are going to check your email. We’ve already decided what is important and everything else has gotten it’s own place on our calendar. There is no decision-fatigue because the most important decision of the day has been made: where we are going to focus our energy.

Having avoided that decision-fatigue you will have the energy to re-evaluate any new project or fire that comes your way. For each item presented to you for your attention, you can decide:

How does this compare to my priority for the day? Is it consistent with my priority? Why or why not? Does this new project require heightened priority?

Those are the only decisions to be made. We don’t have to step into the pool of overwhelm about all the other projects on our list; we don’t even have to look at the whole list. The only metric for comparison in that moment is your priority for the day.

If the new project conflicts with your priority and there is no justification for reshuffling priorities, then you either don’t take the new project or you decide if you have other open time on your calendar for that project. When our priorities are clear and when our non-priorities are scheduled out on our calendars, we know exactly how much availability we have and we know exactly whether we will be able to fit in anything new.

This approach does not allow room for: When am I going to get this all done?! I can’t say no to this project. I’m never going to have enough time!

If you find your days regularly hi-jacked by surprise projects and feel overwhelmed by your to-do list, I encourage you to implement mechanisms to start minimizing the decisions you make in every moment. That will require you to get clear on your project list–What is a priority? What are the real deadlines? What can wait? Do I have to say yes to this?

Set priorities in anticipation of the chaos that comes with practicing law.

You will get pulled in various directions.

You will be challenged to “do it all.”

Don’t hand over your power.

Don’t offer your day to the mercy of others. Make decisions about your time and your priorities and evaluate everything else from there. Make decisions ahead of time so that you are better equipped to make decisions in the moment.

Need support getting your daily practice in order? I offer three free sessions every week to get you back on track–sign up now before they are gone.


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